I write a lot about the benefits of the sun and how it is important for vitamin D production, hormone balance, getting enough blue light and many other functions in the body. That doesn’t mean I take sun damage, sunburn, or skin cancer lightly. Far from it!
Sunburn can be very harmful and should absolutely be avoided. I’ve found that I don’t burn nearly as easily since changing my diet, but (rarely) sunburn still happens. When it does, I try to find ways to reduce the pain and redness quickly but also to help the body heal and hopefully minimize the damage.
In this post, I’ll go into some of the natural remedies for sunburn that have helped most, and review safe sun practices.
How Does Sunburn Happen?
When the body has had enough sun exposure, it produces melanin (this is what causes tanning) to protect the skin from further exposure. But this can only help so much. When the skin is exposed to the sun for much longer than is safe, it causes sunburn. This occurs when UV light damages the DNA of the skin. The body senses this damage and sends blood to help heal the skin, causing inflammation.
No matter how much sunscreen you have on, or how dark your skin is, if you stay out in the sun for hours and hours you are at risk for sunburn.
Natural Home Remedies for Sunburn
Careful sun exposure can be very beneficial. I’ve noticed that I feel better when I get regular sun exposure and that when I’m eating a diet that supports skin health and sun tolerance, I don’t burn easily at all.
When I go somewhere like the beach, I absolutely prefer to get sun exposure carefully, use natural sunscreen when needed, or (better) cover-up or leave the sun when I’ve had enough, but these are the remedies I use if my skin gets a little pink:
A sunburn, like any kind of burn, can be drying to the skin and often the time spent in the sun getting the sunburn causes dehydration. Just as diet is important in avoiding sunburn in the first place, hydration is important to help the recovery process. I drink lots of water, herbal teas, kombucha, and water kefir to keep hydrated.
Aloe vera is an age-old remedy for sunburn. It can be very cooling, but I’ve found that the plant works better than a gel or lotion. If you use a gel, look for a high-quality one without preservatives. I’ve used this one with good results.
ACV & Herbs Spray
This is the most effective remedy I’ve tried for the pain of sunburn. Apple cider vinegar (diluted) is considered an effective remedy for sunburn, but I’ve found that it is more effective when combined with a strong tea of soothing herbs. Here’s how I make it:
This remedy is cooling, so it helps with the heat of the sunburn. The herbs and ACV are also healing and soothing to the skin.
Essential oils like lavender and helichrysum can also help soothe the burn and speed recovery. I mix them in a bottle of water bottle and spritz on the skin as needed.
I use coconut oil as a mild sunscreen. I’ve seen SPF ratings for coconut oil ranging from 5-10 SPF. It isn’t strong enough to use alone for all-day sun exposure but is a great everyday option for mild sun protection and skin health. Many people also swear by it for helping with sunburn. I haven’t tried it the day of a burn (and don’t recommend it), but have used it for the few days after that and it seems to help stop peeling and reduce the redness more quickly.
This nutrient is a strong antioxidant that can help prevent and reverse skin damage from sunburn. Eating vitamin E rich foods like leafy greens, avocados, nuts, and seeds, can help aid in preventing damage, but using vitamin E topically can help soothe already sunburned skin. Add a few drops of vitamin E oil to aloe vera gel before applying to the skin.
While there are no studies to back up this claim, many people have found sunburn relief using raw yogurt or milk. It makes sense that the cold of yogurt or milk could be soothing to the skin. It’s also thought that the probiotics in the yogurt and the live enzymes in the milk can help heal the skin.
Cool Bath or Compress
Cool water can help ease the heat and pain of a sunburn. A cool or lukewarm bath is one way to do this. Add in a few cups of chamomile or calendula tea or a 1/4 cup of ACV to soothe and heal the skin. A few cups of baking soda added to bath water can also be soothing. Black tea also has anti-inflammatory properties and can help relieve sunburn pain. Make a strong cup with a few tea bags. Then add it to the bath water, spray it on the skin, or add it to a cool compress.
What Not to Do After a Sunburn
Now that we know what to do to soothe a sunburn, let’s talk about what not to do.
- Don’t pop blisters or peel skin. Let your body do the healing it needs to do.
- Don’t put oil or oil-based lotions on your sunburn in the first 24 hours. It can trap heat in and make the sunburn worse.
- Don’t go back into the sun (even with sunscreen on). Cover up with clothing and stay out of the sun until the skin heals.
- Don’t cover your sunburn with makeup until it’s healed.
- Avoid tight-fitting clothes.
The bottom line is, don’t do anything that could aggravate the sunburn or slow healing.
Safe Sun Practices
As with most health-related topics, prevention is as important (if not more so!) than treating sunburn. Exposure to UV rays is very important for optimal health but many of us don’t know what safe sun exposure looks like. Here are some guidelines:
- Get a short dose of midday sun – At midday UVB rays (the ones that produce vitamin D) are at their highest concentration so the body can get more vitamin D in less time.
- Eat a healthy diet – Not surprisingly, diet plays a large role in how healthy the skin is, and therefore, how it responds to sun exposure. Healthy fats, antioxidants (from vegetables and fruit), and healthy proteins are important for healthy skin and avoiding sunburn.
- Work your way up – If you are very pale like I am, start with just 5-10 minutes of sun exposure at a time and work your way up from there. Because a deficiency of vitamin D in the body can make burning more likely, it’s important to start slow.
- Avoid the sun after you get enough – After getting enough sun exposure for optimal health, stay in the shade, use cover-up clothing or put on natural sunscreen when needed.
Safe sun practices (not just sunscreen!) are important for avoiding skin damage and are always my first choice over sunscreen.
How Much Sun Is Too Much?
How much sun to get each day depends on a lot of factors including the positioning of the sun (both midday and closer to the equator have higher UVB rays), UV index on any particular day, and your skin tone.
Very light skinned people should start with just 5 minutes of sun exposure and work up from there. People with slightly darker skin (those who are light skinned but can tan easily) may be able to handle up to 20 minutes of sun. The darker the skin, the more likely you can stay in the sun longer.
The darkest skinned people may be able to stay in the sun for an hour or more without getting a sunburn. Of course, all of this depends on other factors like the ones mentioned above and also how well a person’s diet protects their skin.
The key is to start on the lower end and work your way up. Don’t wait for a sunburn before finding shade!
Of course, I’m a mom and not a doctor, and you should always consult with yours and do your own research to make the best plan for you and your family. Your approach may vary based on genetic factors and where you live.
Sunburn Relief: Bottom Line
The best thing to do is to avoid getting a sunburn to begin with. That means improving the diet to support skin health, get enough sun every day (10 minutes or less for fair skinned people and as long as an hour or more for very dark skinned people). Covering up or staying in the shade also helps avoid too much sun. When you can’t avoid the sun, natural mineral sunscreen is the next best choice.
But sunburns do still happen. The remedies listed above are easy ways to soothe and heal the skin after a sunburn that can make the healing process easier on everyone (especially mom!). If you get a severe sunburn, check with your doctor for the best treatment.
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Scott Soerries, MD, Family Physician and Medical Director of SteadyMD. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
Ever had a bad sunburn? What remedies worked for you? Share below!
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- Mead, M. N. (2008). Benefits of Sunlight: A Bright Spot for Human Health. Environmental Health Perspectives, 116(4). doi:10.1289/ehp.116-a160