Nearly everyone has experienced some type of sunburn, and even a mild burn can cause significant discomfort with pain, itching, burning, dry and peeling skin, and, in severe cases, blistering. The best way to treat a sunburn is to prevent one.
Wearing protective clothing and hats, seeking shade, avoiding midday sun, and using broad-spectrum sunscreens are all methods that will keep you protected. Even the most faithful of sunscreen wearers (like myself), however, have been caught in a situation where we risk getting a sunburn. Unfortunately, there are no great treatments to actually reduce a sunburn once it has happened. The reaction of a person’s skin is due to damage to DNA and to the repair action that occurs as a result, which must take its natural course for the skin to become normal again. There are, however, some measures that one can take to calm a sunburn and relieve the discomfort that goes along with it.
Using cool compresses such as a damp washcloth will provide some relief. Keeping skin well moisturized with a bland emollient is also important, as skin that peels is dehydrated, and dry skin leads to more symptoms such as itching and burning. Plain petroleum jelly is probably my favorite moisturizer. If it is too thick to apply on a hot summer day, any hypoallergenic moisturizer will do. It is best to avoid those with fragrances and dyes so as not to further irritate the skin. While aloe vera reputedly has healing effects when used in the treatment of sunburns, this has not yet been definitively confirmed in scientific studies.
Taking an aspirin or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory such as ibuprofen may reduce the severity of a sunburn. This is most effective when taken early in the course of the burn; be aware that some sunburns may take up to 24 hours to manifest themselves fully. (Do NOT give aspirin to any child aged 18 years or younger without first consulting a doctor.)
Oatmeal baths in tepid water are also very soothing, both for pain and itching. These can be done just before bedtime to make falling asleep easier for those burns that are uncomfortable enough to keep you awake at night.