Sunburn recovery 101

How to feel better and help your skin heal.
Published July 7, 2019

Got a sunburn? Don’t worry – we guarantee you’re not alone. It’s easy to forget to put sunscreen on or to stay outside a bit too long when you’re having a good time. But since it’s too late to prevent a sunburn (we’ve got some tips for preventing one next time, though!), here are some things you can do to help your skin recover.

Alain Michon, medical director at Ottawa Skin Clinic, says sunburns usually last a few days.


“At the moment, there is no proven, evidence-based treatment that will reverse the damage done or speed up the healing process,” he says, so treating sunburns is all about controlling pain and skin inflammation.

Los Angeles-based dermatologist Tsippora Shainhouse shares her top sunburn recovery tips.

  • Take anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen or aspirin to help with the pain.
  • Apply a thin layer of hydrocortisone cream (available over the counter) two or three times a day to reduce skin redness and inflammation.
  • Try cold compresses to keep that stinging sensation at bay.
  • Apply aloe vera gel, a classic sunburn treatment, to soothe your skin. Shainhouse also recommends putting the gel in the fridge first to give it an extra cooling effect. “Because aloe vera can cause allergic contact dermatitis, try a test spot first,” she says. “Also, if you use commercially prepared products, look for ones without alcohol, to minimize stinging.”
  • If you want to try some all-natural remedies, cold tea (black tea works best) and cold milk are two options, Shainhouse says. The tannins in the tea can help reduce redness and soothe the skin, and the lactic acid in the milk can help gently exfoliate peeling skin.
  • Once your healing skin starts to shed, it’s time to moisturize – gently. “Consider ingredients like coconut oil and Shea butter to moisturize, and ingredients like ceramides to help repair the broken skin barrier,” Shainhouse says. “If your skin can tolerate mild exfoliation at this point, look for lotions with hydroxyacids, like ammonium lactate.”
  • Stay out of the sun – a sunburn is skin damage, she explains. So, stay out of the sun while your skin heals, and if you must go outside, be sure to protect yourself by keeping the burned areas covered, wearing SPF 30+ sunscreen and protective clothing, and staying in the shade as much as possible.


Sunburns can range from mild redness to blisters on the skin that may bubble and burst.


“Ruptured blisters should be kept clean with mild soap and water and covered with a [piece of] soaked gauze,” Michon says.


In the case of severe burns, he adds, an antibiotic ointment may be necessary, and it’s best to pay a visit to your doctor.


How to prevent a sunburn next time

“Sun damage is cumulative,” says Shainhouse. “Only about 23 per cent of lifetime exposure occurs by age 18. It is never too late to start a healthy sun-care routine.”


  • Minimizing your direct ultraviolet light exposure during peak sun hours is key, she says, and protecting your skin when you must be outdoors is the next most important step.
  • Avoid being outside during peak sun hours – usually 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., or 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the summer months.
  • Wear sun protective clothing. “Some sport-specific clothing may be labelled with a UPF (universal protective factor) that indicates how much UV can actually be blocked by the fabric,” Shainhouse says. “A UPF of 50 will allow only 1/50 (2 per cent) of the UV rays to get through.”
  • Wear a wide-brimmed hat when spending time outside or driving with the top down. “Each inch of brim covers 10 per cent of face/skin, so look for a three-inch brim, when possible,” she says. “Remember – a baseball cap will cover your scalp and forehead and most of your nose, but will not protect the sides of your face, ears or back of the neck.”
  • Wear UV-protective sunglasses.
  • Apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30+ to all exposed skin every day. “Broad-spectrum means that it blocks both UVA rays [which cause skin aging and melanoma] as well as UVB rays [which cause non-melanoma skin cancers including basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers and melanoma],” Shainhouse explains. “The SPF (sun protection factor) rating refers to the ability of the sunscreen to shield UVB rays from damaging the skin.”


And it’s important to remember to reapply that sunscreen if you’re outside for more than two or three hours or if you are swimming or sweating a lot, she says.