Dealing With Sunburn

A top dermatologist provides their tips for handling sunburnt skin

Summer has finally arrived! With incredible weather and highs of up to 31 degrees this week, many of us have been out and about making the most of the long-awaited sun. But have you got a bit carried away and are now suffering with sunburn? Consultant dermatologist Dr Anjali Mahto, medical and cosmetic dermatologist at 55 Harley Street in London, shares her top tips and advice on how to deal with sunburn.

What is sunburn?

“Sunburn is an acute inflammatory reaction which follows over-exposure to ultraviolet radiation,” says Dr Mahto. “It causes direct damage to DNA, resulting in inflammation and death of skin cells, and repeated sunburn can increase your lifetime risk of developing skin cancer. This risk should be taken seriously,” she says.

We have all been guilty of forgetting to wear sun protection, but as Dr Mahto explains the symptoms of sun burn can be severe. “Your skin may become hot, red, tender and blisters can form, and in severe cases, it is possible to develop dehydration, imbalances of important salts in your blood, and skin infection. In rare cases, it can potentially be fatal.”

What can you do about sunburn?

There are a few helpful things you can do to relieve sunburn, according to Dr Mahto.

  1. Seek shade
    The very first thing to do when you realise you’ve been caught by the sun is to find some shade until your sunburn has healed. Loose cotton clothing is also really helpful as it allows sunburnt areas to breathe.

  2. Medicate
    You can take over-the-counter pain relief if needed. These can help reduce both pain and inflammation caused by sunburn. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen are ideal (provided your not allergic) and should be continued for a period of 48 hours. Paracetamol can help with pain but will have very little effect on inflammation.

  3. Cool the skin
    Apply a cool compress to the skin, a damp towel works really well, for 15 minutes, or take a cool bath or shower. Try and keep the water temperature just below lukewarm and make sure the shower has a gentle flow rather than being on full power as your skin will be extremely sensitive. If you’re getting blisters, then a bath will be kinder on the skin. Don’t rub your skin with a towel but gently pat it dry so as not to aggravate your sensitive skin.

  4. Moisturise!
    Moisturising after your bath or shower is key in reducing the irritation of a sunburn. Use a fragrance-free cream or lotion to soothe the skin. Be diligent and keep applying moisturiser to reduce any peeling – you might need to keep this up for a few weeks. Aloe vera or soy-containing gels or lotions can be helpful; aloe vera not only has a cooling effect on the skin but also acts as an anti-inflammatory agent. Be wary of creams containing ingredients like petroleum, benzocaine or lidocaine, which may trap heat in the skin or cause local irritation.

  5. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!
    Staying hydrated is key in tackling sunburn as it can encourage fluid loss through the skin. Drink plenty of water to prevent dehydration and ideally avoid alcohol as it can have a diuretic effect and dehydrate you even more.

  6. Steroids
    You can use a mild steroid cream if you need to. A 0.5-1% hydrocortisone for up to 48 hours to help decrease pain and swelling caused by sunburn and speed up the healing process. Steroid creams aren’t recommended for children so best to ask a pharmacist or GP if you’re looking for a treatment for your child.

  7. Resist the urge to pick
    Leave blisters alone and try not to pop them as this can lead to infection and scarring. They will usually settle by themselves within a few days.


In severe cases, Dr Mahto says to seek emergency medical treatment. “If you develop blisters that affect up to 20% of your body or develop other symptoms like a fever, nausea, chills, severe pain, headaches, fainting, or dizziness it is vital you seek medical attention. Severe sunburn can be associated with heat exhaustion or heat stroke which are life-threatening,” Dr Mahto explains.

Protection is better than cure

“In an ideal world, none of these measures should be needed and preventing sunburn should be the focus,” says Dr Mahto, adding, “Not only does it cause short-term discomfort, but over the long-term sun damage will increase your risk of skin cancer and premature skin ageing. Make sure you are using a broad-spectrum sunscreen with both UVA and UVB protection with an SPF of 30-50.”


Dr Mahto also stresses the importance of protective clothing, “Wearing a hat, sunglasses, and protective clothing throughout the day alongside regular breaks in the shade, especially during the hottest part of the day, are vital.”

If you would like to learn how to apply sunscreen correctly, read advice from Dr Stefanie Williams here


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