It's happened to the best of us. Maybe you forgot to reapply your sunscreen or missed a spot on your back. Or, maybe your quick poolside nap turned into a longer snooze than you planned. Whatever the reason, even the most devoted sunscreen wearer can slip up and get a painful sunburn.

No one likes to sport red, peeling skin, but we've got you covered. Read on to find out how to moisturize burned skin.

What Happens When You Get a Sunburn

When you spend time in the sun, you expose yourself to ultraviolet light. After a while, these invisible rays of sunlight can begin to damage and even kill the cells in the outer layer of your skin.

When you get a sunburn, your body tries to limit the damage by activating an immune response. As your body sends more blood and immune cells to the affected area, you may experience the stinging, redness, and inflammation that we associate with sunburns.

Sunburns can also drain moisture from your skin. The outer layer of your skin should ideally be 20 percent to 30 percent water, according to Harvard Medical School. Dipping much below this level can leave your skin feeling flaky, dry, and irritated.

Though it can take several hours or even a day to know the severity of your sunburn, it's important to begin to care for and moisturize your sun-torched skin as soon as you can. This is a key step in helping your skin heal—and helping you to feel better faster.

How to Care for Sunburned Skin

It can take several days for your skin to completely heal from a sunburn. You may notice that your skin looks pink or red and a little swollen, says the Mayo Clinic. It may feel warm to the touch and can be painful, too.

For immediate sunburn relief, take a cool shower or bath. The water can help soothe your inflamed skin and release some of the excess heat. Dry off, but not completely. Then, apply a moisturizer to help trap a little extra hydration on your skin. Continue to moisturize your skin as needed to keep it healthy and comfortable.

If your sunburn is painful, you can counter the discomfort by taking an anti-inflammatory, such as ibuprofen or aspirin. Over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream can also help reduce the swelling, itchiness, and redness.

Peeling skin is a sign that your body is trying to heal and slough off the outer layer of damaged skin. Though it may be tempting to pick at it or exfoliate the dying skin, try to resist the urge. Instead, let it peel off naturally and keep treating your skin with moisturizer as it heals.

The same goes for blisters—popping them can slow down your skin's healing process and increase your risk of infection.

Selecting a Moisturizer for Burned Skin

Moisturizers are one of the best home remedies for a sunburn. If you're wondering how to moisturize burned skin for healing and pain relief, the American Academy of Dermatology recommends products that contain aloe vera or soy.

Aloe has anti-inflammatory properties that can help cool a raging sunburn and take away the sting that often accompanies sunburned skin. According to a 2019 study published in the journal Plant Foods for Human Nutrition, aloe is rich in antioxidants, which can promote skin healing.

Soy is known as well for its skin-soothing properties, so look for moisturizers that contain this ingredient.

It's also worth noting that there are some products to avoid for sunburned skin. Steer clear of alcohol-based products, which can further dehydrate your skin. You'll also want to stay away from pain-relieving products that have ingredients such as lidocaine or benzocaine, which can further irritate your skin.

And while slathering on an oil-based product such as Vaseline might seem like the ultimate way to moisturize the skin, it's not the best idea. It may actually trap heat in your skin, making you feel worse, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.

Prevention Is Your Best Strategy

If you're concerned about your sunburn or have questions about skin health, make an appointment to see your Dermatologist—especially if your skin is still red and painful, even after a few days of treating the sunburn.

Remember that the best way to handle sunburn is to avoid it in the first place. Apply (and re-apply) broad-spectrum SPF 30+ sunscreen every day. This will help prevent painful predicaments and form good sun care habits, keeping your skin looking and feeling its best.


  • Christine Yu

    Christine Yu is a freelance writer covering health, science, wellness, and sports. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram.

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