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:
- Boil 1 cup of water and add 2 tablespoons of dried mint leaf, lavender flowers, and dried plantain leaf.
- Remove from heat and let cool.
- Once cool, strain out the herbs.
- Add an equal amount of apple cider vinegar to the cooled tea mixture and pour into a spray bottle.
- Spray on the burn as often as needed to cool and soothe the pain.
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.
I find CBD oil to be incredibly helpful for stings, bites, or burns and created this cooling DIY sunburn spray. It gives immediate relief, takes only a few minutes to mix up (if you keep CBD on hand like I do), and lasts for up to a year.
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!
Discussion (65 Comments)
Lavender and peppermint essential oils mixed with organic, natural aloe Vera gel is awesome! I burn super easy, so this is a tried and tested solution!
What are your measurements for this? I’d like to buy some aloe Vera gel at Whole Foods on Tuesday and try this.
I was waiting for measurements also, how much of each oil to how much water. If u find out could u pls let me know?
My guess is that the sunbathing is more related to activity level than sun burn. And what does “sunbathe” mean? Laying out in your swimsuit? I am very fairskinned (a redhead) with past history of skin cancer. I try to use cover ups (hats and clothes with SPF 50). I do use sunscreen, mostly one that is zinc oxide based. I found the burn lotion from an EMT called “Burn Free” it is not crunchy per se, but works well. It has tea tree oil in it. Love using aloe once burnt…but if I was making something myself I would try something with aloe and tea tree oil. Oh the Bun Free has an aloe texture, sort of like a gel. And skin cancer and sun damage don’t show up until you are older. So even if you want to experiment for yourself, please keep the little ones covered. And I check my vitamin D yearly and I am always in a good range (my doctor thinks I am too high most of the time).
That study on sunbathing was exposed as cherry picked data combined for effect.
“The article references a study that tracked nearly 30,000 Swedish women for 20 years and monitored sunbathing habits. The data showed that women who avoided sun were twice as likely to die as women who got more sunlight, but there were only two causes of death tracked: melanoma or “all-cause mortality” which is a catch-all.”
thank you! We always need these confirmations in life!
“Women who never sunbathe during the summer are twice as likely to die than those who sunbathe everyday, a major study has shown.”
So does that mean that if I sunbathe everyday I won’t die? 🙂
HEHE, I was sort of thinking the same thing.
Guess I’ll be living forever then eh?
My son burnt a bit at the beach last week. The vinegar helped a bit after a bath (with baking soda). I put on cocoanut oil and his relief was immediate! I had to put it on after a few hours, but it helped so much!!
yes coconut oil is the miracle cure for relief i used it after acute sunburn on face after days of trying everything this is the answer
You have some great ideas. I love your website! I have been struggling with starting a Paleo life style but your website has given me the motivation I need. I am a new mommy and I want to live a healthier life style for my little one.
I use instant tea. I mix a little with some water & smooth it on with a cotton ball. It is soothing & takes the sting out.
I love using the diluted ACV spray followed by Emu oil. It instantly soothes, helps prevent peeling, and if you do end up peeling it’s great for anti-itch relief.
For me: Lavender essential oil! Sometimes in coconut oil with a bit of vitamin e and maybe a bit of frankincense, opening the pores with a warm cloth to let the oils in (almost like a super mild version of oil cleansing).
Oh, and reapplying as needed that first day (read reapply mercilessly). Possibly overkill, but…
Results I’ve noticed – extra speedy recovery and great pain relief.
Using an oil like coconut oil is a very bad choice on a fresh sunburn.
Hi Amanda! I’m curious to know why that’s a bad idea. I am currently coated in coconut oil after a bad burn today :/
I got a really bad sunburn on Sunday and proceeded to use Vinegar first and now I have been applying a mixture of coconut oil mixed with Lavender and peppermint essential oils and it actually took the burn away and is now turning into a nice tan. I am very fair skinned and usually blister and peel very badly. I am so impressed with everything I used and this is the first time I tried coconut oil….it works!!!!
What are the measurements you use? I’ve got those ingredients and would rather make that now than wait until Tuesday when I can go get some aloe gel.
Using oil on regular burns is not recommended; however, a sunburn is not actually a burn. The heat of the sun does not burn your skin, nor does it directly damage the tissue. Rather, the UV rays damage the DNA of the skin cells, and the cells self-destruct. So, using oil on the skin in this case won’t be harmful like it would be for skin that was truly burned.
Vinegar stops the burning process which otherwise continues even after you’ve left the sun. I keep a small container of white vinegar in my glove compartment to apply as soon as we return to the car. Then we apply Noxema which was invented by a man looking for a burn remedy. It cools and hydrates the burned skin.
Vinegar is absolutely the best remedy I’ve used. If it’s really bad, a cold bath with vinegar is the way to go.