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Home Remedies for Sunburn

By Rod Moser, PA, PhDJune 17, 2011
From the WebMD Archives

The Good, Bad, and the Ridiculous

I was at a medical conference several years ago when a noted dermatologist posted a question to the audience:

“What is the best treatment for sunburn in a teenager?”

Immediately, the audience shouted out a cacophony of medical treatments from topical steroid creams to a smattering of pain medications, such as codeine or hydrocodone (Vicodin).

“No! A sunburned teenager should not be treated with any pain medication”, she said.

Why? So they will learn a lesson. Sunburns are nearly 100% preventable. The temporary pain will be reminder so they will wear a hat, shirt, and use sunscreen next time.

Sunburn is really no different from any other thermal skin injury, like a scald from hot water, or a burn on a hot stove. It will hurt. It will turn red. And it may blister. By definition, sunburn with just skin redness is a first-degree burn; if there are blisters, it is a second-degree burn. Both first and second-degree burns can be quite serious if they involve a large surface of the body, but typically, we see sunburns on the face, shoulders, arms, legs, abdomen, and back – surfaces that are not covered with clothing. Of course, if you are a nudist, burns in other sensitive areas are definitely lessons to be learned.

I have always been fascinated by home remedies for any medical condition. My mother was the Queen of home remedies, but unfortunately, her home remedies rarely worked and bordered on quackery.

Many medications that we use today may have had their roots in Grandma’s kitchen at one time. Grandma’s knowledge may have been handed down from her mother or grandmother, and she freely shared that knowledge with her children (our parents). Certain home remedies go back hundreds of years with strong ethnic and cultural beginnings. The longevity of home remedies does not imply credibility. Even though Grandma may carry a certain degree of respect, this in no way proves her remedies are safe or effective.

The Internet is absolutely flooded by home remedies for everything. When I did a Google search of home remedies for sunburn, my jaw dropped in amazement. I could not believe what concoctions people are recommending and actively using. I am not so shocked about my mother’s home remedies anymore.

Testimonials are not scientific studies that are based on evidence. Just because someone states a certain remedy was a miracle for them, does not mean it will work for everyone. Before the Food and Drug Administration, quackery in the United States was rampant – The Snake Oil Salesman era. All someone had to do was make a medical claim, create a “cure”, and they could make a good living selling it. In order to make claims, these charlatans would collect positive testimonials. Any negative testimonials were never published, so as far as anyone reading those letters, this drug was a miracle.

This story is leading up to the treatment of sunburn. What works and what doesn’t?

What Works:
You are dealing with a burn, so treat it like a burn. It is too late to worry about prevention; at least for now.

  1. Cool down that burning skin. Cool or cold compresses with plain ol’ water is all that you need
  2. Pain is always counterproductive (once the lesson has been learned), so it’s really okay to take something. My personal, over-the-counter favorite is the anti-inflammatory drug, ibuprofen. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is a second choice.
  3. Topical hydrocortisone may or may not help, but to add to the cooling effect, keep this cream in the refrigerator. It feels great going on cold.
  4. If any blisters occur, as they often do in second degree burns, leave ‘em alone. By popping them prematurely, you increase the chance of getting a skin infection.
  5. If you have an Aloe vera plant at home that you can squeeze out and use, or a soothing lotion, it is okay.

What DOESN’T work:
These are just some of the odd and often ridiculous methods that people are using for sunburns, according to the Internet. Obviously, I can’t endorse them.

  1. Food products: Mayonnaise, yellow mustard, tomato juice, tomato slices, fruit slices (like peaches), potato slices, egg whites, milk, buttermilk, yogurt, raw honey, Dr. Pepper, and vinegar. Not only are these messy (and weird), it is really the temperature of the product – refrigerated or even room temperature – that is causing the effect, not the product. Sure, cold mayonnaise would feel good, but it is because it is cold, not because it is mayonnaise. Many have recommended tea poultices: if you put it on cold, it works almost as well as plain water.
  2. Lubricants: Butter, olive oil, shortening. Don’t use ‘em.
  3. Over-the-counter drugs/supplements: Noxema, hydrogen peroxide, rubbing alcohol, Benadryl, vitamins applied to the skin, shaving cream, Vagisil, Milk of Magnesia, diaper rash creams/ointments, Preparation H, Pepto Bismol, and Colgate toothpaste. These products have other uses, but sunburn management isn’t one of them.
  4. Other ridiculous treatments: Vodka (on the skin – no; taken internally, it may help with pain), bleach, Windex, Tide laundry detergent, and sandlewood paste.

Some final words

If you grandmother insists on putting tomato slices on your sunburned back, just do it. Other than cooling down your skin, don’t expect a miracle cure. You do need to be nice to your grandmother and not hurt her good intentions. Besides, you support our struggling tomato farmers.

If you truly believe that some of these odd or ridiculous remedies work for you, then use them. As long at they are not dangerous, such as recommending hot showers (how stupid), you can make your own decisions. Exercise caution before recommending unproven nostrums to others.

Sunburn is a preventable malady. Severe sunburns are not only painful and disfiguring; they can predispose you to skin cancers later in life.

You have been burned once. Don’t let it happen again.

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