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10 Things NOT to Do After Getting a Sunburn

You didn't mean to get a sunburn, but now the damage is done. Avoid these mistakes that will make it even worse.

Woman lying on a bed struggling to pull up a pair of right, faded blue jeans.

Wear tight clothes

After you get a sunburn, you need to let your skin breathe. “Wearing tight clothing over sunburned skin is an absolute no-no, because inflammation is setting in,” says Shereene Idriss, MD, a dermatologist at Union Square Laser Dermatology in New York, NY. “Your body is trying to respond to the trauma by increasing blood flow to the area to help with healing. This results in redness, warmth, and inflammation to the area.” Wearing tight clothes could lead to more intense swelling and blisters. Or you can avoid sunburns altogether and use the best sunscreen for your skin type.

An aloe vera plant that is dripping with aloe gel; the plant is resting outdoors, on a stone.

Use aloe with petroleum jelly

Aloe has anti-inflammatory properties and is good for your skin after you get a sunburn. In fact, aloe vera has tons of uses you might not even know about. Just refrain from using aloe with petroleum jelly, which doesn't let the heat escape. Also avoid products containing benzocaine or lidocaine as they can irritate the skin even more, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. 

Man wearing a green shirt holding a plastic water bottle in his right hand.Halfpoint/Shutterstock

Forget to hydrate

Always remember to hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. It might seem like a challenge to get in the daily-recommended amount of water, but there are plenty of easy ways to stay hydrated. “Burns do more to your body than just cause pain. In fact, all burns draw fluid towards the skin and away from the rest of the body,” says Keith LeBlanc, Jr., MD, a dermatologist and founder of The Skin Surgery Centre, which has locations in Mandeville, LA, Metairie, LA, and Biloxi, MS. “So be sure to drink extra water, juice, and sports drinks for a couple days and keep an eye out for any signs of dehydration,” he says.

Used and new makeup sponges for foundation and skin makeup.phadungsak-sawasdee/Shutterstock

Cover it up with makeup

A for-sure thing not to do after getting a sunburn is to cover it up with makeup. The burn will heal better if you let your skin breathe. “Introducing various make-ups through dirty sponges or brushes will only increase your risk for infection or allergic reaction, which will ultimately make it all uglier,” says Dr. Idriss. “For now, embrace the burn, treat it well, but next time learn to avoid getting there in the first place!” When you are ready to start wearing makeup again, be sure to take note of these makeup mistakes pros wish you'd stop making.

A woman's sunburned shoulder with heavily peeling skin.Myibean/Shutterstock

Peel or scratch your skin

Peeling skin that has nothing to do with time spent in the sun may be a sign of something more serious. But if it's peeling because you got too many rays, don't fret. That means it's starting to heal and it’s important that you don’t mess with that process. “Let the flaking skin fall off naturally,” says Dr. LeBlanc. “Even better, generously moisturize your skin with the product of your choice. This will improve the appearance of the sunburn and help the skin to exfoliate naturally and evenly.”

A large skin blister.SunyawitPhoto/Shutterstock

Pop your blisters

Similar to not peeling your skin, you should never pop blisters. It's a definite no-no in terms of what not to do after getting a sunburn. That's because that extra bubble of skin serves a very important purpose in protecting the wound. If a blister hurts really badly, apply a cream-based unscented aloe vera or some of these other home-based blister remedies. Just resist the urge to pop them!

Woman wearing a pink hoodie looking at her skin in the mirror.Voyagerix/Shutterstock

Exfoliate

Exfoliating products or ones that contain glycolic acid, retinoids, or salicylic acid are extremely damaging to your skin, especially when it’s in a vulnerable sunburned state. Once your skin has stopped peeling, wait around three days before using any of these products. Be sure to exercise caution while exfoliating though; some exfoliating habits could do some serious skin damage.

A woman sitting on a chair at the spa with a lotion and orchard in the foreground.Africa-Studio/Shutterstock

Use alcohol-based creams

When you apply cream or aloe to your sunburn, make sure it's not alcohol-based. (Here are signs your skin products are secretly damaging your face.) “Alcohol is known to strip away the natural oils in our skin," says Dr. Idriss. "When applied over a healing burn, alcohol will decrease your skin's ability to heal itself.” 

Open bottle that contains pills spilling out of the top.goir/Shutterstock

Not take anti-inflammatories right away

Your body’s response to being sunburned is inflammation, and it's important that you take something to reduce that inflammation the minute you see signs of sunburn. Shunning over-the-counter anti-inflammatories such as ibuprofen or aspirin is not a good idea after getting a sunburn. That's because they help reduce inflammation and pain. Sunburns generally take about 4-6 hours to develop. However, if you wait that long, the medication won’t be as effective. The American Academy of Dermatology says that immediate sunburn treatment is important, adding that taking ibuprofen or aspirin is one way to help the healing process.

Woman sitting on a beach wearing a yellow bathing suit applying sunscreen to her shoulder and arm.verona-studio/Shutterstock

Use a chemical-based sunscreen

Obviously you want to avoid spending time in direct sunlight after you get burned, but if you do have to go out, make sure you apply sunscreen—and keep reapplying it for as long as you are outside. Just be aware of potentially irritating chemicals in some sunscreens, some of which aren't sold in the United States anyway (like trolamine salicylate). The Food & Drug Administration recommends looking for safe skin-protecting active ingredients including—but not limited to—zinc oxide, oxybenzone, and aminobenzoic acid.

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Medically reviewed by Elizabeth Bahar Houshmand, MD, on August 15, 2019