Summer is just over the horizon and with it comes the joy – and pain – of bare skin under the sun.
More than one-third of Americans will over-indulge in the sunshine and wind up with a painful sunburn.
Staying out of the sun and applying sunscreen are the only sure-fire ways to avoid getting burned, but if it is too late you can wind up with skin that peels, feels too tender to touch, and raises your skin cancer risks.
Time will heal the wound, but, New York City dermatologist Dr. Joshua Zeichner explained the surprising items from your fridge and medicine cabinet that can treat your inflamed skin quickly so you can get back outside – with more sunblock this time.
Anatomy of a sunburn: How an immune response to sun damage turns your skin lobster-red
To understand why some treatments will bring relief from sunburns – and which ones could end up stinging more – it is important to understand what is actually happening to your poor skin.
During the summer, the tilt of the Earth and changes in the atmosphere bring us a little closer to the sun and its damaging UV radiation.
Melanin in the skin gives it its color and helps to block the sun’s harmful UV rays.
When you are out in the sun, melanin shifts and rises to protect the DNA in your cells from being corrupted by radiation, which is part of the reason people with darker complexions are at lower risks of skin cancer.
So as your skin darkens under the skin, it is becoming more protected, but also more damaged. The whole process can also take a few days – so it may be too late to stop the burn.
The body picks up on that damage through the pain you feel, and initiates an immune response, sending blood to respond to the site of the attack.
That immune response comes with inflammation, making burned skin swell and redden – what you see when you get a sunburn.
Stages of sunburn: You feel the burn to the top layers – but the lasting damage is deeper
If you’ve spent hours in the sun, you could even give yourself a first-degree burn, which is no different from a burn from a flame.
Surface skin cells start simply dying off so that the body cuts its losses and doesn’t over-extend energy on dispensable body parts too damaged to function.
But in the deeper layers of the skin, enzymes go to work making repairs to DNA.
Sometimes, however, the enzymes don’t target the DNA accurately and can corrupt it, leading to the development of the two most common forms of skin cancer.
How to fix it: Keep some cold milk in your fridge this summer to soothe sunburns
The pain you feel is not due to the deeper damage, however, but to the surface scorching.
Pain caused by sunburn and skin inflammation needs to be treated differently from aches or stings from other causes.
Cold is the key here, explains Dr. Zeichner.
A cold compress both pulls heat away from the site of the burn and helps to ease painful inflammation by shrinking swollen cells.
‘A milk compress can help calm inflamed skin as well, as proteins in the milk coat and soothe the skin,’ Dr. Zeichner says.
Milk contains vitamins A and D, fat, amino acids and lactic acid, as well as the proteins whey and casein.
The vitamins promote healing while lactic acid cues the skin to drop dead cells, meaning less effort – and therefore inflammation – is required from the immune system to fix them.
Some dermatologists suggest that enzymes in yogurt may be helpful as well, while others say whole or cream milk is not the best choices because the fat in them may just trap heat.
But barring those, all you need to do is pour some milk in a bowl, plop a washcloth in, and refrigerate the odd combination until the milk has sufficiently soaked into the cloth and the two are cold.
Gently press this to your sunburned skin, being careful to keep a light, even pressure and not rub your skin.
Ice water can work for a cold compress too but is not as gentle or nourishing to the skin as milk.
Be sure, however, to never apply ice directly to the skin. A cold shower or bath can help cool you down, but ice can stick to your skin and cause further damage.
Aloe and Motrin can give some fast pain relief – but don’t touch the lidocaine
Aloe vera has a natural cooling effect on sunburn, but breathes well and does not trap heat in, unlike many common moisturizers that may look tempting in your medicine cabinet.
Over the counter anti-inflammatory drugs, like Motrin (ibuprofen), also reduce the swelling and irritation of a sunburn and ‘can calm inflammation from the inside out,’ says Dr. Zeichner.
Painkillers like benzocaine and lidocaine temporarily numb aching areas, but they do nothing to repair the skin, and, since they are topically applied they may hide existing pain that should be treated, or even do additional damage.
Once you’ve cooled the burn, seal the deal with a light moisturizer
In the early stages of sunburn care, the primary goal is to create a cooling sensation without actually trapping in heat.
Once your skin’s temperature has fallen and no longer feels like the surface of the sun itself, you want to look that moisture and coolness in to avoid peeling and cracking.
‘I advise applying a petrolatum-based moisturizer to form a protective seal over the skin’s surface,’ says Dr. Zeichner.
‘The newest generation of these moisturizers even come in easy to spread lotion formulations that won’t weigh the skin down.’
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