Sunburns take time to heal, but there are ways to support healing. Risk factors for sunburn include pale skin and excessive sun exposure. Conditions like diabetes or arterial disease can slow down healing time.

According to the National Cancer Institute, about a third of American adults experience sunburn each year, and more than 33,000 of these burns require emergency room visits.

Let’s take a look at the most effective ways to heal sunburn faster.

To heal from first-degree sunburn, you need to give your body time to replace the skin that was damaged. First-degree sunburn only affects the outer layer of the skin. The skin will typically just look red and may begin to peel after a few days as the skin begins to replace itself.

There’s a limit to how fast your body can heal itself, but you can maximize the healing process by:

  • getting plenty of rest
  • staying hydrated
  • moisturizing your skin

Other tips to support the healing process and relieve symptoms include:

  • Take a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). Taking an NSAID such as ibuprofen immediately after you notice sunburn can help decrease inflammation and pain.
  • Get lots of sleep. Sleep restriction disrupts your body’s production of certain cytokines that help your body manage inflammation. This disruption can negatively affect your body’s ability to heal itself.
  • Avoid tobacco use. Smoking or using other forms of tobacco can impair your body’s natural healing process by promoting inflammation throughout your body. Quitting can be difficult, but a healthcare professional can help you create a cessation plan that works for you.
  • Avoid additional sun exposure. Exposing sunburn to more ultraviolet (UV) rays can further damage your skin. If you have to go out, try to cover your sunburn with clothing and wear sunscreen.
  • Apply aloe vera. Aloe vera contains a substance called aloin that reduces inflammation. Aloe vera can also moisturize your skin and prevent peeling.
  • Cool bath. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends taking a cool bath or shower to soothe your skin. Afterward, leave a little moisture on your skin when you dry off and then apply a moisturizer to trap in water.
  • Apply hydrocortisone cream. Hydrocortisone creams are used to treat swelling, irritation, and itchiness. Apply hydrocortisone cream to manage swelling and pain. You can get 1 percent hydrocortisone over the counter, or if necessary, your doctor can prescribe a stronger ointment.
  • Stay hydrated. Sunburn draws moisture away from your skin. Drinking plenty of fluids and electrolytes can help rehydrate your skin.
  • Try a cold compress. Applying a cold compress to your skin — but not directly on a sunburned area — for short intervals not long after the burn happens may help draw away excess heat from your skin and reduce inflammation.
  • Try an oatmeal bath. An oatmeal bath may help soothe your skin and reduce irritation. You can make an oatmeal bath by mixing a few tablespoons of baking soda and about a cup of oats to a cool bath.

Applying essential oils like chamomile, sandalwood, peppermint, or lavender, as well as diluted apple cider vinegar, may help heal sunburns. However, these methods haven’t been scientifically proven. If you choose to use these methods, it’s important to follow recommendations regarding safe skin application.

Keep in mind that you won’t be able to get rid of sunburn overnight even if your burn is mild. Most instances of first-degree sunburn should still take at least a week to heal, even when properly treated, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. More severe sunburn may take weeks or even months to heal.

Severe burns

Sunburned areas are typically first-degree burns. You would have to spend much more prolonged time in the sun to get second-degree or third-degree sunburn from the sun. These are much more serious.

Second-degree sunburn will reach the second layer of the skin, which is the epidermis. These sunburned areas typically result in blistering. Third-degree sunburn reaches the fat below the skin and can destroy the nerves. As a result, you may not actually feel pain.

You are also more at risk for:

If you or someone you know experience second- or third-degree sunburn, you should not treat it at home. Consider these types of sunburn a medical emergency and seek immediate medical treatment.

Learn more about burn types here.

Sunburn is caused by overexposure to UV rays. The longer you’re exposed to these rays, the more likely your skin will burn. People with darker skin don’t burn as quickly as people with paler skin because they produce more of the pigment melanin that protects skin from UV damage.

The more severely you burn, the longer it will take for your body to replace the damaged layer of skin. Mild sunburn symptoms usually clear in 3 to 5 days, while more severe burns may take a couple of weeks.

The rate that your body heals may be genetically determined, according to research published in 2020, but other factors like your age and overall health also play a role.

Conditions and lifestyle habits that weaken your immune system can also slow down your body’s ability to heal from sunburn. Some of these include:

The biggest risk factors to consider when it comes to sunburn are how long you remain in the sun and the intensity of your exposure. The longer you’re in the sun and the stronger the sun is, the more likely you are to experience sunburn and the more severe your burn may be.

Beyond that, there are a number of factors that may increase the likelihood of getting sunburned. These include:

  • How exposed your skin is (for example, tanning on the beach in a bathing suit is more likely to lead to sunburn than walking outside in long-sleeved clothing).
  • Whether it’s a sunny or cloudy day (although there is always a risk of sunburn even if it is cloudy, and even in the winter).
  • If you are outside between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the sun’s rays are the strongest.
  • If you take medications or supplements such as diuretics, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, retinoids, and St. John’s wort. These can increase your chances of experiencing sunburn.
  • If you are in high altitude, where there is less atmospheric protection from UV rays.
  • If you are closer to the equator, you may be more exposed to UV rays.
  • If you are in an area with ozone depletion.
  • If you have lighter skin because you are more likely to get sunburn. However, people with darker skin should still protect their skin from the sun as they can still develop skin cancer from prolonged exposure.

If your sunburn is mild, it will likely heal on its own; no medical treatment is required. However, you may need to visit a doctor if your burn is second degree or even more severe.

If any of the following are true, it’s a good idea to speak with a doctor:

  • your sunburn blisters or becomes swollen
  • you develop a fever, chills, or feel excessively hot
  • you develop nausea or vomiting
  • you are dehydrated
  • you feel dizzy, sick, or tired
  • you have a headache
  • you develop muscle cramps

Sunburn on a baby, toddler, or child should be taken even more seriously as these burns put children at a higher risk of skin cancer later in life. If your child has sunburn, and especially if the symptoms are severe, it’s important to seek medical treatment.

The only surefire way to heal a burn quickly is trying to avoid getting one in the first place. Here are some ways you can prevent sunburn, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

  • Seek shade. When in the sun for a prolonged period, it’s a good idea to seek shade or make your own by bringing an umbrella with you.
  • Avoid the sunniest part of the day. UV rays are strongest in late morning and early afternoon, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
  • Wear a hat. A hat with a wide brim can protect your face, ears, and neck from sun exposure.
  • Sunglasses. Sunglasses protect your eyes and the skin around your eyes from UV rays.
  • Sunscreen. The CDC recommends wearing a broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF 15 even on cloudy days. Reapply at least every 2 hours and check the expiration date before you use it.
  • UPF clothing. Wearing clothing that blocks the rays of the sun while also wearing sunscreen underneath can provide extra protection.

How long does sunburn last?

If you have first-degree or mild sunburn, it will typically take a few days to heal on its own. If your burn is more severe, it requires immediate medical treatment to heal properly.

How should I treat a sunburn on the face?

Treat your face sunburn as you would sunburn on any other part of the body. However, it is a good idea to protect your head, neck, and shoulders more by wearing a hat with a wide brim to avoid being burned in those areas.

It is also important to avoid staring at the sun directly and wear sunglasses, especially on really hot days, to protect your eyes from a condition called photokeratitis.

How to get rid of sunburn fast?

There is no quick remedy for getting rid of sunburn. Mild sunburn will typically heal on its own within a few days. Severe sunburn will require medical treatment.

Is there a sunburn severity chart?

Sunburn is usually a first-degree burn. However, you can use the following CDC guide to help recognize when your sunburn is more severe.

Type of burnFirst degreeSecond degreeThird degree
SymptomsSkin redness; painful to touch; mild swellingMore severe redness and pain; blisters; may leak fluid; some loss of skin may occurBlistering and loss of skin layers; may be painless due to loss of nerves; dry and leathery skin; skin may look red, pink, white, or tan colored; may look charred, but this is typically due to a chemical or fire burn.

How do I treat sunburn peeling?

It’s important not to pick at sunburned skin that’s peeling. Allow the skin to replace itself naturally. Apply moisturizer to soothe and hydrate the area. A product with aloe vera may be a good choice.

How do I treat sunburn blisters?

If you have blisters, it means you may have a second-degree burn. You should see a doctor to make sure you’re getting the best treatment. However, in the meantime, you may apply a cold compress to soothe the area. Do not pop any blisters to avoid introducing an infection to the area.

If a blister does pop, clean the area with soap and water. It can also be a good idea to cover the area with an Aquaphor layer for protection. You can use an over-the-counter triple antibiotic ointment, but keep in mind some people may be allergic to neomycin, which is a component of antibiotic ointments like Neosporin.

Sunburn is caused by overexposure to UV rays. There’s no miracle cure to heal sunburn, but you may be able to optimize your body’s healing process by:

  • getting plenty of rest
  • staying hydrated
  • applying aloe vera or other moisturizers to your skin

If you have a severe sunburn that’s blistering or causing you to feel sick, it’s a good idea to visit a doctor to see if you need additional medical treatment.