How to Heal and Camouflage a Sunburn

FFC Gold Coast Esthetician Shawn Flemming shares a few tips on how to properly (and quickly!) heal and camouflage a sunburn, just in time for beach season!

At one time or another, we’ve all experienced a sunburn- whether it’s because we stayed out too long in the sun, forgot to wear sunblock or thought that we could go without sunscreen on cloudy/overcast days.

Firstly, clouds do not prevent or filter UV rays! The sun’s rays are strong and long enough to reach you at ground level – they actually get reflected more intensely because of the cloud cover. Don’t be fooled into thinking you’re safe from the sun’s skin-damaging rays because it’s cooler outside or it’s a cloudy day!

Recently I’ve also had several clients call and ask if they can cover their “farmer’s tan” or sports bra sunburn with a spray tan. While I would love to be able to help them conceal their tan with a gorgeous, organic, and safe spray tan, it depends on a few factors (like how severe the burn is and when it occurred.)

I’ve put together a “Quick Response Guide” to treating a severe sunburn. The sooner you treat the burn, the more likely that it will heal faster and the discomfort will not last as long. For more tips on protecting skin from burning in the first place, check out my recent post!

Step 1: Cool the burn.

The sunburn has heat trapped in it, so it will feel warm to the touch. You want to cool the burn, but you also don’t want to overexpose the skin to too much water because it will irritate the sensitive skin and cause excessive drying.

If you are near a pool, take a quick dip for a few seconds. Or, if at home, jump in the shower and stand under cool water for a few moments. Do not apply soap!

Step 2: Apply an anti-inflammatory medicine.

To reduce swelling and inflammation take a NSAID (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicine) like aspirin or ibuprofen. Continue taking the medicine as directed on the bottle until your sunburn is no longer painful to the touch.

Step 3. Use cold compresses.

The purpose of compresses is to help reduce the heat and inflammation. Here are several recipes that take advantage of the healing properties of household items:

  • Oatmeal: Pour a scoop of plain oatmeal onto a gauze, cotton, or cheesecloth and wrap the cloth to keep the oatmeal inside. Then run the compress under cool water letting the water soak through it. Open the compress, remove the wet oatmeal and wring out excess water. Apply compress across the sunburn until it no longer feels warm. Repeat every few hours.
  • Milk: Using fat-free milk and 4 cups of cool water. Soak oatmeal compresses in the cooled milk, wring out excess milk/water from the compress and apply the compress to the sunburn for 15-20 minutes. Repeat every few hours.
  • Yogurt: Using plain yogurt, gently apply a thin layer across the sunburn. Leave on for several minutes and rinse off, patting the skin dry.
  • Frozen Peas/Ice Pack: Apply to swollen sunburns after wrapping the frozen item in a damp towel. Never apply ice or cooling packs directly to the skin!
  • Witch Hazel: Apply Witch Hazel to a soft cloth and apply the compress directly to the skin. Witch Hazel has anti-inflammatory properties to help reduce swelling and redness.

Always apply a moisturizer after compress therapy (see step 5.)

Step 4: Cool the burn again.

The first 48 hours of a sunburn can be very painful as will still be heated trapped under the skin. Continue to use compresses and sit in front of a fan or near an air conditioner for short periods to help cool the skin. Follow with a gentle moisturizer.

Step 5: Moisturize.

Using the right moisturizer can make a huge difference in how quickly the burn heals as well as how much or little you will peel.  Here are some common don’t ingredients, followed by a list of dos.

Don’t use: petroleum jelly (Vaseline), oils, or thick creams because they trap the heat in the skin. Also do not use any products with parabens, alcohol, formaldehyde, menthol, coloring agents, or fragrance because they can irritate the skin causing further dryness and itching.

DO use: light and water-based moisturizers, which make them easy for the skin to absorb. Since there are thousands of moisturizers to choose from ask the pharmacist for recommendations. Another option is aloe vera from the source. Break open an aloe vera leaf and apply the juice directly to the sunburn. If buying over-the-counter aloe vera, check the ingredients for any that are on the don’t list.

Step 6: Treat flaking skin.

Since skin, on average, takes about 28 days to renew itself, you will probably have several days to weeks of slight – heavy peeling, depending on how severe the burn is and how you care for it.

If you experience severe itching, apply products with 1% hydrocortisone. Once you’re in the peeling stage, you can use oil moisturizers like coconut oil to help keep the skin soft and the itch factor low.

Do not pick at flaking skin as you can tear healthy skin off, which will leave a scar! Let the skin flake off naturally, using lotions and oil to minimize flaking and provide a barrier between the skin and clothing that can rub against the peeling skin causing itching and irritation.

Step 6: Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.

Stay hydrated! From the moment you notice the sunburn, drink plenty of water or liquids with electrolytes as your skin needs the extra hydration and to help prevent hyperpigmentation and even scarring.

Step 7: Hide the burn.

The truth is that until you reach the flaking stage, makeup and even spray tans are a don’t. The skin needs to breathe and release heat, which is what causes the redness, swelling, and inflammation.

Remember sunburn is actually very similar to a burn you get touching a hot flame or heated pan! Until the burn is cooled, medicated, moisturized, and healed, the best camouflage is clothing to keep the sun from the injured skin.

Question? Suggestion? Comments? Email Shawn at or tweet to use using #FFCChicago!