Sunburn is as much a part of summer as barbecues and beach parties, but it can occur at other times of the year, too. Sunburn results from exposing one’s unprotected skin to ultraviolet (UV) light. UV light of a particular wavelength – namely UV-B – is responsible for most of the skin damage that arises from exposure to sunlight, but all sources of ultraviolet irradiation (including tanning beds and arc welders) are capable of causing sunburn.
The immediate consequences of overexposure to UV light can be quite painful – and sometimes even life-threatening, particularly for young children. Just like burns that arise from other sources, sunburn’s severity ranges from mild erythema (redness of the skin) and slight discomfort to deep burns with excruciating pain and eventual scarring.
Over the long term, repeated sun exposure – especially that which leads to burning – contributes to accelerated aging of the skin and increases one’s risk for cancer, including dangerous malignant melanomas.
Fortunately, as with many unpleasant experiences in life, sunburn can be avoided with minimal effort. Wearing long-sleeved, lightweight clothing; donning a hat before venturing outdoors; restricting activities to early morning or late afternoon hours when the sun’s rays are less intense; and applying sunblock are all useful ways to prevent sunburn.
We humans are nothing if we’re not hapless, though, so it’s likely that most of us will eventually experience the inconvenience and distress of sunburn. When that happens, it helps to know that there are safe, natural ways to ease our pain and speed healing.
Natural Topical Sunburn Remedies
Like all burns, sunburn feels better if the involved skin is cooled – and the sooner the better. The remedy that is most likely to be readily available is clean, cool water. Liberal drenching shortly after sun exposure not only feels good; cooling may help to limit the eventual severity of the burn. Vinegar is another popular cooling agent, and some herbalists believe it promotes healing, too.
Alcohol baths should be avoided in all age groups due to the potential for toxicity and excessive drying of the skin. Furthermore, agents that contain alcohol (gels, lotions, etc.) should not be applied to broken skin. All cooling methods should be used with caution in infants and toddlers, whose greater relative skin surface area increases their susceptibility to hypothermia.
Aloe vera – applied as a juice or as a gel from the plant’s leaves – has a long and well-deserved reputation for alleviating sunburn discomfort and speeding the healing process. This remedy can be used quite freely in both children and adults, but precautions about excessive cooling in youngsters still apply.
Lavender oil is one of a few essential oils that can be applied directly to the skin. Its healing capabilities – not to mention its pleasant aroma – are legendary. Indeed, one story surrounding the birth of aromatherapy describes René-Maurice Gattefosse’s mishap in his perfumery: when an explosion severely burned his hand, Mr. Gattefosse plunged the extremity into a nearby vat of lavender oil; the immediate subsidence of his pain and the rapidity of his subsequent recovery prompted him to further investigate lavender’s beneficial properties.
While lavender is quite useful for sunburns, its use on widespread injury can get expensive. However, for burns on small areas of the body (neck, arms, tops of feet, etc.), lavender oil can be invaluable.
Blackberry or raspberry leaves – or plain tea in a pinch – can be brewed to make an infusion that, once cooled, is remarkably soothing for sunburns. The liquid is easily applied with cotton balls, as a bath, or as a compress (cooled, infusion-soaked cloths placed over the area of injury).
Calendula is another herb whose healing properties are well documented. Its petals can be used to make an infusion – much like tea – or it can be applied as a cream or ointment (available in most herbal or health food stores).
Witch hazel – available in creams or as a liquid – exerts cooling and astringent properties that help to reduce the pain and swelling of sunburn.
Milk, buttermilk, yogurt, pulped carrots or cucumbers, dock leaves, plaintain, comfrey, and many other remedies have been used with varying degrees of success through the years. All have their champions; personal preference and availability are key elements in how well any one remedy works.
Internal Remedies for Sunburn
It is often helpful, given the degree of discomfort caused by sunburn, to administer something internally to relieve pain and reduce inflammation. Many sunburn sufferers reach for Aspirin or acetaminophen, but there are natural ways to address this issue, too.
White willow bark contains salicin, an ingredient that is similar to the acetylsalicylic acid (ASA) found in Aspirin. Dosages are listed on product labels or in herbal texts. Although salicin is metabolized differently than ASA, white willow bark (and other salicylate-containing herbs, such as yarrow) should be avoided in children due to the risk of Reye’s syndrome.
Chamomile tea, valerian, St. John’s wort, and other sedating herbs can be useful for dealing with the pain and restlessness that accompany sunburn. Again, dosages vary with the type of preparation and manufacturer.
With all natural approaches to sunburn treatment, proper identification is essential; persons with known allergies to any components of a given remedy should avoid its use.
Although sunburn is almost an inevitable result of visiting the outdoors, its immediate and long-lasting effects can be minimized…even if we don’t think about prevention until it’s too late.