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Soothing that Sunburn

You know that too much sun is bad and can lead to a variety of skin problems—even skin cancer. But no matter how careful you try to be, there may be occasions when your unexpected reward for a great day at the beach is sleep-robbing sunburn.

So how do you treat a mild sunburn? There are a variety of commercial products. But there are hundreds of home remedies, too. Everyone, it seems, has a favorite. Some say yogurt is good for a sunburn. Others recommend wet tea bags. And still others suggest vitamin E, oatmeal and even butter.

But what do the experts say? "There's no data that says there's any specific ingredient in yogurt, tea or any of these home remedies that would be good for a sunburn," says Neil A. Fenske, M.D., professor of medicine and pathology at the University of South Florida in Tampa. If yogurt, for instance, makes a burn feel better, it's only because the yogurt's cool, he says.

Sunburned skin turns red and feels warm when countless tiny blood vessels under the skin expand to rush more blood to the sun-damaged area to aid healing. "Anything cool that stays on the skin will help," says Dr. Fenske. His favorite sunburn tip: Keep a bottle of moisturizing lotion in the refrigerator during the summer months. If you suffer a sunburn, rub the cooling lotion on your skin. Repeat as often as needed.

Clean, moist towels used as cool compresses also will make burns feel better. Topical creams containing cortisone can be helpful. Corticosteroid creams should be used twice daily for 5 to 7 days. Anti-inflammatory drugs like aspirin and ibuprofen offer some relief from pain and inflammation. Check with your doctor to find out which of these medications are right for you.

Soaking in a cool bath can help, as well, says Patricia K. Farris, M.D., professor of dermatology at Tulane University in New Orleans. She reports that applying cornstarch or baking soda to the skin will reduce the amount of itching that occurs after a sunburn. An oatmeal bath also can help lessen itching.

And what about the peeling that follows sunburn?

"It comes with the territory," says Dr. Fenske. "Moisturizing lotions can help, but this is the skin's reaction to damage, to cell death. It's going to happen."

What not to put on sunburn:

  • "Despite the fact that some people believe butter is good for burns, it is not; nor is petroleum jelly," says Dr. Farris. Greasy salves can hold heat in the wound and slow healing.

  • Don't mix your own concoction. "If you're not sure what to do, call a healthcare provider," says Dr. Farris.

  • Don't use abrasive soaps to wash yourself and don't use hot water. Besides adding more heat to sunburn, hot water is more drying than cold water because it leaches out body oils, say the experts.

  • Don't use ice directly on a sunburn, because the intense cold is a shock to the skin, experts say. Instead, try wrapping ice or frozen vegetables in a towel and placing the towel on your skin.

  • Don't slap perfumes or colognes on sunburned skin. The chemicals in them can irritate skin that already is hurt.

Of course, the best cure for sunburn is not to get it in the first place. So take these recommendations from dermatologists to heart:

  • Limit your exposure to direct sunlight, particularly between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the sun's rays are strongest.

  • Wear a broad-brimmed hat.

  • Rub on sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15 about 20 minutes before venturing outdoors.

  • Be careful of sunlight reflecting off water. The addition of reflected rays to direct sunlight can double the amount of radiation you receive.

  • Some medications and supplements such as thiazides (diuretics), tetracycline, Saint-John's-wort, and others can make your skin more sun-sensitive, says Dr. Fenske. He recommends checking with your doctor to learn if medicine you're taking could increase your risk of a sunburn.