Protect and soothe sun-damaged skin with our pick of the best sunburn treatment, including gels, creams and more
Choosing the best sunburn treatment is vital to soothe and protect your skin after you’ve spent a little too long in the sun. Whether you’ve forgotten to reapply your sunscreen after swimming, had a longer-than-planned nap in the garden or you simply didn’t realise just how strong the sun was on a particular day, even the most diligent SPF users among us can slip up sometimes.
Even if you haven’t been burnt, after-sun care remains essential – after all, tanning is just another form of skin damage caused by UV rays. To help reduce the visible signs of damage, go easy with the hot showers because hot water can be dehydrating. Stick to cool water, shower rather than bathe, and use shower creams instead of gels. And finally, moisturise, moisturise, moisturise.
But what about when you’ve been burnt? If your skin feels sore and hot to the touch, is pink or red and/or blistering, flaking or peeling, you may have sunburn. In the first instance, you should get into the shade immediately and keep the area covered in loose-fitting clothing away from direct sunlight until it’s healed.
It’s important to apply soothing products to protect the skin’s barrier and encourage healing, too. And with that in mind, we’ve scoured the shelves for the best formulas to nourish damaged skin and aid repair. But before diving into our list of the best products for sunburn relief, our guide explains what sunburn is, and how best to treat it.
How to choose the best sunburn treatment for you
What is sunburn?
Contrary to what we usually believe a “burn” to be, it isn’t the sun’s heat that causes the damage to our skin. Sunburn is our skin’s visible reaction to too much UV radiation. This radiation harms the skin cells and causes mutations in their DNA, which can lead to premature ageing, pigmentation and skin cancer.
The peeling we experience following overexposure to the sun is also a sign that your body is trying to rid itself of damaged cells.
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How can I treat sunburn?
According to NHS guidelines, reducing the temperature of your skin by taking a cool shower or covering it with a damp towel will provide some much-needed relief. You should also drink plenty of water to replenish moisture loss and help prevent dehydration. Take painkillers such as ibuprofen to ease stinging, and apply an effective after-sun cream or spray – the best of which we have listed below.
Avoid applying ice packs to burnt skin – the extreme cold will cause further damage to the tissue – while petroleum jelly is also a big no-no because it can create a moisture barrier, slowing down the healing process.
When it comes to your skincare, you should steer clear of all exfoliating products and take a break from using any potentially irritating high-strength actives, including retinol and vitamin C. Instead, look for ingredients such as hyaluronic acid and aloe vera to deliver deep-down hydration.
If you find the pain is too much to bear, or you’re experiencing swelling, headaches, muscle cramps or fever, you should call a doctor immediately.
How long does sunburn last?
Depending on the severity of your sunburn, it should be treatable at home and will generally improve within three to seven days. More serious burns can take up to a couple of weeks. Looking after your skin and keeping it moisturised can speed up the healing process, but factors such as age and overall health will also play a part.
How we test sunburn treatments
Without going as far as putting themselves at risk of sunburn, our testers put these after-sun essentials through their paces following a number of hours outdoors, having been wearing SPF. Some take products away with them on holiday to test them in more extreme heat, while other treatments are applied after long days in the garden, on the beach, and even swimming in the local lido, here in the UK.
We consider the price point, ease of application, and effectiveness, as well as the makeup of the formulas and any ingredients that specifically help to soothe frazzled skin. Where a product is suggested for a certain skin type, we test on that skin type to enable us to provide an accurate recommendation.
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1. Dr Organic Aloe Vera Gel Maximum Strength: The best overall sunburn treatment
Price when reviewed: £6 (200ml) | Check price at Holland & BarrettAloe vera is the ultimate ingredient to soothe sun-exposed skin because it’s incredibly hydrating. It’s also antibacterial and packed with antioxidants, which help to accelerate the healing process.
Aloe barbadensis leaf juice is the first ingredient (of a very short number) listed on this max-strength gel from Dr Organic, and the product promises to be free of parabens and mineral oils that could cause irritation. It sinks in quickly, without even a hint of the stickiness or tackiness that some gels can leave, and our tester’s parched areas felt quickly soothed. The sizeable bottle also makes it excellent value. Keep this one in the fridge for an extra-cooling sensation.
2. Aveeno Skin Relief Moisturising Body Wash: The best post-sun body cleanser
Price when reviewed: £11 (500ml) | Check price at LookFantasticOats have long been hailed as an effective treatment for compromised skin, thanks to their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. This body wash from the skin experts at Aveeno is formulated with oat flour, oat extract and oat oil to help soothe and prevent dryness and itching.
Where other shower gels or cleansers might strip skin that’s been overexposed, further compromising its microbiome, this moisturising body wash leaves it feeling clean, fresh and balanced. It lathers up well in the shower, giving skin a deep but gentle cleanse while protecting its barrier. It’s also mild enough for eczema-prone complexions.
3. Bioderma Cicabio SPF 50+ Repairing Cream: The best sunburn treatment for the face
Price when reviewed: £10 (30ml) | Check price at LookFantastic Sunscreens and after-suns certainly aren’t what they used to be – today’s formulas can be just as delightful to wear as your favourite skincare, all while protecting and repairing your complexion from harmful UV rays. This Repairing Cream from Bioderma is a prime example: the non-comedogenic formula helps to repair weakened skin with a potent combination of resveratrol, copper and herbaceous centella asiatica, and gets to work in a matter of seconds. It also contains SPF 50+, which reduces the risk of pigmentation (or brown spots) and further damage, and Antalgicine – a patented technology that alleviates irritation and the need to scratch.
We found it to be non-sticky and non-greasy, but it gives dry areas a nourishing boost when gently patted into the skin. It also makes a good base for makeup.
4. Sun Bum CocoBalm Moisturising Lip Balm: Best sunburn treatment for lips
Price when reviewed: £5 (4.25g) | Check price at LookFantasticIt’s a much-overlooked area when it comes to SPF application, but just like any other area of the body, lips are prone to sunburn, too. In fact, they could even be more susceptible since our lips have a lower concentration of melanin and fewer layers of skin compared to the rest of our face. A hydrating lip product such as Sun Bum’s CocoBalm will help to replenish a damaged barrier.
This one contains a soothing blend of coconut oil, jojoba and aloe vera to lock in moisture. It comes in a couple of different scents or “flavours”; we tried it in Piña Colada (quite possibly the easiest way to transport yourself back to the beach), which smells like a tropical dream and gives a light, hydrating shine. However, since this one doesn’t contain SPF, be sure to pick up one that does should your lips be exposed again.
5. Eucerin Sensitive Relief After-Sun Gel-Cream: The best after-sun
Price when reviewed: £16 (150ml) | Check price at BootsThanks to its cooling gel-cream texture and light, clean scent, this product is a real treat to apply to roaring red shoulders. It’s lightweight and sinks in quickly, which means you can apply generously, and it’s suitable for both face and body, and for sensitive skin types.
The unique formula promotes cellular repair by supporting the skin’s own DNA repair mechanism to reduce sun-induced skin damage. Our tester’s sore areas felt soft and hydrated after use, and the redness was visibly reduced following just a couple of days of use. This is a great option for the whole family.