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Best sunburn treatment 2024: Calming creams and gels for instant relief

Protect and soothe sun-damaged skin with our pick of the best sunburn treatments

Choosing the best sunburn treatment is vital to soothe and protect your skin. Whether you’ve forgotten to reapply your sunscreen after swimming or had a longer-than-planned nap in the garden, even the most diligent SPF users can slip up sometimes.

After-sun care remains essential, regardless of whether you’ve burnt. After all, tanning is just another form of skin damage caused by UV rays. To reduce visible signs of sun damage, shower in cool water, use shower creams instead of gels and moisturise regularly. Burnt and sore? Red, blistered or peeling? Get into the shade immediately, keep the area covered with loose-fitting clothing and avoid direct sunlight until the burn has fully healed.

It’s important to apply soothing products to protect the skin’s barrier and encourage healing. With this in mind, we’ve scoured the shelves for the best formulas to nourish damaged skin and aid repair.

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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 ultraviolet (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 avoid 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.

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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 several hours outdoors, having been wearing SPF. Some took the products away on holiday to test them in more extreme heat, while other treatments were applied after long days in the garden, on the beach and even swimming at a local lido right here in the UK.

We considered the price point, ease of application, effectiveness and 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 tested it on that skin type to provide an accurate recommendation.

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The best sunburn treatments you can buy in 2024

1. Dr Organic Aloe Vera Gel Maximum Strength: Best overall sunburn treatment

Price when reviewed: £7.99 (200ml) | Check price at Amazon

Aloe 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 irritate the skin. It sinks in quickly, without the stickiness 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.

Key specs – Type: Gel; Active ingredients: Aloe vera; Vegan-friendly: Yes

2. Aveeno Skin Relief Moisturising Body Wash: Best post-sun body cleanser

Price when reviewed: £10 (500ml) | Check price at LookFantastic

Oats have long been hailed as an effective treatment for compromised skin thanks to their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. This fragrance-free 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.

Key specs – Type: Shower gel; Active ingredients: Glycerin, oat flour, oat kernel extract, oat oil; Vegan-friendly: Not stated

Check price at LookFantastic

3. Bioderma Cicabio SPF50+ Repairing Cream: 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 restoring 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, getting to work in a matter of seconds.

It also contains SPF50+, 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 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 as it doesn’t leave a white cast or oily finish.

Key specs – Type: Cream; Active ingredients: Copper sulphate, zinc, hyaluronic acid; Vegan-friendly: Not stated

Check price at LookFantastic

4. Aesop Petitgrain Reviving Body Gel: Best cooling sunburn treatment

Price when reviewed: £31 (150ml) | Check price at LookFantasticbest sunburn treatment Aesop Body Petitgrain Reviving Body Gel

Formulated with soothing aloe vera, grapefruit rind, panthenol (a form of provitamin B5) and witch hazel, this deliciously aromatic gel from Aesop will be your new summer holiday BFF. Not only did we love the invigorating, citrusy scent (the brand is known for its uplifting fragrances, after all), but it also came top in our tests for restoring parched skin after just one use.

The lightweight gel absorbs quickly without feeling tacky, leaving behind hydrated, silky skin and long-lasting nourishment that doesn’t require any extra moisturisation. The clever combination of anti-inflammatory ingredients does a brilliant job of cooling and calming angry-looking patches, but for a boosted cooling sensation, store it in the fridge before use. The gel can also be applied anywhere on the body, including on the face.

While this is pricier when compared to the products on our list, the heady fragrance and premium glass packaging definitely add to the overall experience. It’s a real post-beach treat for the skin.

Key specs – Type: Gel; Active ingredients: Grapefruit rind, witch hazel, provitamin B; Vegan-friendly: Yes

Check price at LookFantastic

5. Eucerin Sensitive Relief After-Sun Gel-Cream: Best after-sun for the face and body

Price when reviewed: £17 (150ml) | Check price at Boots

Thanks to its cooling gel-cream texture and light, clean scent, this product is a real saviour for roaring red shoulders. It’s lightweight and sinks in quickly, meaning you can apply it generously, and it’s suitable for both face and body and sensitive skin types.

The unique formula promotes cellular repair by supporting the skin’s DNA repair mechanism to reduce sun-induced skin damage. Our tester’s sore areas felt soft and hydrated after use, and the redness visibly reduced after just a couple of days. This product is an excellent option for the whole family.

Key specs – Type: Gel-cream; Active ingredients: Alpha-glucosylrutin, licochalcone A; Vegan-friendly: No

6. Sun Bum CocoBalm Moisturising Lip Balm: Best sunburn treatment for lips

Price when reviewed: £4.79 (4.25g) | Check price at LookFantastic

It’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 and aloe vera to lock in moisture. It comes in a couple of different scents or “flavours”; we tried it in Piña Colada (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.

Key specs – Type: Balm; Active ingredients: Coconut oil, aloe vera, vitamin E; Vegan-friendly: No

Check price at LookFantastic

7. Green People Moisturising After Sun with Insect Repellent: Best sunburn treatment for holidays

Price when reviewed: £16 (100ml) | Check price at Green Peoplebest sunburn treatment Green People

More often than not, wherever you are in the world, the warmer weather will bring an influx of mosquitoes and – more significantly – mosquito bites, so an after-sun that offers protection from pesky bugs can be useful.

This 2-in-1 after-sun product from the organic skincare experts at Green People not only does a great job at cooling and rehydrating sunburnt skin, but the addition of Citrepel75 (a natural repellent derived from java citronella) helps to protect against bug bites for up to four hours at a time. A powerful cocktail of peppermint, lavender, and aloe vera gently cools and softens the skin and gives the product a refreshing scent that makes it a joy to use. It’s light, easily absorbed and can be used on the faces and bodies of the whole family, too (from 6 months+).

Key specs – Type: Lotion; Active ingredients: Aloe vera, peppermint; Vegan-friendly: Yes

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