What's The Best Remedy For A Bad Sunburn? Though your first instinct may be to apply aloe vera, dermatologist Paula Moskowitz has another suggestion, and it's something you're likely to have around the house.
NPR logo

What's The Best Remedy For A Bad Sunburn?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/93350576/93364729" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
What's The Best Remedy For A Bad Sunburn?

What's The Best Remedy For A Bad Sunburn?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/93350576/93364729" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And what better place to talk about sunburns and how to treat them than here in sunny Los Angeles, which is where NPR's Patti Neighmond reports from.

PATTI NEIGHMOND: We know about sunburn out here. Take the example of my daughter's friend Autry. Autry's 10 years old, and a few months ago she got such a bad burn she couldn't even sleep at night.

Ms. AUTRY WILSON: I was laying on my back and my mom put pillows all around me, but I couldn't lay on my side, because it would hurt my shoulders and my face.

NEIGHMOND: And Autry says she didn't look so great either.

Ms. A. WILSON: A pink pruny person.

NEIGHMOND: I first heard about Autry's sunburn when her mother, Christi Hayden Wilson, told mutual friends how her daughter spent a day at a swimming pool and, you guessed it, forgot to reapply her sunscreen.

Ms. CHRISTI HAYDEN WILSON (Mother): Well, my husband went and got Autry. And when he came home with her I literally was fighting back the tears. She looked horrible. She was so, so bright red and literally her eyes were starting to swell shut. And I almost thought for a moment that we might have to take her to the emergency room. But I decided to kind of play the waiting game, because I wasn't seeing any oozing or anything so horrible that I thought we needed to go to the emergency room.

NEIGHMOND: Turns out Hayden Wilson was right. Dermatologists recommend going to the doctor only if the sunburn blisters. The concern then is infection. Hayden Wilson's first instinct though to soothe her daughter was to apply an aloe vera ointment. That didn't work. It made Autry's burn hurt more.

I wanted to know why ointment would hurt, so another friend gave me the phone number of dermatologist Paula Moskowitz at Brown University.

Dr. PAULA MOSKOWITZ (Brown University): Ointments really sit on the skin and occlude the skin. It doesn't allow the pores to breathe, and it doesn't allow the heat to escape as well. So it doesn't really feel very comfortable to the skin to have an ointment on.

NEIGHMOND: The best remedy, says Moskowitz, is the one Hayden Wilson tried after reading about it in a family medical guide put out by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Ms. C. WILSON: The funny thing is what it did suggest to do fell right in line with my mom's catch-all remedy when we were growing up in Texas. She would always use a, you know, a wet washcloth. It'll cure anything. And I like to joke you could be having an appendicitis attack or have a kidney stone and she would run for the wet washcloth to make it all better.

NEIGHMOND: Dermatologist Paula Moskowitz.

Dr. MOSKOWITZ: She was absolutely right. A cool, wet washcloth is probably one of the best things you can do for a sunburn. I don't think it's the cure for everything, but certainly for sunburn it feels good.

NEIGHMOND: And don't use ice, says Moskowitz. That could injure the skin even more. Taking ibuprofen is also a good idea. It's an anti-inflammatory that can reduce that burning feeling. But Dr. Moskowitz says the best treatment is an ounce of prevention. Once you have a burn, you've already done damage to the cells of the skin.

Dr. MOSKOWITZ: And what happens is, these are called sunburn cells. And so your body attempts to repair these after a sunburn event. And your body generally does a fairly good job of repairing these cells, but the body isn't perfect. And what happens is, as it does the repair of these injured cells, it sometimes makes mistakes.

NEIGHMOND: And those mistakes can build up over time, says Moskowitz, and lead to precancerous cells and cancer.

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher. And they remind people to reapply sunscreen every few hours.

Patti Neighmond, NPR News.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.