Sun burn: what can you do to repair the skin and reverse the damage

Fiona Clark

Whether you’re enjoying this amazing weather or are about to head off on holiday, the chances are you’re going to get sun burnt. So, what should you do to help repair and heal your skin? Our experts explain.


No matter how good you are with the SPF and the hat, you know it’s pretty much inevitable – at least once every summer you’re going to let your sunscreen guard down and get burnt.

As we know the sun can do some serious long-term damage to your skin. The UVB rays are the ones that are  responsible for a sun burn and its redness and peeling while the UVA rays are the ones that do the damage deeper down in the skin and are associated with premature skin aging and a host of skin damage ranging from solar keratosis to skin cancers.

How to treat sun burn

Prevention is one thing, but once the deed is done, what should you do?

Natalie Fisher, aka ‘The Derm Nurse’ on social media, is a Dermatology Nurse Specialist and Nurse Prescriber. When it comes to sun burn first aid, she says the most important thing to think about is rehydrating your skin.

“After sun lotions containing Aloe Vera are particularly soothing. Keep them in the fridge as the cooling effect will instantly relieve the sunburn.”


Do’s and Don’ts

A cooling damp wash cloth applied to the area can help as can cool shower or bath may also help – a hot shower could make it worse.

If the skin blisters, don’t pop them and don’t put oils or vinegar on them. And as much as people would like to tell you to put Vaseline, butter or other types of oils on a burn, the best advice is to avoid these as it could block pores and aggravate the skin more.

Instead, stick to plain water and aloe vera. It’s also important to stay hydrated from the inside too and drink plenty of water.


And, if it peels, as tempting as it is to pull those flaps of skin off – try and resist and it exposes the new skin underneath too early and may increase your risk of infection.

“To treat symptoms associated with sunburn such as itchiness and swelling, an over the counter antihistamine may be helpful.”

Paracetamol or ibuprofen may help with the pain.

If the sunburn is particularly severe and you have chills, a fever or feel dizzy, sick or have a headache the NHS advises you should see a doctor. If you have a small child who has been burnt, it recommends seeing your GP or visiting your nearest walk-in centre.

After care – reversing the damage

After the burn is gone, Cosmetic Dermatologist, Dr Simon Zokaie says it’s time to apply the antioxidants. He advises “Daily sunscreen and antioxidant serums containing vitamin C, vitamin E and ferulic acid.”

This trio can “help reverse the action of free radicals on the skin which cause premature ageing,” he says.

Not only that, but he says they can help reverse the signs of skin ageing and keep it looking more youthful.

The Derm nurse agrees adding that green tea – a powerful anti-inflammatory antioxidant, and retinol – Vitamin A, can also be of benefit.

“With antioxidants, there’s strength in numbers so consider incorporating a couple and of course – don’t forget your daily SPF.”


She says they’re vital in defending against the damage caused by free radicals. These are unbalanced molecules in your skin that, due to damage from the sun, pollution and ageing, have lost an electron. Like everything in your body it seeks balance so it steals one from another molecule in your cells and a chain reaction of damage ensues. Antioxidants lend an electron to these unbalanced molecules, slowing the process down and limiting the damage.

The Derm Nurse says free radicals “essentially break down collagen and elastin which offer our skin support. By protecting against these free radicals, you can slow down the ageing process.”

Studies have shown that vitamin C, E, ferulic acid and green tea can help protect the skin against further photo or sun damage. Vitamin C is vital for collagen repair, production and even extends its life in the cell.

Antioxidants can also help repair sun spots or pigment changes in the skin due to sun exposure.

So does that mean that all will be well and you can burn and lie in the sun with impunity? No, these things are only undoing and protecting to a certain extent. Sun burn permanently damages your skin and should be avoided at all costs. The best advice is to avoid getting burnt in the first place.


And if you think the odd sun burn doesn’t matter, think again. Sun burn, especially when your younger is associate with premature skin ageing (wrinkles, fine lines and sun spots) and research has shown that four or five blistering sunburns when you’re young can increase your melanoma risk by 80% and 68% for non-melanoma cancers such as basal cell carcinomas and squamous cell carcinomas.

So, always use a SPF30 or above (50 if your fair) and look for a 4-5 star UVA rating, wear a hat and protective clothing – ie long sleeves and pants.

Tan Myth Busting

And just so you know – these are some common sun tan myths:

  1. Sunbeds are a safe way to tan – MYTH – they are associated with a high risk of skin cancer and are banned in Australia and some states in the USA.
  2. You can’t burn through glass – MYTH – you may not burn but your skin will be damaged by the UVA rays that can pass through glass, and they’re the ones that are associated with skin aging and cancers.
  3. You only need to apply sunscreen once a day – MYTH – you need to apply it regularly – every couple of hours and immediately after sweating or swimming.
  4. If you have dark skin you don’t need sunscreen – MYTH – remember Bob Marley died of skin cancer.
  5. You can’t burn in the shade or on cloudy days – MYTH – UV rays can make it through cloud and they can be reflected off water, snow or other surfaces, so you still need your SPF, hat and protective clothing.

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