Sunscreen lotion bars? Check! Long-sleeved swim shirts, hats, and a shady place to rest? Check, check and check!
Whether it’s our annual trip to the beach or a more local adventure, I’m very conscious about making sure my family avoids sunburns. That’s not to say I think appropriate sun exposure is a bad thing – in fact Dr. Pelle Lindqvist, lead author of the Journal of Internal Medicine study which found that sun avoidance “is a risk factor for death of a similar magnitude as smoking,” said that “being too restrictive regarding sun exposure may do more harm than good for health.” (source 1, source 2)
That said, sometimes life (and overexposure to the sun) happens when we’re making plans. I hope you won’t them this summer, but just in case a sunburn happens here are some natural sunburn remedies I’ve collected from respected doctors and herbalists. I’ve included links to studies that support their use along with explanations of why they work where applicable. I hope you find it helpful!
[Note: Though the Mayo Clinic says most first and second degree burns can be treated at home, serious burns should be treated professionally. Please do not use any home remedies on serious burns.]
14 Natural Sunburn Remedies
My grandmother’s favorite “owie balm” was a freshly plucked aloe vera leaf – turns out she was onto something!
According to Dr. Ian Tizard, a professor of immunology at Texas A&M University, aloe vera “comes out of the plant like a clear liquid, but when it touches human skin, it becomes a gel. It acts as a wound sealant in this gel state, and no other plants do so.” (source)
Apparently the plant contains a polysaccharide that is found in lots of plants, but somehow works differently in aloe. “It seems to bind growth factors in wounds whereas normally they would be destroyed. Aloe vera polysaccharide seems to speed along the healing process much quicker,” he says.
Fresh aloe is preferred, because as the World Health Organization puts it aloe is sensitive to “enzymatic, oxidative, or microbial degradation.” (source) According to their medicinal plants portal, aloe vera gel “has been effectively used in the treatment of first- and second-degree thermal burns and radiation burns. Both thermal and radiation burns healed faster with less necrosis when treated with preparations containing Aloe Vera Gel (18, 19).”
If you’ve never grown fresh aloe, it’s very easy. Just keep it in a sunny window and follow these watering/repotting instructions.
To use: Break open a leaf and rub on skin.
As I mentioned in this burn salve recipe that blends honey with lavender essential oil, there is a lot of research that supports the use of honey for common kitchen burns, sunburns and more.
The sticky stuff’s been used as a topical burn salve since Egyptian days. ‘Studies suggest it may work better than some antibiotic creams at speeding up healing, reducing infection, and minimizing pain,’ says Kathi Kemper, M.D., author of The Holistic Pediatrician.” (source)
It’s not my first choice for larger body application simply because it’s sticky, but it is an option.
Made from the bark from the witch hazel tree, this extract is high in tannins that soothe sunburned skin. (source 1, source 2) I prefer this brand because they double distill their extract – the final extract contains 86% organic witch hazel. They also use less alcohol than other brands, which makes it more gentle.
How to use it: Place in a spray bottle and spray skin, or apply using a soft washcloth or cotton balls.
Apple Cider Vinegar
Though there is not a consensus on why this works, this study did conclude that apple cider vinegar supports healing after a burn. Some say it is because the apple cider vinegar restores damaged skin’s pH, while other’s say it’s due to the high percentage of “pectin, succared, vitamins (B1, B2, B6) (A, E, C), salt, mineral[s such as] as (sodium, calcium, magnesium, aluminum, phosphor, cobber, [and] silicon).” (source) White vinegar is also considered helpful.
How to use it: Some people add one cup of apple cider vinegar (or white vinegar) to a tepid bath, while others prefer to dilute it (either 1 part vinegar to 2 parts water, or equal amounts of vinegar and water) and spray it on or apply with a soft washcloth.
According to Medical Aromatherapy, lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) and German Chamomile are both helpful for soothing sunburned skin. Another excellent option is helichrysum italicum. Peppermint and rosemary ct. cineole can also soothe because they create a cooling sensation on the skin, but they should not be used with small children – more info in this guide to using essential oils safely with kids.
If you don’t have any of those available, these are considered good second tier options: Carrot seed (not for use during pregnancy or breastfeeding), frankincense, manuka, and neroli. (source 1, source 2)
How to use them: Some oils – lavender, chamomile and tea tree, for example – can be safely used undiluted on occasion, provided the area of application is small. However, in this instance it is recommended that they be diluted along with the others – somewhere between a 1-2% dilution (1-2 drops per teaspoon of oil) is considered appropriate.
Note: German chamomile should not be taken with certain drugs. See a list of them here.
Green tea contains catechins and black tea contains tannins, both of which are considered cooling for sunburns. They also contain theobromine, which may help ease discomfort and support healing. (source)
Peppermint tea – which contains essential oils high in menthol – can also create a gentle cooling sensation.
How to use: Brew a strong cup of tea and allow to cool. Apply using a soft washcloth or cotton balls.
According to John F. Romano, M.D., clinical assistant professor of dermatology at New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center, the fat content of whole milk “makes it a great compress for sunburn pain.” (source)
How to use it: “Dip some gauze in whole milk and apply it to sunburned areas for about 20 minutes, repeating this process every two to four hours. Be sure to wash off the milk to avoid having your skin smell sour.” (source)
Baking Soda Bath
Seattle Children’s Hospital recommends 1/4 cup of baking soda in a bath to help with discomfort. Soap should be avoided as it can be irritating. (source)
To use: Add to tepid water and soak for 15-20 minutes, then allow skin to air dry or gently pat it dry. Bathe once or twice per day as needed. (Personal note: Because baking soda is alkaline and healthy skin has a slightly acidic pH, it might be a good idea to follow the bath with a diluted vinegar spray to balance skin pH.)
As I mention in my tutorial on how to make plantain salve, this common “weed” (which is not related to the banana-like tree) is sometimes called the “band aid” plant. Due to the presence of iridoids, it has a very soothing effect on skin. (source) It also contains allantoin, which supports skin healing. (source 1, source 2)
Taz Bhatia, MD, founder and medical director of the Atlanta Center for Holistic and Integrative Medicine, recommends topically applying epsom salt to reduce irritation. (source) Though she didn’t mention it, I know a lot of people who are sensitive to epsom salts use magnesium chloride instead.
To use: “Dissolve 2 tablespoons of Epsom salt in 1 cup of water in a spray bottle, and then spray the mixture on the sunburn.” (source) Another option is to add 1-2 cups of epsom salt/magnesium chloride to a tepid bath. You could add a bit of lavender essential oil, too, if desired. Here’s my favorite homemade bath salts recipe that incorporates lavender.
Flavonoid-rich petals from the calendula flower have used in traditional medicine to soothe burns, cuts, bruises, etc. Several modern studies, including this one, have found it can be helpful in supporting burn healing.
How to use it: The University of Maryland Medical Center recommends calendula “as an ointment or a tea applied topically. To make tea from tincture, use 1/2 to 1 tsp. diluted in 1/4 cup water. You can also steep 1 tsp. of flowers in one cup of boiling water for 15 minutes, then strain and cool. Test skin first for any allergic reaction.” (source)
Another option is to use a calendula infused oil like this one.
This study found that turmeric paste has properties similar to honey in supporting wound healing. According to Herbal Medicine: Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects, “Many South Asian countries use it as an antiseptic for cuts, burns, and bruises, and as an antibacterial agent.” (source)
How to use it: Mix turmeric with water, milk, or aloe vera until it forms a paste. Gently apply to skin and allow to sit for 15-20 minutes. Rinse and pat dry.
Soaking in a cool oatmeal bath can soothe skin and help with itching, says Patricia K. Farris, M.D., professor of dermatology at Tulane University in New Orleans. (source)
How to use: Grind one cup of oatmeal in a food processor or coffee grinder. Add to a tepid bath and soak for 15-20 minutes. If sensitive to gluten, make sure to use gluten-free oatmeal.
Coconut Oil, Shea Butter, Etc. (With a caveat)
While usually considered beneficial, moisturizers like coconut oil and shea butter can trap heat and delay healing for sunburned skin. It is generally recommended that they be avoided until the skin is cool and healing is underway, although a small amount of oil used to dilute essential oils may be appropriate. After the skin has cooled they are considered helpful for restoring lost moisture.