Applied SPF liberally (of course you have…) but been caught out? Here’s how to deal with sunburn for maximum damage limitation

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In an ideal world, we’d all be hyper-disciplined with our broad-spectrum SPF30 or 50 sunscreen, re-applied often while staying in the shade during peak sunshine hours. But who hasn’t had the best of intentions only to still leave the park/beach/back garden with tell-tale livid red stripes across their shoulders, or a fried parting because they've missed a bit or simply forgotten to top up? If Google is to be believed, that’s most of us: “searches for ‘sun burn cream’ are up 90% since the start of July,” says a spokesperson for French skincare brand Typology.

Heatwave or no heatwave, not topping up often enough is the main cause for sunburn (that’s after simply not applying any, we assume…), warns Dr Maryam Zamani, founder of MZ Skin. “You should aim to reapply your SPF every two hours or so, especially if you are in direct sunlight a lot,” she says. Depending on the circumstances, you may want to do it more often, for example if you’re sweating profusely of are constantly in and out of the water.” If you still get caught red-handed (so to speak), here’s how to deal with your poor-livid skin and manage the damage.

What does sunburn do to your skin?

Consultant dermatologist Dr Anjali Mahto explains what your skin is undergoing when it burns: “it’s an acute reaction to being overexposed to ultraviolet (UV) radiation that causes direct damage to your DNA,” she says. “The result is inflammation and death of skin cells.” The paler and closer to the sun you are – on earth that means being on or close to the equator and/or at high altitude – the greater the risk. And you’re risking a lot: “sunburn in childhood or adolescence can double the risk of developing melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, in later life,” says Mahto. In addition, one of the biggest causes of premature ageing is sun damage in the shape of fine lines, wrinkles, blemishes freckles and other discolourations, none of which are desirable to most of us.”

First-aid measures for sunburn

The moment your skin goes red, a level of damage is done. But can improve your dermatological prospects post-sunburn by instigating some SOS measures. Here’s Dr Anjali’s to-do list:

Take cover  

“If you’ve accidentally burned, cover up the affected areas and stay in the shade until your sunburn has healed [that means days, not hours!]. Wear loose cotton clothing that allows your skin to ‘breathe’ over the sunburnt areas, as opposed to creating a stuffy, sweaty environment."

Cool it

“Apply a cool compress, such as a towel dampened with cool water, for 15 minutes - or take a cool bath or shower. Aim to keep the temperature just below lukewarm and make sure the shower has a gentle flow of water rather than pelting down at full power. If blisters are starting to develop, then a bath is preferable.”

Use kid gloves

“Don’t rub your skin with a towel, but gently pat it dry post-bath or shower. Then apply an unperfumed cream or lotion to soothe the skin; fragrance is a bad idea for skin this compromised. Using this for several days at least is necessary to reduce the appearance of peeling, and you may need to continue doing this after-shower routine for several weeks.”

Pick the right body lotion

“Gels or lotions that contain aloe vera can be beneficial in calming the skin: aloe not only has a cooling effect but also acts as an anti-inflammatory. Be wary not just of fragrance, but also of lotions that contain petrolatum/mineral oil these can trap heat in the skin.” See our toolkit below for options, or check out The best aftersun for soothing scorched skin 

On the spot relief

“Using a weak steroid cream such as 0.5-1 per cent hydrocortisone (you can get it over the counter at pharmacies) twice a day for two days hours decrease the pain and swelling caused by sunburn and speed up the healing process. It’s best avoided in small children, though.”

Try a painkiller

“If the pain is bad, popping the right painkiller can offer relief and reduce the inflammation caused by sunburn. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen are ideal and should be continued for a period of at least 48 hours (don’t take more than is recommended) if there are no contraindications. Paracetamol will help with pain but has little effect on inflammation.”

Adjust your skincare routine

A sunburnt face is not going to respond well to an advanced routine potent anti-agers and cell turnover boosters such as exfoliating acids and retinol. Until your skin has duly calmed down, Dr Maryam Zamani advises to keep your skincare routine basic. “I would recommend the use of gentle cleansers and barrier-building moisturisers. Even if you don’t normally need products for sensitive skin, this may be a good time to temporarily switch to them.” An anti-inflammatory face mist is a good idea for a regular shot of hydration, cooling and soothing as you recover. For recommendations for this and other healing face care, see our toolkit below.

Consider committing to Vitamin D

One potential way to alleviate sun damage long-term comes in the shape of a study that appears to show that participants with a higher vitamin D level than those taking a placebo suffered less inflammation, a reduction in skin redness and a significant expression of genes relating to skin barrier repair after getting sunburnt. More studies are needed, but researchers are hopeful that vitamin D can one day be confirmed as a skin-immunity booster, particularly in terms of the anti-inflammatory effect that it appears to have. Yet more incentive to take a vitamin D supplement all year round, not simply when the sun don’t shine.

Your sunburn relief toolkit

Here are the products to have on standby when your skin goes on red alert

This is mostly cooling, anti-inflammatory aloe gel with added anti-inflammatories (bisabolol) and antioxidants (orange blossom hydrolate) to fight off heat and damage on your body, face – even your scalp.

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Ora Sol Food Plant-Based Vitamin D3, £16.49 for 30 tablets

2000 to 3000iU vitamin D is what most doctors take on a daily basis; it’s vital for the immune system and could help your skin recover better from sunburn.

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Minerals, antioxidants and barrier-building prebiotics in an instantly cooling, calming and quenching mist to spray at your red face anytime.

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Want more mists? Check out Best barrier-building. microbiome face mists.

Mild enough for babies, this gel-to-light-milk won’t strip already-damaged skin, won’t suffocate pores and will leave skin calm and comforted.

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Light, fast-absorbing and fragrance-free, it has an active that instantly quells heat, irritation and redness

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An unscented butter made of essential fatty acid-rich seed oils, this doesn’t just lock moisture into compromised skin (on face, body, anywhere) but actively helps repair it.

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The lurid green lotion turns into a redness-concealing skin tone once you smooth it on, then goes to work with a phalanx of anti-inflammatories to soothe inflammation. Created, for rosacea-prone skin, it’s just as useful on sunburnt skin and has an SPF50 to prevent even worse.

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