Sunburn woo

Hey everyone! I’m back from my week long vacation in Florida, and it was awesome! I’ll recap all the fun later – don’t have time right now since we’re reviewing my paper in lab meeting today. But I do have a moment the blog about the one un-fun thing that happened:

A massive sunburn.

Honestly, I’m not surprised. My skin behaves in a highly predictable way: I will stay pasty white until I get one horrible sunburn, but that will turn into tan and I’ll never burn for the rest of the summer. And being half Irish, that “horrible sunburn” step isn’t hard to accomplish. Even with multiple applications of SPF 30, this is the result of me going to the beach:Wish my Greek genes would have helped a bit more in the melanin department. As one of my twitter followers suggested, I think I need to go to SPF Solar Flare.

While at the time not being able to move or sit (sorry, you don’t get photos of how burnt my butt was) wasn’t very amusing, it’s kind of entertaining in retrospect. For one thing, I have to give my swimsuit props for being so stable. I mean, look at those burn lines! It’s like my suit didn’t budge at all.

But the real fun started when I went to the pool two days later on Memorial Day. We were staying at my parents’ place, which is effectively a retirement community. So even though this was one of the “family” pools and there were young people and kids there, there was a high concentration of 50+ people. By then my sunburn only hurt a little, but it still looked awful.

And when the ladies saw my sunburn, they went into Worrying Mom Mode.

During my first hour there I was approached by about ten different women who lamented about how horrible my sunburn looked. But more amusing than how quickly they started acting like my mom or grandma was the various advice they gave:

Lady 1: Go to the emergency room!
Lady 2: Dr. Oz said to sit in a bathtub of cold water and dissolve two aspirins in it!
Lady 3: Sit in a bathtub of cold water and vinegar! You’ll smell like a salad, but it works!
Lady 4: You know what you do? Rub some plain yogurt all over it!

Me (to friend): I think I need to fill a bathtub with cold water, aspirin, vinegar, and yogurt, and just sit in it.
Friend: You know what I heard cures sunburns? Showering with two burly men.
Me: Wow, really? I’ll have to try that too!

I don’t know if any of these remedies actually work, but if they do, I’d like an explanation why before I go rubbing strange things all over myself. A scientific explanation, not just “well it worked for me!” Until then, I’ll continue popping aspirin and rubbing medicated lotion all over myself.

Have you heard any weird sunburn related woo? Or have you ever gotten weird advice from strangers? How did you handle it?


  1. says

    First, the photos aren’t working, at least for me (Windows XP, Chrome).I have light Irish skin like yourself, except I have a continual burn/tan/light cycle all summer. I have simply decided I’m doomed to skin cancer.My worst sunburn story was when I fell asleep on the beach and severely burn only one side of me. The other side, while not pasty white, was pretty light. This lead to a wonderfully comical “dark side/light side” situation. Adding to injury was that this was during track season, which involved running shorts far shorter than my swimsuit. That part of my legs WAS pasty white, so I had a nice tri-color thing going. Needless to say, a fair amount of laughs was had at my expense.

  2. Angelo says

    I will say this, I have had second degree burns due to the sun in the past, since I no longer get exposed to the sun directly.The best thing for me was tomatoes believe or not, I cut a tomato in half and rubbed all over my back and burned parts, I guess it is the acidity of the tomatoes that cured the burning and felt much better after applying it after long consideration and no results from other common products, I hope you feel better because I know it sucks.

  3. says

    I’m at least half Irish so I also get horrible burns. I remember taking a bath with several tea bags for one particularly bad one as a kid. Not sure what that was supposed to accomplish.I’ve also gotten sunburned so bad my lips were burned. The next day I retreated to a dark and cool movie theater during the height of the sun. Getting out of the sun was smart – the buttered popcorn on my burned lips was not smart.

  4. says

    This summer I learned that aloe vera gel, which I used to use all the time, hasn’t been shown to be effective for treating sunburn. So I’m of no help on what actually works.

  5. says

    Yoghurt or buttermilk seems to have a cooling effect, so it helps to relieve the pain. Against the sunburn itself, there is no cure.Best is, not to get sunburned in the first place. The skin of people who always had a tan, starts looking like that of a grilled chicken in the second half of their lives. Only more wrinkled…

  6. Jason says

    I like the yogurt idea. Heh.Also, I’ve heard aspirin (or any other NSAID — ibuprofen, aceaminophen, etc), but taken orally.Also, the tan lines are kinda hot. =D Here’s hoping it fades into a nice summer tan.

  7. says

    None of those remedies work, and here’s why:The top layer of you skin (the epidermis) has a top layer of dead skin cells (they don’t have nuclei anymore) and a lower layer of basal cells (stem cells). The stem cells differentiate and divide, then loose their nuclei on their way “up” to the surface to replace the dead cells that shed from your skin.When you expose your body to radiation (particularly in the case of ionizing radiation like x-rays), a certain percentage of your basal cells are destroyed. The remaining cells loose their nuclei and shed more quickly, disrupting the balance between the skin layers. This provokes both an inflammatory and vascular response, resulting in the tender erythmatic skin that makes us all go “ouch”.Randomized trials, investigating the use of interventions such as aloe vera to treat erythema in radiation therapy patients, showed no effect in minimizing the actual effect or improving healing time. That being said, cool baths and moisturizing creams can be used to help soothe the effected area in the interm.In an attempt to keep this post short I will also briefly say that sunscreen is not worth the money spent on it when compared to simply wearing longsleeves, hats, etc. and will leave it up to you to “Google scholar” your way through the myriads of literature. (If you are going to buy sunscreen, make sure its SPF 15 (no point in going higher), says “broad spectrum” or UVA AND UVB, and does not contain Vitamin A.)Cheers!

  8. Jodi says

    Living in Houston, TX sunburn is something I’m doomed to on of a regular basis. I keep a container of aloe vera gel is the fridge and whenever I get burnt I pull it out again. I think aloe vera is supposed to help decrease pain and swelling and help to speed up healing. I know that by keeping it in the fridge is stays nice and cold and feels wonderful on my poor burnt skin. Sometimes just getting my skin to feel cooler helps me out. Good luck1

  9. says

    All this skin talk reminds me of my Chemistry teacher from high school. Imagine the most leathery, mean-spirited tennis coach you can think of, wearing barely-passes-the-dress-code-short leather skirts when she is clearly in her mid-to-late forties.With a Jersey accent. It was a bad year.

  10. libraboy says

    What helps heal sunburns? Time, and staying out of the sun.But fridge-cooled aloe vera sure does feel good…

  11. jimmyboy99 says

    OK – so I always use 50 block. It’s a nightmare trying to avoid getting burnt: I live on a beach, spend most of my time on my little boat and get a bit burnt too often. Big hat and long sleeves are good. Hands are difficult to protect (I burnt my fingers to blisters the other day…). But I’m stunned to hear that SP15 is as good as it gets…I’m going to do some reading. And I’m going to do a test with 15 and 50 and see what I find…Never found anything that worked once I was burnt. The after-sun creams were a joke!Have to wonder if exchanging the 2 burly men in the shower with 2 babes would work? Take your mind off the burn for a bit at least!Looks painful Jen: hope you get better soon.Cheers,Jim

  12. says

    My advice? But yourself into a drug induced coma for the next 72 hours. If you don’t see purple bunnies playing pinball you’re not smoking hard enough.Or, you know, baths. That sounds like a decent idea.

  13. Wendy says

    I too… have the lovely British complexion. But I don’t really tan just continually burn. When I sit in the sun you can suddenly hear bacon sizzling. : ) In the past I have burnt so bad I got blisters 2 days later. The time I was purple was pretty awful. But the worst is when you burn your eyes… darkness is your best friend. next to the aloe vera gel from the fridge. So wonderful. Keep smiling!

  14. Gabriel says

    I cringed when I look at those pictures. I have avoided anything more than a 15 minute foray into the sun for the past 5 years so as to avoid my pasty Irish skin from burning. My advice…an ice cold Newcastle Brown Ale and nap in a shaded hammock!

  15. Paul says

    For prevention, Bullfrog has a 45 SPF with titanium dioxide (the same ingredient they put in some wood stains to protect wood from continuous sunlight) that seems to work pretty well here in Colorado, where we have only 10% as much water vapor between us and the sun as Florida does. It is also waterproof. Once burnt, the Solarcaine gel (aka green goop) has alcohol to provide an immediate cooling effect, some sort of pain killer that lasts longer than that, and may help with the skin loss, I dunno, I never conducted a controlled experiment. I just wish that it also contained a sunblock factor so you didn’t have to choose between treating the burn you already have vs. preventing it from getting worse.

  16. Isaac says

    If the sunburn is “painful, but not bad” (i.e. only burns the upper layers of skin, and won’t blister), then use home remedies to your heart’s content. Anything that eases the pain is fine – but won’t necessarily help the healing process.If the sunburn is “really bad” (i.e. a 2nd degree or worse burn causing blisters or worse), put NOTHING on your skin. No aloe vera, no lotions. A (brief) cold bath, if you can tolerate it, during the first 6 hours will both help prevent worse burning, as will towels soaked in COLD water.The above is bona fide medical advice from on-duty hospital nurses. The rationale is that increase blood flow to badly burned areas will raise the local temperature, worsening the burn. Gels and lotions prevent heat from escaping, which is very bad, while cold water will (duh) cool the area, preventing the damage from worsening during your body’s initial response. Too late to help you this time, but worth knowing for the future. :)

  17. says

    I actually had on of my aunts who grew up in the woods tell me to put butter on a sunburn. I’m not sure if she was trying to help me heal, or bast me.

  18. TheBigBlueFrog says

    I’ve heard of breaking open a Vitamin E gel-capsule and rubbing the Vitamin E on the burn. Never tried it. I normally just moisturize and wait to peel.After having some keratosis spots burned off my nose, I’m being much more careful with the Sun.

  19. says

    Ditto. I run to white skin and freckles, and gave up trying to get a tan thirty years ago. I now use the Bedouin Method. Long pants, long sleeves, big hat; the hands are indeed a problem. I got my ears burned in Andalucia one December, just talking in a park for half an hour. Fortunately I’ve never been in latitudes such as Florida, I’d have to wear a space-suit.

  20. says

    Not sure if you have access to scientific journals, but if you do, here’s one I quickly pulled from Google Scholar from the British Medical Journal:…Summary:1) If sunscreen is applied properly, there is no need for a sunscreen with an SPF greater than 15.2) People who use higher SPF get burnt because of inaccurate coverage.3) Numerical indicators of sun protection are misleading/confusing.4) Using higher SPF sunscreens encourages people to stay out in the sun longer, thereby nullifying the supposed increased protection.

  21. says

    My grandmother once grated a potato on by horribly sunburned back when I was a kid.I recall it helping, weirdly enough. The indignity of having an order of hash browns cook on your back, however….

  22. olifantje says

    I was once explained by a physician that the pain of first degree burns was worst when the skin came in contact with air and he advised to put something greasy on the burns to ease the pain. It seems to work.

  23. Eevee says

    Vinegar on damaged skin? I’m cringing at the idea of that. And asprin is a good idea, only provided you’re taking the pills to deal with the pain.Though yogurt probably wouldn’t be a bad idea, since cold and creamy on irritated skin would seem rather soothing. But the best remedy I’ve used is aloe vera gel. It won’t get rid of it any faster, but it feels amazing, especially if you put the tube in the fridge. (Plus it can be used as makeshift hair gel if you forget your styling products on vacation!)

  24. says

    Anecdotal evidence for you–vinegar actually works. I first learned this back in high school from some German exchange students and it works far better than anything else I’ve ever used. I don’t take a bath with it (although that supposedly also works… ), but instead you can just dab straight white or apple cider vinegar onto your burn with a wash cloth and it will take the sting and burn out of it almost immediately. Your skin still stays red–but it doesn’t hurt and it seems to speed up the healing process by about 50%. You may have to apply it a couple of times the first day (like once every 3-4 hours or so). but by the next day (if you just have the normal Irish sunburn–I’m 50% Mick, 50% Kraut), your skin should not hurt at all.Why does this work? I have no idea. I’ve seen people mumble that it “changes the skin ph” so that it can heal faster, but it was never clear to me why your skin ph would get particularly more basic because of sun overexposure and thus need balancing.In any case, I’ve searched for scientific evidence or medical evidence (using the university’s online databases) and it seems that scientists and doctors don’t have much incentive to do tests on something as simple as vinegar as a remedy for sunburn. For example, if you go to the PubMed database and put in “sunburn treatment” and “vinegar”, you get “The effects of remifentanil and gabapentin on hyperalgesia in a new extended inflammatory skin pain model in healthy volunteers.” (if you use “acetic acid” the results aren’t any better..) Nothing about vinegar in there and nothing about vinegar at all, actually.Thus–you are unlikely to actually get any scientific data on these kinds of remedies, because they just aren’t high-tech enough to be considered. This doesn’t mean they don’t work, however. I’d say try vinegar next time. Yes, you do act as a kind of aromatic aerosolized vinegar disperser, but you solve the problem asap.

  25. sophia b says

    Huh, i’m not sure its legal to sell sunblock with a lower SPF than 15 here (in NZ and thanks for that ozone hole guys) there is some cut off where they won’t let you sell it cause its basically useless to our sun and gives you a false sense of security. Typically one sees 30-45, but i’m sure you can get higher. In case of that study i’m pretty sure points 1 and 4 aren’t as valid here, one obviously depends on social enviroment and one may be based on location-dependent levels of UV. The point about inaccurate coverage is interesting, does the higher SPF stuff have a different consistency that makes it harder to apply? again, if you grow up using higher SPF stuff maybe you’re just used to it and apply it better. Of course, its possible that we’re all just being over the top with sunblock protection here, but the study raises a few questions in my mind.

  26. Victoria says

    I’ve got Irish blood as well, complete with the pale skin and freckles and I burn like crazy so I feel your pain. I burn, peel, go right back to white and then repeat in an endless cycle. One really weird thing that’s worked for me is to rub a tomato on my skin when I know I’m burnt but it hasn’t really started to set in yet. It always lessens the burn considerably, some times there’s no burn at all. You have to keep cutting it to a fresh piece of tomato though. One time I didn’t had on arm was no sunburn and the other was scorched. Of course aloe does wonders as well, especially directly from the plant.

  27. mouse says

    That’s exactly what I was going to post. Since I had just taken a first aid class at the time, where I learned not to put butter on other kinds of burns, I assumed it was hooey. When I lived in Hawaii, my family had an Aloe Vera plant and we’d break off the leaves and squeeze the fresh juice on burns (sun or otherwise). I gather that, scientifically, it didn’t actually help healing but I definitely peeled less and it helped symptoms.

  28. chuck_c says

    I used to vacation every March or April in St Pete’s. Burned worse than you each time, until I started hitting a tanning salon for about 5-6 weeks before going down. Once you’re burned, it’s too late. A base tan and sun block will do a world of good.

  29. noelley b says

    I use a parasol for my burn prevention, if I can get away with it. As for burn remedies, I use lavender essential oil. It’s so effective it’s almost scary. I had a boiling water AND sunburn combo on my foot one day, and with repeated application throughout the day and evening, you couldn’t tell the next day I’d been burned. I’ve also tested it on sunburned forearms, using aloe on one and lavender on the other. There was a marked difference in pain levels and healing time, with lavender the clear winner. It’s good for insect bites as well. I’d honestly love to see some research done on this one, but theres not much out there on it.Wikipedia says it might even be dangerous.

  30. says

    Interesting. Considering that tomatoes and vinegar are both acidic (although different acids–Tom=malic and oxalic, vinegar=acetic), I wonder if there is something to the “put acid on your skin to reduce the burn..because it resets the ph balance” that seems to go along with the talk about vinegar… What about burns, I wonder, makes your skin basic…

  31. kendermouse says

    I remember when I was little, people used noxema on burns… *shudders*I use aloe vera. I’m not sure of the why and how, but I know it helps ease the burn a bit.

  32. astrocreep says

    subtract the jersey accent, and i had the same teacher for AP US history. ech.

  33. skepticalmedia says

    My mother used to put butter on burns, but I never trusted her judgment regarding home remedies. My wife and I are both very light skinned. We snorkel with t-shirts on and hide in the shade wherever possible. Each of us has had bouts with skin cancer so we don’t mess around. Once you are actually burned, you just have to wait for it to heal.

  34. Ben says

    It moisturises the skin, has disinfectant qualities, and the anti-inflamatory properties sooth the burn.I typically just moisturise and let the burn remind me that I could just be one more sun exposure from a melanoma. That will last me until next summer when I have completely forgotten what sunburn feels like.

  35. the_Siliconopolitan says

    Hydrocortizone seemed to dull the pain the last time I overdid it.Did you at least smell like bacon?

  36. Dawn says

    I can’t believe no one mentioned tea! My grandmother used to slap a cold, wet teabag on a burn, and pour cool/cold tea on a towel and place it on our sunburns. She said the tannin in the tea helped with the burn and pain. In my memory it helped more than anything else. I’ve also used aloe, solarcaine (which usually has a topical anesthetic in it) – we keep both in the fridge so they are cold which also helps. NSAIDs help because they are antiprostaglandins and prevent some pain and swelling. They need to be taken around the clock for a day or two, approx 3 tabs every 6 hours (your choice of which one). It’s a heavy dosage so many people get upset stomachs from it. Use with caution.

  37. manonymous01 says

    Being ginger and therefore fair skinned, I have had severe burns on my knuckle creases as well as my toes, my palms, etc,.Even though I abhor sunlight (since i abhor contact with other morons such as myself) and therefore rarely venture beyond my front doorAlso, why 2 men? Surely all humans are beautiful in their imperfect form (wishful thinking on my part)?

  38. gunter beyser says

    I have heard that too, from an Italian. Never needed to use it myself. Took my mother’s wise remark. “Dogs are smarter than humans. They lie in the shade.”If you don’t want to use tomatoes – just sit it out. It always works.

  39. says

    My condolences; I’ve suffered similarly in the past.Although I’ve never heard of those particular claims before, I have had first-hand experience with sun-related skepticism. The comments section of my blog was briefly invaded by pro-indoor-tanning commenters when I threw together a quick post highlighting some Fabutan propaganda that suggested fear of cancer is a tool of Big Sunscreen.I just dashed it off, thinking it a funny bit of triviality, but when it received such a reaction I had to spend hours pointing out logical fallacies and tracking down appropriate references relating to the risks ans benefits of sun exposure. It couldn’t all fit in the comments section, of course, so it became its own post.Feel better soon! Burns like that can leave a mark for quite a while. My wife still has tan lines from when we got badly burned snorkeling in Malaysia last year.

  40. says

    Aloe is the best for making it FEEL better, though I can’t say anything about healing time. And solarcaine (which is green goop containing aloe) is the greatest because it has LIDOCAINE in it. Incidentally, solarcaine is most useful for sunburn, but it can also help with other minor skin irritations, such as razor burn. And I always thought the “base tan” stuff was crap, but it does help… it just does have to be REALLY slow if you want to avoid the burns.

  41. says

    this is why I buy waterproof SPF60 for children whenever I’m in Germanyoh, and never go out for long when the sun shines; but that’s more of a side-effect of being a night owl ;-)

  42. says

    ok, so, reading that summary, it seems more like the point is not that higher SPF doesn’t work, but that people don’t use it right… I’m sticking to my SPF60, since it does work, doesn’t give me a rash, and doesn’t end up in a pimple outbreak, like some other over 15SPF’s I’ve used…

  43. Olifantje says

    I think your skin gets actually more acidic when sunburned, because of a rise in prostaglandin E2, which is an acid.However acetic acid together with sodium acetate is a buffer, which might stabilize ph. You need something like sodium carbonate, sodium bicarbonate or sodium hydroxide for the sodium acetate. I don’t know if something like that is present on your skin. I also don’t know if such a buffer would help against pain…

  44. says

    There’s one benefit about being my age: I avoid sunburn, using the Bedouin Method, but if I should nevertheless screw up and get flayed like Jen, by the time skin cancer develops I shall be dead of something else anyway.

  45. Andy says

    Not to go all creepy internet stalked on you, but have you lost weight? Because you are looking skinny.

  46. says

    Weird. See.. this would be an interesting (and useful) scientific study–I wonder if we could scare some pre-med students to do research on it. What is the chemical process of sunburn on the skin and how do these various “cures” actually work….

  47. Paul Merda says

    My grandmother always would use vinegar mixed with baking soda and dab it on the sun burn with a rag. It felt sooo cold it literally gave me chills but it did immediately end the sting. How it works, I do not know, but it works for me and I still use it to this day (I’m a young nubile 40 year old)…even if it makes me smell like a salad.

  48. says

    Chocolate sauce and 2 burly men? Distraction from discomfort is the best thing and I’m pretty sure that would be distracting. As a general rule, I tan beautifully (and so I will apparently turn into a wrinkly chicken later in life). I did get one wicked bad burn on the backs of my legs when I lived in Oz and doubted the power of the sun at the height of summer. It was so bad my legs were swollen with fluid for 2 weeks. It wasn’t pretty. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any men or chocolate sauce so I just suffered in order to learn a lesson.

  49. says

    I’ve had second degree sunburns before, the worst part is when it starts to itch and ooze :-/Best unsolicited advice I’ve ever received was from a guy who worked in lawn care for about a decade, take a hot shower. It may seem counter-intuitive with so much other advice going toward cold showers, but for whatever reason, it really does seem to take the sting out of a bad sunburn.Just my anecdote. Although if you want to go with the two burly men option, I’m sure you’ll have no shortage of volunteers ;).

  50. moxicity says

    Heh. I live in Northern Europe, so the amount of sun we get is much, much smaller, but I’m still located in a seaside resort town. People almost act offended when I don’t end up a nice tone of copper by fall. I never liked sunbathing, and now I have all the more reason to avoid it and get big hats. I read about the sun’s lovely effects on skin and I tell you… takes the joy of life right outta ya.Besides making you look like grilled chicken later in life, it’s just plain aweful for you & your skin in the right here and now. Fake tans are no less dangerous, in fact they are supposedly (I may be misremembering some data) a giant factor in the rise of skin cancer, especially in younger and younger people. One article I read specifically stated fake tanning is completely hazardous and regular sunbathing isn’t very good either. You increase your risk of melanoma literally by several hundred per cent. Scary! But now I will wear my pasty skin with pride, knowing I’m actually taking care of my skin.

  51. moxicity says

    3 tabs every 6 hours, or around the clock on the hour??? Oh my god, doesn’t that exceed the maximum daily dosage, like, REALLY heavily? They’re not candy, person! Seriously though, deliberate or accidental misuse of over-the-counter medicines can mess you up truly bad. Drugs aren’t toys, yknow. The upset stomach? That should tell you something, namely that *you shouldn’t scarf down drugs like that*. Apologies for overbeariness, but dude! I am worried for you, a Stranger on the Internet, after reading your comment! (also I am sometimes too hysterical, so I may be dramatizing… still.)

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  53. Sandrarikhav says

    Milk,yogurt and honey is also the best to cure the skinburns.The best way to avoid it is by avoid going out during the time 12noon to 3 pm since during this time the sunrays are the strongest.You can also visit… to know more on the sunburn tips.

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