The Best Sunburn Treatment
The best sunburn treatment should include soothing ingredients like aloe or hydrocortisone, which provide relief from pain and itching as your skin heals. It should also be free of anything that could irritate your skin — a bar that was surprisingly difficult for many drugstore brands to clear. We talked with dermatologists and scrutinized ingredient lists, then we tested out 17 gels, lotions, and sprays on our own skin to find the ones that provided the most effective relief.
A gel that’s 99 percent aloe vera. Aloe came highly recommended by our experts and is packed full of compounds that soothe pain and irritation. The gel provides an immediate cooling sensation and can be reapplied as often as you like.
Good for mild burns, with a lower percentage of aloe and a luxurious lavender scent.
A hydrocortisone lotion that won’t cool you down but will battle itchiness.
An oatmeal bath that’s good for whole-body treatment.
If you’ve hit the peeling stage, this lotion is light on aloe but heavy on moisturizers.
The Best Sunburn Treatments
- George’s Always Active Aloe Vera Gel -
- Farmaesthetics Cool Aloe Mist -
Best for Mild Burns
- Aquanil HC Lotion -
Best for Itchiness
- Aveeno Soothing Bath Treatment -
Best for Whole-Body Treatment
- Kiss My Face Olive and Aloe Moisturizing Lotion Spray -
Best for Dryness
It happens to everyone: You come home from a day at the beach or a company softball game with your skin a harsh, painful red. Once you’ve got a sunburn, the damage is done. Nothing can reverse it. But the best sunburn treatment can provide temporary relief from the burning, stinging itchiness while your body heals.
Our top choice is George’s Aloe Gel, which includes 99 percent aloe vera — Mother Nature’s miracle ingredient for soothing inflamed skin. George’s had the highest percentage of aloe that we could find and provided a more longer-lasting chill during hands-on testing than our other finalists. The same product is also available as a spray — more convenient to apply, but not quite as long-lasting. Both retail for about $6.
If you want to explore your options, there are a few other finalists we also loved: For mild burns, try Farmaesthetics Cool Aloe Mist, which has a pleasant lavender scent and uses a witch hazel/aloe combo to cool skin. For battling post-sunburn itchiness, we’d suggest Aveeno Soothing Bath Treatment, which uses the natural properties of colloidal oatmeal to ease inflammation. Lastly, Kiss My Face Olive and Aloe Moisturizing Lotion Spray was our favorite of all the lotions we tested — aloe doesn’t feature prominently on its ingredient list, but it’s a good option if you’re past the worst of your burn but still battling dry, flaky skin.
What Really Happens When You Get a Sunburn?
We’ll dive into how we found our top picks momentarily. But first, it’s important to understand what’s actually happening to your body when you get a sunburn.
Sunburns occur when your skin is exposed to the sun’s UV (ultraviolet) radiation for too long. This overexposure damages skin cells and causes your blood vessels to dilate, increasing blood flow to the skin as your body attempts to repair the damage. The increased blood flow leads to the redness and sensation of heat that you probably associate with a sunburn.
Once the damage is done, there’s little you can do to reverse it: Sunburn remedies can’t actually make your sunburn go away (which is why slathering on the sunscreen is so important). “There is no sunburn treatment as of this date that is clinically proven to speed up recovery time,” says Dr. Tracy Evans, a board-certified dermatologist. “Over-the-counter sunburn treatments are just meant to provide relief from pain.” Our top remedies soothe and protect damaged skin while minimizing pain as the body heals itself.
How We Found the Best Sunburn Treatment
We began by pulling all the sunburn treatments we could find from drugstores like Walgreens, plus beauty and skincare retailers like Ulta and DermStore. This gave us a starting list of 69 products in a variety of forms: lotions, sprays, gels, serums — and one bath treatment.
We cut anything with heat-trapping petroleum.
Petroleum shows up in lots of skincare products, from plain old Vaseline to high-end eye creams. In all of these products, it acts as an occlusive: It keeps moisture trapped within the skin barrier. But this same ability to seal off the skin makes it a terrible addition to a sunburn treatment. “Because petroleum-based products act as an occlusive, they can also trap heat,” says Dr. Evans. “This causes discomfort as the heat builds.” Essentially, petroleum makes your sunburn feel worse.
Petroleum-based ingredients appear under a whole slew of names: polyethylene glycol, PEG-20, PEG-60, and a host of others PEGs and glycols. Dermatologist Dr. Khalil Khatri recommended steering clear of the entire category. “It’s better to just avoid ALL petroleum-based products,” he told us.
We nixed numbing agents, which can make your skin feel worse.
Ingredients in the “-caine” family, such as benzocaine and lidocaine, occasionally show up in sunburn treatments. On the surface, they sound like a good addition: They act as mild anesthetics, helping alleviate pain. But we learned that once their numbing effect wears off, you can be left with severely irritated skin.
“Although a local numbing agent sounds like a great treatment for a painful burn, it can cause an adverse reaction,” says Sydney Ziverts, health and nutrition investigator at ConsumerSafety.org. Dr. Evans agrees: “Products with lidocaine and benzocaine can actually cause more irritation on the surface of the skin, overall making your reaction worse.” The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) also recommends avoiding any sunburn treatment with these ingredients.
And we avoided a number of other common skin irritants.
Since sunburn treatments are being applied to skin that’s already raw and tender, we doubled down on potential irritants, nixing three more questionable ingredients:
- Triethanolamine is a thickening agent found in some gels, which the Journal of Toxicity found was only safe for "discontinuous, brief use followed by thorough rinsing."
- Methylisothiazolinone is a preservative that was named “Allergen of the Year” in 2013 by the American Contact Dermatitis Society — not exactly a ringing endorsement.
- Synthetic fragrance is another common skin irritant, especially in personal care products that won’t be rinsed off — like the lotions, gels, and sprays common to sunburn treatment.
Then we looked for ingredients with the power to soothe.
The star player in most sunburn treatments is an ingredient you’re likely familiar with: aloe vera. The extracted distillate of this spiky, unassuming plant is something that most of our choices featured. Aloe contains a number of active compounds that reduce pain and inflammation and might even stimulate skin growth and repair (though the science is still shaky on this).
“What really sticks out to me is that the vitamins found in aloe vera, vitamins A (beta-carotene), C, and E, are antioxidants, which naturally neutralize the free radicals from a sunburn.”
This powerhouse plant also contains enzymes like amylase, catalase, and lipase, which further reduce inflammation, as well as salicylic acid — an anti-inflammatory and antibacterial. All of these ingredients make aloe vera the complete package: a tried-and-true herbal remedy with clinical research backing its efficacy.
That said, we also considered finalists with other ingredients, like chamomile, colloidal oatmeal, and hydrocortisone cream, which don’t pack quite the punch of aloe but still possess the power to soothe inflamed skin.
But a couple of our contenders lacked any of these ingredients — most notably Avene Thermal Spring Water, which markets itself as a way to soothe redness and itching but whose ingredient list contained nothing but water and nitrogen — neither likely to do much against sunburn pain. Needless to say, we cut these products from the running.
Then we rolled up our sleeves for some hands-on testing, taking a close look at the following qualities:
- Did any of the products have an off-putting odor? A few of our contenders, such as Boiron Homeopathic Medicine Calendula First Aid Lotion for Sunburn and Irritated Skin, had scents that were overly medicinal or unpleasant. “Smells like old tobacco,” one tester complained about Boiron.
- Were they easy to use? We had a hard time getting Blue Badger’s canister open, while Emuaid First Aid Ointment was so greasy that we had to wash our hands every time we applied it — a pain if you’re reapplying constantly. We favored products that could be applied with a single spray or non-oily swipe of your hand.
- How did they feel once applied? We looked for products that felt immediately cooling upon application. Sprays and gels were the frontrunners here, with lotions generally not as effective.
- Were they unpleasantly greasy or sticky? The biggest offender in this category was Emuaid First Aid Ointment, which left a thick, oily residue that we could still feel on our skin several hours after application. A couple of sprays — California Baby Aloe and Amica Soothing Spray — were soothing, but felt unpleasantly tacky after an hour.
Our Picks for Best Sunburn Treatment
We learned the hard way that most “100% aloe” gels don’t live up to their hype. Consider Ocean Potion’s 100% Pure Aloe Vera Gel, which has a whopping 12 ingredients — including artificial fragrance and artificial dyes — or Fruit of the Earth Aloe Vera 100% Gel, which has seven ingredients, including the skin irritant triethanolamine.
George’s Aloe Gel was a breath of fresh air. It’s as close as you can get to keeping an actual aloe plant on your windowsill — and a lot more convenient. The gel is 99 percent aloe, and the only other ingredients are a small amount of a thickener, sodium carbomer, and the antifungal agent methylparaben as a preservative.
Keep your cool: Refrigerate your gel Dermatologist Dr. Jerome Potozkin suggests chilling your chosen sunburn treatment in the fridge before using. “I think refrigerated gels can be very soothing,” he told us. After trying it out, we agree. Chilled aloe vera feels wonderful on tender skin.
The scentless, clear gel has a consistency similar to jelly and spread easily on our skin, providing an immediate cooling sensation. On first application, it’s a little stickier than our spray finalists, but once absorbed, it leaves no residue behind. We found the gel’s cooling effect lasted for about half an hour — longer than our other finalists — and there’s no limit to how often you can apply, so if your sunburn is painful, keep slathering it on. George’s Aloe Gel was also one of our least-expensive options, with a 3-ounce tube retailing for about $6.
George’s is available as a spray, as well, which also retails for $6 and contains nothing but aloe. The spray nozzle has a fairly wide radius, which makes it awkward for the spot treatment of, say, your ears or nose. It also dissipates more quickly than the gel. But it’s a soothing way to treat minor burns on broad expanses of your body, like your back or legs.
Others to Consider
This spray is a luxury option, at $26 for 4 ounces, but it’s a delightful way to soothe minor burns. The all-natural ingredient list is simple: witch hazel — an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant that’s almost as good for your skin as aloe — plus aloe vera juice, lavender oil, lecithin (a skin conditioner), and bergamot oil. Farmaesthetics dries almost immediately upon application, providing an intense, lavender-scented burst of coolness that lasts for about 15 minutes.
We appreciated Farmaesthetic’s short, all-natural ingredient list.
If you’re a few days into your sunburn care and the acute pain has been replaced by an intense need to scratch at peeling skin, Aquanil can help. It’s the only one of our finalists to contain hydrocortisone, a topical steroid that battles inflammation and itch. The manufacturer notes that it’s also good for treating bug bites, poison ivy, and eczema. One tester was so impressed by its anti-itch performance that she continued to use it on her bug bites over the course of a weekend. It’s a very light lotion that goes on easily and absorbs quickly, though it doesn’t provide the cooling sensation that you get from aloe-based products. Note that Aquanil is also on the pricey side, at $24.50 for 4 ounces.
Aquanil absorbs quickly and is less greasy than most of the other lotions we tried.
Aveeno gets our unqualified vote for “Most Soothing Bath Treatment Ever.” A tub full of lukewarm or cool water (hot will make your burn feel worse), plus a packet of this 100 percent oatmeal solution is heavenly, with testers reporting that it felt like bathing in cool silk. Colloidal oatmeal — oatmeal that has been ground into a very fine powder — is a natural ingredient that has been used to sooth irritated skin for decades. Don’t expect to find Quaker Oats-like flakes when you open the packet — colloidal oatmeal looks more like talcum powder. But its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties relieve itch and provide temporary relief from pain. A bath treatment is obviously less portable than a spray or gel, but if you’ve got a tub, and a half hour to relax, we’d highly recommend it. Eight packets for $6.
If you’re past the worst of your burn and looking for ways to moisturize skin that still feels dry and fragile, Kiss My Face is worth a look. This product goes on as a spray, and then becomes a light lotion once it hits your skin. It’s fragrance-free and, at under $10 for 6 ounces, reasonably priced. It’s also less greasy than most of the lotions we tried. The ingredients list does include aloe, but much lower on the ingredient list than our other aloe-based picks, which means the lotion only provides a mild cooling sensation. The spray nozzle is also difficult to operate, prone to spraying out at full force and then clogging with dried product.
The lotion itself is great, but Kiss My Face’s nozzle gets messy quickly and is prone to clogging.
Did You Know?
Aspirin and liquids should also be part of your treatment regimen.
Sunburn treatments are useful for managing symptoms, but they shouldn’t be your only method of attack. The Skin Cancer Foundation also recommends taking an over-the-counter, non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory medication, like ibuprofen or aspirin, and drinking extra liquids, especially water and sports drinks, to replenish electrolytes.
In a pinch, milk also helps.
Maybe it’s 2AM and your sunburn is killing you, but the stores are closed and your bottle of aloe spray is sitting empty on the shelf. One treatment option that may already be sitting in your fridge is milk. “Use milk and water compresses topically on the skin,” suggests board-certified dermatologist Dr. Neal Schultz. “Both go a long way toward relief; the evaporation of the milk and water causes a cooling sensation, and the protein in the milk buffers the irritated skin and makes it feel much better.”
Follow these tips to avoid making your symptoms worse.
Our experts also offered this practical advice:
- Wear loose clothing while you’re healing. Avoid leather, wool, or other heavy materials. Light cotton is your friend.
- Avoid showers. The pressure of the shower water can exacerbate the pain of the burn. This is a great excuse to soak in lukewarm or cool water. Afterward, carefully pat yourself dry (don’t rub).
- It’s best to leave blisters and flaking skin alone: No peeling or popping. “Doing so will increase the risk of bacteria getting into what is now essentially an open wound that may become infected,” says Ziverts. “If blisters pop on their own, apply a thin layer of antibiotic ointment.”
- Maybe it goes without saying, but we’ll say it anyway: Try to stay out of the sun while you’re healing. If you do go out, wear clothing to cover your burned areas.
If your symptoms are severe, see a doctor.
A severe case of sunburn can sometimes cross the line into sun poisoning. “There comes a point when your sunburn may require medical intervention; namely, if you have a fever over 101 degrees; if you have chills, nausea, vomiting, dizziness; or if your sunburn is actually getting worse after the first 12 hours,” says Dr. Schultz. “These are all signs that you need immediate attention.”