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.

The 4 Best Sunburn Treatments

Most Soothing
George's Always Active Aloe Vera Gel
George's Always Active Aloe Vera
A gel that's 99 percent aloe and provides immediate, cooling relief.
Pros
Almost entirely aloe
Easy apply and lasting effects
Affordable product line
Cons
Paraben ingredient

Why we chose it

Almost entirely aloe

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.

Easy apply and lasting effects

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.

Affordable product line

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.

Points to consider

Paraben ingredient

The last ingredient on George’s list is methylparaben. It functions to increase the shelf-life of the gel, but might be a dealbreaker for those looking for an organic product. While the amount relative to the entire recipe is less than one percent, we’d suggest Aveeno Soothing Bath Treatment if you’re looking for a one-ingredient alternative.

Best for Mild Burns
Farmaesthetics Cool Aloe Mist
Farmaesthetics
Less aloe than our top pick, but a luxurious lavender scent.
Pros
All-natural ingredients
Quick-dry
Cons
Expensive

Why we chose it

All-natural ingredients

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. This combination of ingredients will soothe the sunburn, refresh your skin, and relax the nerves.

Quick-dry

Farmaesthetics dries almost immediately upon application, providing an intense, lavender-scented burst of coolness that lasts for about 15 minutes. You won’t feel any stickiness or residue — and can continue about your day without worry about getting the product on your clothes. It’s gentle enough for infants and elderly too.

Points to consider

Expensive

Farmaesthetics Cool Aloe Mist is our most expensive pick for sunburn treatment. The spray is a luxury option, at $26 for 4 ounces. That’s nearly triple the cost of George’s Always Active Aloe Vera Gel. If you value its more comprehensive list of ingredients and soothing scent, though, it’s worth the investment.

Best for Itch-Relief
Aquanil HC Lotion
Aquanil
A hydrocortisone lotion that helps battle itchiness.
Pros
Anti-itch ingredients
Light application
Cons
Costly

Why we chose it

Anti-itch ingredients

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.

Light application

Aquanil is 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. If your symptoms are primarily heat-related, you may opt for another product. But if itchy skin that screams for a scratch is your current situation, this breezy application won’t weigh you down.

Points to consider

Costly

Note that Aquanil is also on the pricey side, at $24.50 for 4 ounces. Like Farmaesthetics, we think the cost is worth it if your main priority is targeted by this anti-itch formula. But if something more basic will cure you sunburn symptoms, George’s Aloe Gel is a much better value.

Best Whole-Body Treatment
Aveeno Soothing Bath Treatment
Aveeno
A soothing oatmeal bath that's great for widespread sunburns.
Pros
Whole-body soothing
Natural ingredients
Cons
Requires a bathtub

Why we chose it

Whole-body soothing

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. Your warm and burnt skin will feel soothed and emerge moisturized.

Natural ingredient

Colloidal oatmeal — oatmeal that has been ground into a very fine powder — is a natural ingredient that has been used to soothe 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. Plus, it’s the only ingredient in this product.

Points to consider

Requires a bathtub

This isn’t a treatment you’d want to pack camping or vacationing — baths can be hard to come by when you’re on-the-go. 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 — especially at eight packets for $6.

How to Treat Your Sunburn

Use aspirin and drink extra liquids

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.

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.

Don’t exacerbate your symptoms

Our skincare experts also offered this practical advice for avoiding additional irritation:

  • Wear loose clothing. Avoid leather, wool, or other heavy materials. Light cotton is your friend.
  • Take a bath, not a shower. 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).
  • 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.”
  • Try to stay out of the sun. If you do go out, wear clothing to cover your burned areas.

See a doctor for severe symptoms

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.”

Sunburn Treatment FAQs

What really happens 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.

Can you use milk to treat a sunburn?

In a pinch, yes. “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.”

How long does it take for sunburn to go away?

The length of your sunburn will depend on how severe it is. Typically, redness and tenderness will last three to five days for mild burns. Sunburn treatment will help ease symptoms but aren’t a cure for burnt skin.

The Best Sunburn Treatment: Summed Up

George’s Always Active Aloe Vera Gel
Farmaesthetics Cool Aloe Mist
Aquanil HC Lotion
Aveeno Soothing Bath Treatment
The best
Soothing aloe treatment
For mild burns
For itch-relief
Whole-body treatment
Price
$6
$26
$25
$7
Size
3 oz.
4 oz.
4 oz.
12 oz.
Active ingredient
Aloe vera
Aloe vera
Hydrocortisone
Colloidal oatmeal
Fragrance-free