The only way to reverse a sunburn is to time-travel and put on more sunscreen, or retreat into the shade, or cover up your skin. Since we can’t (yet) disrupt the space-time continuum, you need an effective remedy for the stingy, then itchy, then peel-y burns received as punishment for exposing your skin to the sun’s UV rays for too long without proper protection.
Aloe is the go-to treatment when we’re lobster-red from a weekend at the beach. Many of us have used it for years and even keep plants in our homes. But how does aloe help treat sun damage? We asked dermatologists why this natural remedy is recommended over and over again.
How does aloe work for soothing a sunburn?
When you get a sunburn, your skin cells are genetically altered by the UV rays, which causes greater risk of cancer. Some cells also prematurely die, which results in peeling. What we see and feel is redness and heat from our blood vessels dilating to allow increased blood flow into the affected area for repairs, as blood carries immune cells to the damaged skin cells to protect against infection. “[Applying aloe] decreases inflammation [and] it decreases the amount of cell deaths you see,” says Dr. Clarissa Yang, the chief of dermatology at Tufts Medical Center in Boston. “It helps promote wound healing.”
If you use an aloe plant, the pulp from the plant leaves also provides a protective barrier that soothes skin, according to Dr. Joshua Zeichner, the director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. “Aloe has a high water content and is rich in polysaccharides, or water-binding agents, and vitamins that hydrate and calm the skin,” he says.
Additionally, aloe’s antioxidant phytosterols (compounds found in plant cells) also can help neutralize free radicals, which are atoms missing electrons that studies show may cause premature aging in the skin. Free-radical damage can look like dark spots or broken blood vessels on the skin and can come from sun exposure.
What can aloe not do for sun-damaged skin?
Aloe relieves the discomfort from sunburn and promotes healing, but it does not decrease the skin-cancer risks associated with having gotten the burn in the first place.
Aloe is also not an instant fix, even if it does provide immediate relief with the cooling sensation it brings to the skin. You likely won’t see or feel any difference in the skin’s color or tenderness immediately after application. If the burn is particularly bad, you may still get a scar, despite treating with aloe.
What other treatments can relieve sunburn?
If you don’t have aloe or want to try another selfcare method, Zeichner recommends using a light, hydrating lotion, such as the Aveeno Sheer Hydration Lotion, or other products that contain colloidal oatmeal. Lotions, he says, are easy to apply over a large surface area and they’ll absorb into and hydrate the inflamed skin. Colloidal oatmeal, which can be found in lotions or bath soaks (sitting in a cool tub may also feel nice), contains sugars that protect the skin and avenanthramides, which are antioxidants that reduce inflammation. “I do not recommend using a heavy ointment, as it can interfere with heat being released from the skin,” Zeichner says.
Yang says her top sunburn-relief recommendation is aloe because it is the most widely accepted and accessible treatment for most people. But if not aloe, she trusts Avéne’s Cicalfate Restorative Skin Cream, which uses micronized copper and zinc and claims to “shield your skin from damage while accelerating circulation and healing.” In general, she recommends products with high copper and zinc content. These two metals have been shown “to affect the tissue repair process and decrease healing time” because they serve as enzyme cofactors (substances that increase the rate of chemical reaction) and structural components for tissue repair, Yang says.
Sunburn treatments to try
The best way to get aloe is directly from the plant leaves because the pulp will not be diluted or removed, as may be the case with some commercial gels and creams. If you don’t have an aloe plant, Yang suggests looking for gels labeled “100% aloe vera gel.”
Get the Seven Minerals Organic Aloe Vera Gel on Amazon for $18.95
Get the AvéneCicalfate Restorative Skin Cream on Dermstore for $28
Get the Aveeno Soothing Bath Treatment with 100% Natural Colloidal Oatmeal on Amazon for $6.53
Get the Aveeno Sheer Hydration Daily Moisturizing Lotion on Amazon for $8.77
Prices are accurate at the time this article was published, but may change over time.