Mistakes That Will Make Your Sunburn Worse

Mistakes That Will Make Your Sunburn Worse

Summer is reaching its peak – and lockdowns easing – which means plenty of fun, days out with friends and sun… or sunburn, in some cases. The sun itself, of course, is somewhat of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, sunlight is believed to help elevate your mood by boosting serotonin. Plus, the ultraviolet-B (UVB) radiation in small amounts can help your skin to create vitamin D. For those with skin conditions, it can even help to reduce flare-ups in health concerns such as psoriasis and eczema.

However, like all good things, sunlight needs to be enjoyed in moderation. Not to mention alongside plenty of protection from the harmful ultraviolet-A (UVA) and UVB rays. Sometimes, even when we’re careful, we can still receive some nasty burns.

Dr Anna Chacon, a board-certified dermatologist, says ‘The most common signs and symptoms I see are individuals who love boating or water sports.” This includes those who have been applying sunscreen. However, they still spend too much time in the water. In these cases, the cooling effects of both the water and the sea breeze can lead people to forget about the harmful rays.

sunburn mistakes

Even those of us who aren’t regularly out on the water are susceptible. And anyone can burn – regardless of skin colour or type. Worse still, with many “life hacks” out there, claiming to solve the issue, many may be unknowingly causing the burns to worsen, or take longer to heal. Here are some of the common mistakes people make, after burning. As well as what you should consider, instead.

Using Your Phone When Suffering with Sunburn

We’re a nation of people that loves our screentime. But, one recent study into the effects of screens on our health has shown a significant increase in exposure to UV rays. In the study, this is due to the increase in screentime. Therefore, when you’re already suffering from sunburn there’s a risk of increasing this damage. Yes, just by looking at your phone. Particularly across the bridge of your nose and cheeks, which are some of the most common areas to burn.

how to help sun burn
Photo by Life Of Pix

Of course, nobody expects anyone to put their phone down for the entire duration of their healing time. Instead, it’s important to minimise exposure to your phone. This is especially true if your eyes have become damaged by sunlight. According to Fabrizio Galimberti, a dermatology consultant for game company Level Ex., ‘people often forget about their eyes. Your cornea is a specialized form of “skin” and can get sunburned as well. Skin cancers can develop on your cornea if exposed to a lot of UV damage over the years.’ So be sure to wear your sunglasses!

Some Dermatology Treatments

As if life wasn’t stressful enough for those of us with skin conditions, there have been studies in the past which may indicate that some dermatology treatments for dermatitis can make sunburns worse. Sun exposure itself is already understood to make some cases of dermatitis and eczema worse. So, this exacerbation can come as a real blow to people who need to ease the pain of their burns.

With many sun creams and lotions, those with skin conditions may find that their skin gets worse. Often becoming more swollen, painful or itchy. Indeed, there are many brands out there who create products, without realising just how common skin conditions are. Many include ingredients that not only make your skin react to their products – but also cause the skin to become more sensitive to sunlight.

managing skin after a burn
Photo by Jill Wellington

However, that doesn’t mean you need to forego the protection entirely. Instead, using mineral-based lotions and creams – such as those with Titanium Dioxide (TiO2) and Zinc Oxide (ZnO), for example. You should also avoid alcohol-based sunscreens. As these can strip your skin of moisture and increase the risk of inflammation and itching.

Certain Medications and Sunburn

According to the FDA, there are some medications that increase phototoxicity (skin irritation) and photoallergy (an allergic reaction in the skin), both of which come under photosensitivity (vulnerability to sunlight). Some of the most common perpetrators are antibiotics. While others include cholesterol-lowering drugs, such as simvastatin (Zocor) or atorvastatin (Lipitor), and antihistamines. The latter, of course, means that those who suffer from hayfever in the summer may be in for quite a shock. Nobody wants to choose between fighting pollen and fighting sunlight, since it’s a lose-lose situation.

eyes can be sensitive after exposure to the sun

Because antibiotics increase the risk of photosensitivity and phototoxicity, sunburn can get worse for a few days after exposure to the sun. Meanwhile, antihistamines can reduce your ability to sweat, which means your skin can’t cool down as quickly as it usually will, worsening the effects of sunburn. Of course, this doesn’t mean you should stop taking your medication. Instead, focus on reducing your sun exposure. This can be done by staying in the shade during the hottest times of the day and using good quality sunscreen lotion.

Low Quality Sunscreens

As mentioned earlier, suncreams and lotions are not made equal. Sadly, many of the creams on the market, who advertise themselves as being safe for use, only offer the most basic of protection. Which doesn’t always include UVA/UVB rays. Interestingly, this doesn’t always equate to the price you pay. Especially as some of the cheaper options may include the right ingredients. Meanwhile, high-end lotions may focus more on additional beauty ingredients.

As such, it is important to check the ingredients, as well as some of the basic components of your suncream, before you buy. This way, you can be sure that the sunscreen you buy will protect you and your loved ones, before your skin is exposed to harmful UVA/UVB rays. This is especially true if you’re already a little sunburnt and have some redness, but still need to leave the shade for any reason.

caring for skin after sunburn

Instead, look for a sunscreen lotion that includes ingredients such as Mexoryl, which blocks UVA rays. If you look for this in combination with avobenzone, the two stabilize and enhance the effectiveness of each other. A similar effect is created when avobenzone is combined with octinoxate. However, some recent studies suggest that this ingredient may be harmful to the environment and increase photosensitivity.

Meanwhile, titanium and zinc oxide are commonly understood to be two of the safest and most effective formulations. They also come with the added bonus of being suitable for use with sensitive skin. Mostly due to its ability to provide an effective barrier to the sun, while still being gentle on the skin.

Perfumes and Scented Products

As much as we all love the smells of summer, and those summery scents that can lift our spirits, some perfumes and scented products can exacerbate sunburn. In particular, “lifehacks” posted on popular social media site Pinterest have been shown to advertise potentially dangerous homemade sunscreens. Many of which use essential oils for scents.

The main reason why these products are so bad for sunburn comes down to two, main contributing factors. Firstly, some perfumes use alcohol, which increases the dryness of the skin and doesn’t allow it to heal properly. And, as we know, moisturizing your skin is essential to healing burns. Secondly, when your skin is stripped of this essential moisture, it takes longer to heal. Not to mention it doesn’t heal as well as it normally would.

sunburn and skin conditions

Secondly, the oils used can have a major effect on the quality of the SPF of the product. Therefore, they may worsen sunburn. According to one study, olive and coconut oil are among the most dangerous, while rose oil is the least likely to increase the risk of sunburn. Dr Purvisha Patel, of Advanced Dermatology, states that “coconut oil, essentially, can heat up as well as the skin and the burn could get deeper than it was beforehand.”

Moisturisers Sold As Having SPF Protection

With so many cosmetic companies advertising their products as offering sun protection (SPF), it’s no wonder that so many believe they’re protected through their makeup. Sadly, however, this is not the case. In reality, relying solely on moisturizers to provide any protection can be a recipe for disaster. Especially if those moisturizers use any of the ingredients given above, such as coconut oil or essential oils.

In one study, researchers compared images taken by UV-sensitive cameras, after participants spent one day using sunscreen. While comparing this to those who spent one day wearing SPF moisturizer. The results of this study show a clear difference in application and effectiveness.

protect your skin from the sun
Photo by Abhiram Prakash 

In other words, those who use moisturizers are less likely to spread the product across the area evenly. At the same time, they were also missing out on some of the most essential, sensitive areas of the face, such as the eyelids. Indeed, nearly 21% of participants missed this area when using moisturizer, when compared to 14% with sunscreen.

The Clothes You Wear

Of all the things we do to our skin, wearing tight clothes has to be one of the most painful. As well as coming with a wide range of general benefits, such as greater freedom of movement, wearing loose-fitting clothes gives your skin the chance to breathe. Never is this more important than when the skin is working to heal a wound – including sunburn.

The increased friction that comes with wearing tight-fitting or ill-fitting clothes can make sunburns worse, overall. This is because tight clothes will be continually rubbing against the damaged skin, therefore making the irritation worse. Plus, looser clothes will also allow the excess heat to leave the burn site. All while simultaneously protecting your skin from further burns.

clothing and skincare
Photo by Abhiram Prakash

While we’re on the subject of clothing – did you know that some colours reflect harmful rays better than others? One study found that the colour of clothing worn can have a major effect on the UVA/B protection provided. The results of the study revealed that deep blue and red offered the most protection, while yellow offered some of the least.

Using Makeup To Cover Sunburn

As well as struggling to provide the same level of protection against the sun, makeup is now increasingly being used to cover up a sunburn. While sunburn across the face may appear unsightly for a few days, using makeup can worsen the damage caused and stop your skin from healing properly.

Photo by Julian Jagtenberg from Pexels

Makeup can clog pores, which stops your skin from producing oil to keep your skin hydrated, as well as potentially irritating your skin. This is especially true if you have blisters from your burns, as applying makeup could lead to infection.

In the same way, you should never rely on exposing your skin to harmful rays, in order to enhance your beauty. “The social media hack of applying sunscreen on the areas of your face you want to look more highlighted (i.e. cheekbones, nasal dorsum) and leaving the other areas of your face to tan without sun protection is dangerous.” Dr Fabrizio Galimberti states, adding “You are just putting yourself at risk of developing skin cancer and premature aging.”

Delaying The Application Of After-Sun And Healing Ointments

Since sunburn can continue to get worse, long after you’ve actually left the sunshine, after-sun is one of the most fundamental aspects of caring for your skin. A recent dermatological study into the effects of delaying the application of after-sun has found there is some difference in the damage caused, between those who do use after-sun and those who delated its usage.

Not only do these products feel cooling on the skin. But, after a long day of UVA/UVB exposure, they’re also packed with nourishing and moisturizing ingredients to help the skin to heal and recuperate. As such, everyone should use this, regardless of whether their skin looks burned or not.

caring for sunburns
Photo by Garon Piceli 

“Sometimes patients experience warmth to their skin before any redness or blistering develops. This is a symptom that is often overlooked and patients may decide to stay out in the sun for longer. Because they have not developed a so-called “sunburn” yet.” Galimberti says, “However, if your skin is warm or hot to the touch, that means UV radiation is actively causing skin damage. And this may be the first symptom of a sunburn.”


As sore and sensitive as sunburn can be, one thing is sure to make it worse. The overpowering need to scratch at your burns, also dubbed “Hell’s itch” refers to a painful itchiness that can appear a few days after the initial exposure to harmful rays. This usually appears in areas that are most prone to sun exposure. In other words, the shoulders, neck, chest, across the face and the backs of the arms.

Of course, scratching increases the risk of a whole host of additional problems, alongside the sunburn itself. Particularly, if you’re already suffering from blistering or cracked skin due to the burns. As well as increasing the heat of your skin due to the friction of scratching, you’re also more likely to get an infection due to wounds opening.

treatments for sunburn
Photo by Victor Freitas 

If you are struggling with this itchiness and desperately need relief, then help is at hand. Dr Emmanuel Loucas, Director of SINY in New York and Water’s Edge Dermatology, suggests “Taking cool baths or applying cloths soaked in ice water can help to reduce swelling, inflammation, and pain. In addition, I also suggest taking aspirin, unless contraindicated, or other oral analgesics, such as ibuprofen that also help to reduce inflammation.”

Using over-the-counter numbing agents

As well as prescribed medications increasing overall photosensitivity, some over-the-counter numbing agents can make sunburns worse. The reasons can vary but relate back to our earlier comments regarding specific ingredients. Many of which make the skin increasingly sensitive to UVA/UVB rays. Meanwhile, others – such as benzocaine – can cause further irritation to the skin.

Instead, Dr Hadley King, a dermatologist in NYC, suggests using a moisturizer that contains aloe vera or soy to help soothe the burn. As well as a 1% hydrocortisone cream for areas that feel particularly uncomfortable.  She adds her own little lifehack, in which to help those with tight, dry skin. Adding that sufferers should “use a washcloth soaked in cold low-fat milk for 15 minutes at a time.”

use the right sunscreen for your sunburns
Photo by Moose Photos

The fat content of milk cleanses and moisturizes. But can also hold in heat. So, switch to full-fat milk as the active phase of the sunburn resolves and the dry and peeling phase begins.  The enzymes provide gentle exfoliation and the proteins, vitamins, and minerals are anti-inflammatory.

Applying sunscreen over sunburn

This one may seem a little counter-intuitive but bear with us. The main issues with applying sunscreen over sunburn are two-fold. First and foremost, applying your lotion after a significant burn has occurred may leave people with a false sense of security. In other words, once applied, many feel that they’re safe enough to continue sunbathing or exploring, without additional protection. However, all creams and lotions are designed to only block for a set amount of time.

how sunscreen can affect sunburns
Photo by Sarah Chai 

Indeed, the SPF given on these products doesn’t show strength, but rather how long it blocks the damage caused by the rays. So, a Factor 15 sunblock, when used properly, means it would take you 15 times longer to burn than if you used no sunscreen. On a particularly hot day, with high levels of radiation, that can still be very little time overall.

At the same time, your skin still needs to heal and many sunscreens and creams are comedogenic, meaning that they can clog your pores. When this happens, your pores aren’t able to produce oils that help to keep the burns moisturized and encourages healing.

Becoming Dehydrated Makes Sunburn Worse

At this point, you may notice that hydration and moisture levels are absolutely imperative to healing from sunburns and ensuring the burns don’t worsen. One retrospective case study highlights the importance of hydration in wound care and healing, it notes that “quick identification of signs and symptoms, followed by rapid cooling and re-hydration comprises treatment” is essential for effective treatment.

keep up hydration in the sun
Photo by Blue Bird 

So, as soon as you notice yourself becoming warm to the touch, that’s when you need to begin taking action. Keep drinking water throughout the day, while out in the sun. Afterwards, particularly in cases where sunburn is beginning to show, drink as much water as you can. For serious burns, one study dictates that “appropriate fluid management of major burns directly improves the survival rates of burn patients.” So you can see just how essential this simple action can make.

Citrus Fruits and Essential Oils

While still a relatively new revelation, it appears that – in some cases – individuals may suffer from increased photosensitivity after coming into contact with citrus fruits. One case study suggests that a phototoxic reaction occurred after the individual had some mojitos, while out with friends. This resulted in phytophotodermatitis – Phyto meaning “plant”, photo meaning “light” and dermatitis being a general term, used to describe irritation and inflammation of the skin.

things that make sunburn worse

It’s believed this is caused when the furanocoumarins present in fruit and veg such as limes, figs, celery, parsley, parsnips, and carrots, come into contact with skin. Namely, bergapten and psoralen. Limes, in particular, are very high in bergapten, which is a chemical often used in lotions to promote tanning. As such, you can imagine that this chemical increases the risks of burns. Similarly, chemicals found in some essential oils can also contribute to burns, according to the conference paper and studyThe Chemical Composition and Photosensitive Characteristics of Citrus Essential Oils’



Editor-in-chief, lover of UX/UI and copywriter by trade. Wendy can usually be found ranting to herself over on Twitter, educating herself about health and wellness, parenting or gaming. Luckily, she doesn't do all of these things at the same time - though you'd be surprised how often they cross over.

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