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Common Sunburn Treatment Myths Debunked

There are a lot of myths out there about tanning and sun exposure. By now everyone knows there's no such thing as a "healthy tan," but there are still some common misconceptions about how to properly treat a sunburn--and we've heard some doozies.
Photo: Kim Kardashian twitter

Photo: Kim Kardashian twitter

There are a lot of myths out there about tanning and sun exposure. By now everyone knows there's no such thing as a "healthy tan," but there are still some misconceptions about how to properly treat a sunburn--and we've heard some doozies.

So if you forget your sunscreen and fry yourself (which you should really never do!), how should you treat it?

First, let's back up. Before we can talk about treating a sunburn, it's important to understand what's going on with your skin when it gets burned. Ultraviolet radiation from the sun damages molecules in the skin and your DNA, causing the blood vessels in the skin to dilate. This then triggers an inflammatory reaction that causes the familiar redness, swelling, and blistering, according to Dr. Debra Jaliman, dermatologist and author of Skin Rules: Trade Secrets from a Top New York Dermatologist.

There is no way to cure a sunburn--once the damage is done, it's done. However, you can (and should) treat the unpleasant symptoms caused by the inflammation, and this is where people start getting a little kooky with the treatments. We asked dermatologists to weigh in on some of them, as well as shed some (non-UV) light on how you should really treat a burn. Click through for some sunburn insight.

Photo: iStock

Photo: iStock

True or False? You should put sunscreen on your sunburn the night you burn yourself because it will stop further damage from occurring:

I saw this advice floating around in my Facebook feed and was confused. The thinking here is that your skin still burns (kind of like a steak still cooks after you take it off the grill) so therefore sunscreen will still help even after you come inside.

Dr. Jaliman noted that if the sunscreen contains zinc oxide, a known anti-inflammatory, it could help with the swelling. "But other chemical sunscreens would be more irritating to a sunburn," Jaliman said. NYC-based dermatologist Dr. Heidi Waldorf said, "Sunscreen at night won't do anything other than act as a moisturizer."

The Verdict: Skip it. There are better treatment options, and it does nothing to prevent further damage. Read on!

Photo: iStock

Photo: iStock

True or False? Apply vinegar compresses to a sunburn:

Vinegar has some anti-bacterial effects, but how exactly does this apply to sunburn? If you have pustular (ie draining gooey stuff) blisters, vinegar soaks can help dry them out and prevent infections. However, (and I'm paraphrasing here) it can potentially burn like a motherf*cker--vinegar is an acid, after all.

If you're dead set on vinegar, Dr. Jaliman recommends diluting it with water in a 1:1 ratio. Dr. Waldorf has an alternative and much more pleasant sounding solution, which will also appeal to you natural, DIY'ers out there: Use milk compresses.

The Verdict: Sounds horrible to us, but there is some science to back it up.

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True or False? Noxzema and other mentholated "cooling" products help:

Was my mom on to something when she slathered us with Noxzema after we got a sunburn? Yep.

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"Noxzema, a name based on 'no eczema,' is a bland moisturizer from the days when there weren't many to choose from," Dr. Waldorf said. It also contains camphor, menthol, and eucalyptus. "The menthol is soothing and the camphor is a mild pain reliever," Dr. Jaliman added.

The verdict: My mom is so smart. But there are still better options out there now. (Yep, keep reading!)

Photo: iStock

Photo: iStock

True or False? Aloe vera is awesome for sunburns:

Ooh, this is a tricky one! Both docs agree that aloe vera is a proven anti-inflammatory. However, there are a few caveats.

If you want to apply it directly from the plant, test out a patch of skin first--Dr. Waldorf said aloe allergies are common. Then put a bland moisturizer on top of it. If you're buying a commercial product, avoid gel formulations or those containing alcohol--it will sting and dry out your skin.

The verdict: Aloe vera works, but read the label and use sparingly until you see if your skin can handle it.

Now for the derms' recommendations for idiot-proof sunburn recovery...

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Dermatologist Approved Sunburn Treatment Recommendations:

• Take an anti-inflammatory medication like aspirin or ibuprofen (also known as Advil and Motrin).

• Rub in a topical anti-inflammatory like 1% hydrocortisone cream as soon as possible "to curtail the inflammatory cascade," recommends Dr. Waldorf.

• Apply cool compresses of water or water plus milk to soothe and further decrease inflammation.

• DO NOT PICK AT BLISTERS OR PEELING SKIN! (Yeah, that's a hard one for us, too.) You could get an infection, scars, or uneven pigmentation, according to Dr. Jaliman. Not cute.

• Apply a bland moisturizer (and leave it in the fridge so it's cool when you apply). You don't need any fancy post-sun beauty products--stick with the basics. Dr. Waldorf likes Avene Trixera Emollient Cream, Eucerin Cream, Cerave Moisturizing Cream, or Aveeno. An Aveeno Oatmeal Bath (cool water!) will also be soothing.

• Next time... wear sunscreen!