A woman with sunburn.

recent study published in the journal JAMA Dermatology found something concerning: About a third of adults living in the U.S. are getting sunburned each year. And according to another study, published in the same journal, sunburn caused an estimated 33,826 visits to emergency rooms in the U.S. in 2013, costing an associated $11.2 million.

These stats are worrisome, experts say, considering sunburn is a major risk factor for skin cancer.

In an ideal world, we’d all use sunscreen properly every time we venture outdoors, cover up with a hat and other sun-protective clothing, seek shade—and never ever experience a sunburn. “It’s true that the best way to treat a sunburn is to prevent it from happening in the first place,” says Joshua Zeichner, M.D., director of cosmetic and clinical research at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. “But in real life, accidents happen.” 

More on Sun Safety

Maybe you forgot to reapply it during a long day at the beach, didn’t realize you needed sunscreen on a cloudy day, or the friend you asked to do your back missed some spots.

No matter the reason for the lapse; your skin is now red, hot, swollen and sore, and you need relief. While there’s nothing that can undo the damage, there are steps you can take to make the sunburn look and feel a bit better while it heals.  

Take a Cool Shower or Bath

Cool or lukewarm water will help take some of the heat out of your burned skin. “But avoid cold water, which could cause someone with a bad burn to get the chills,” says Jessica Krant, M.D., a dermatologist in private practice in New York City and a member of Consumer Reports’ medical advisory board. Adding colloidal oatmeal to your bath will coat and soothe the skin, improve hydration, and calm inflammation.

Slather on Some Soothing Lotion

As soon as you get out of the shower or bath (while your skin is still damp) liberally apply moisturizer. Krant recommends using one that contains hyaluronic acid, an ingredient that helps bind water to the skin. Aloe vera in a moisturizer can be very soothing. If you have an aloe plant handy, breaking open a leaf and applying the pulp to your skin will moisturize and calm it.  

Avoid using after-sun sprays, such as those containing benzocaine or other anesthetics. While they might offer instant pain relief, some people are allergic to their active ingredients, which could make things worse. The same goes for vitamin creams and oils, such as vitamin E oil. An allergy might inflame the skin more, and they won't help much anyway.

Also, don't use Vaseline or other petroleum jelly products, because they won’t cool you down.

Pop an Anti-Inflammatory

“Getting burned inflames the skin and can be painful,” says Krant. “You can take aspirin or ibuprofen to reduce swelling and help alleviate any discomfort.”  

Drink Up

Your body is working hard to cool off, so staying hydrated can help. Stick with water, and drink more than you usually do. 

Try Some Remedies From the Refrigerator

Spreading a thin layer of cold plain yogurt over your skin will soothe it and take away some heat, and it will act as a mild anti-inflammatory. (It can be messy, though, so you could do it while lying in an empty tub, then rinse it off.) Zeichner also suggests making a cold compress to apply to burned skin. Mix skim milk with an egg white and some ice. Soak a washcloth in the mixture and apply it to skin. “The proteins in the milk and egg coat the surface of the skin to calm the burn,” he says.  

Don't Peel!

If your skin does blister, resist the urge to pop or peel them. “The roof of the blister is like a dressing over the open skin, which prevents bacteria from getting inside,” says Zeichner. Opening them will increase your risk of infection. If any blisters do pop, be sure to apply an over-the-counter antibiotic ointment (like Bacitracin) to the affected skin.

Be Extra Careful in the Sun

Having a sunburn means skin is already damaged, inflamed, and at higher risk for more damage if you expose it UV rays. Stay in the shade or indoors as much as possible until skin heals. If you must be in the sun, wear clothing that covers the burned areas. 

See a Doctor If It's Severe

“If you have a widespread burn or blisters, you may have a severe burn that should be treated by your doctor,” says Zeichner. He also advises seeking immediate medical help if you also feel systemically unwell—chills, fever, or nausea.