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Beat the Burn

An hour-by-hour guide to help you recover from a little too much fun in the sun

You wanted a bit of color, but you left your sunscreen in your other bag. Now you're burned. And it's only going to get worse. "The UV rays in sunlight can have an immediate and a delayed effect on skin," says Ronald Davis, Ph.D., a professor of dermatology at Tulane University. In other words, get out of the sun and start repairing your raw and battered flesh as soon as possible. Here's what to do:

THE MOMENT YOU NOTICE THE REDNESS

  • Put on some protective clothing, and beg/borrow/steal a squirt of sunblock. Even if you're already fried, additional SPF can prevent further damage. For severe burns leading to a blistering, nausea, or extreme shivering, call a doctor immediately. He or she may prescribe one of several oral steroids. "If taken soon enough, they can abort a very serious burn," says David Kriegel, M.D., clinical director of the Manhattan Center for Dermatology.
  • Try a compress — a piece of cloth dampened with ice-cold water and held directly to the skin. Try applying one 15 minutes on, 15 minutes off, for the first four hours.

WHEN YOU GET TO YOUR CAR

  • Head for the drugstore. You're looking for a topical cortisone spray or cream (hydrocortisone 1% is available without a prescription) or a plain, fragrance-free lotion, which you should then apply liberally to the burn. "Putting them in the fridge so they are cool before applying will help to further reduce soreness, says David McDaniel, M.D., assistant professor of clinical dermatology at Eastern Virginia Medical School.
  • Grab your phone and call your primary doctor or dermatologist, especially if the burn is severe. Kriegel recommends asking for a "highly effective" mix of indomethacin, absolute ethanol, and propylene glycol.

ONCE YOU GET HOME

  • Plop yourself in front of an air conditioner. Heat accentuates the injury, so getting cooler may lessen the burn's severity. "A cool shower can also help," says McDaniel. Just be sure to dab your skin dry, rather than inflaming it further with a towel.
  • Smear on some aloe. This plant extract is not only antibacterial but also contains lubricants that speed up the healing process. Keep applying every few hours for the next few days.

  • Drink water like crazy. You're at a higher risk of dehydration, and your body's fluids need replacing. But steer clear of alcohol, which causes vasodilation — opening up blood vessels that may accentuate that burning sensation.

BEFORE BED

  • Lessen the pain. "An anti-inflammatory such as ibuprofen is ideal," says McDaniel. Regular aspirin or baby aspirin work too."
  • Take a bath. Toss some oatmeal in a bathtub filled with cool water. This high-fiber muscle food has potent anti-itching properties. (the only catch? You need oats ground to a powder — called colloidal oatmeal. Aveeno makes one good option; look for it in the bath section of most drugstores).

  • Get comfortable. Put on your loosest sleepwear and consider popping a Benadryl. It won't help the sunburn, but McDaniel says it may help you sleep, which can be especially tough when your whole body hurts.

STAY BURN-FREE

  • Stock up on protection (obviously). Look for a sunblock with an SPF 15 or higher, making sure it covers both UVA and UVB rays. Put your sunscreen on 30 minutes before going outside and reapply every two hours. In addition, you may also want to start taking a few oral antioxidants (or loading up on brightly colored fruits and vegetables), especially in the week or so leading up to a trip top the beach. "Anti-oxidants like lycopene and phloretin — along with vitamins like C and E — appear to help the skin naturally handle more sun," says McDaniel. Think of them not so much as a substitute for sunscreen, he says, but as more tools for keeping burns at bay.

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