When it comes to summertime, it’s pretty much inevitable that we’ll be spending some time under the sun. While, of course, it’s important to apply—and reapply, and reapply once again—an SPF before we head off to the beach or pool (or every day, for that matter), our skin may still be subject to some damage. It takes more than just preventative care to keep our skin healthy during the summer months.
We chatted with a few experts about how to best care for our body’s largest organ after a day of soaking up the sun’s rays—whether those rays blessed us with a slight tan or a gnarly case of sunburn.
First things first, what actually happens after we spend a day under the sun? Well, while we may be thinking we just got a bit more bronze, there’s actually a lot more going down. “The barrier function of the epidermis—or, the top layer—of the skin has been compromised and is, in effect, leaking moisture,” says Dr. Francesca Fusco of Wexler Dermatology. The more tan (or burned) the skin gets, the more hydration it loses.
When it comes to sunburn, the effects are more severe than we may think. While Fusco explains that mild sunburn can result in premature aging—effects that we won’t see until much later—the aftermath of more severe burns is much more serious. Aside from an increased risk of skin cancer, Melanie Palm, dermatologist and founder of Art Of Skin MD, explains, “Severe burns can cause dehydration, fever, and systemic symptoms that often require intravenous fluids, pain control, and care of blistering wounds—meaning it may require admittance into the hospital for observation and treatment.”
As long as we properly protect ourselves in the sun, we can avoid doing any serious damage. But, as stated earlier, our skin will still require a little bit of TLC afterward. Damage can take place hours after exposure, Dominique Caron, founder of Apoterra Skincare, explains. “A little-known fact is that free radicals continue to do damage hours after sun exposure, so applying after-sun products at night is a great idea.”
So, where to begin when it comes to giving ourselves a little post-sun love? Well, number one, it’s important to stay hydrated. While there are plenty of hydrating products on the market, it’s important to first hydrate from within, and Anthony Rossi MD, FAAD, dermatologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Westchester, recommends we drink up!
The most popular after-sun skin care ingredient would have to be aloe vera. Rossi highly recommends it, not only for its cooling and moisturizing effects but also for its anti-inflammatory properties. A recent study was just published, in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology, that suggests high doses of oral vitamin D after a sunburn could reduce inflammation and the effects of the burn. “However, more studies are needed to confirm this, as not everyone may be able to take high doses of vitamin D,” he says. There are topical products that contain the vitamin in the meantime.
When it comes to moisturizing, you’ll want to opt for a thicker, creamier formula. “Go for creams as opposed to moisturizers, and look for products containing ceramides, lanolins, and oat,” says Fusco.
If you plan on going a more natural route, Caron recommends vitamin C, chamomile, and green tea. Vitamin C is a potent antioxidant that not only prevents further damage from UVA and UVB rays but also helps promote collagen production—making it a powerful anti-aging ingredient. As for green tea and chamomile? Also, powerful antioxidants that hold anti-inflammatory properties, as well. When it comes to these herbs, you can choose products such as hydrosols or those that contain their heavily diluted essential oils, or you can go the DIY route. Both Caron and RealSelf contributor Dr. Michele Green like to use freshly brewed (but, of course, cooled down) tea as either a compress or a spray. “The tannic draws the heat out while soothing the skin,” says Green.
If DIY is more your thing, Palm also suggests slathering on a homemade yogurt mask (complete with cucumber slices over your eyes) or taking a colloidal oatmeal bath to both cool down and soothe your skin.
Naturally, when it comes to after-sun skin care, there are a number of products and ingredients you’ll want to avoid. First and foremost, Dr. Alan Dattner, MD of Holistic Dermatology, recommends staying away from anything that’s too gritty, as it can be too abrasive for sun-damaged skin. Additionally, anything that’s too strong or drying chemically could also irritate the skin after a day in the sun. Fusco recommends steering clear of ingredients like retinoic acid, AHAs, glycolic acids, benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, and other acne-fighting products that can dry out the skin.
However, some after sun skin no-nos are less obvious than others. Even though we love them for their natural range of benefits, Dattner also recommends avoiding pure essential oils (or at least making sure they’re heavily diluted), as they can potentially irritate the skin. And while one may think it would be healing and moisturizing, Green warns strongly against petrolatum, as it has the potential to trap the heat in your skin—which would be extremely uncomfortable for anyone with sunburn.
We know, we know—it’s a lot of information to take in. To make things easier, we rounded up 14 foolproof products that will help soothe, heal, and hydrate your skin after a day in the sun. These products contain one or more of the recommendations from the experts and don’t include any of the harmful ingredients. Click through the gallery below to check ’em out.