The Herbalist Is In: Herbal Sunburn Relief

By Merry Lycett Harrison

Calendula, chamomile and aloe soothe and heal.
-by M.L. Harrison
herbalist.jpgI have just returned from a boat trip and my SPF15 sunscreen was not adequate protection from the sun. I have significant sunburn, especially around the edges of my new bathing suit where the tender skin has not been exposed before. It really hurts. What herbs can help me?

Herbs can definitely help relieve the pain and damage of sunburn and promote fast healing, but just as you use different herbs at different stages of a cold, do the same with herbs for sunburn.

First, get out the aloe vera! Certainly second and third degree burns should be treated by a doctor, but for minor, everyday burns, aloe is the first herb to reach for.

Everyone should have an aloe plant on their kitchen counter for fast and easy access when first burned, whether by the sun or when you are taking cookies out of the oven. To use it, slice off a succulent leaf and slit it down the middle. Put the gel side directly on the affected area or squeeze the gel out of the leaf and apply.

If you do not have a fresh plant, you can purchase a bottle of aloe vera gel from a pharmacy or health food store. Look for the the purest gel you can find, without artificial colorings, additives and especially without alcohol which can burn and dehydrate the skin further.

Apply generous amounts of the fresh or purchased gel frequently, about every 15 minutes at the acute stage when you first realize a sunburn is coming on. The skin absorbs aloe quickly for fast pain relief. Healing begins immediately. I have seen bad burns that are beginning to blister rapidly calm down to just redness.

Lavender also has a reputation for healing burns quickly. The story goes that the therapeutic value of essential oils was discovered by a French perfumer who burned himself in the lab and then thrust his arm into the closest liquid to cool it, which turned out to be essential oil of lavender. The burn healed quickly. Again, to get the therapeutic benefit, make sure to use the real, pure essential oil, not one padded with inferior or less expensive substitutes.

For burns on a camping trip or at the park, look for the common weed plantain. It acts similarly in healing burns, cuts and relieving the sting of insect bites.

Once the first stage of immediate inflammation has calmed down after treatment with the herbs mentioned above, nourish the skin inside and out to give it everything it needs to recover. If the burn is mild and your skin shows redness, drench it in calendula oil. Your skin will absolutely glow with health as the healing properties of pretty calendula flower work to restore it. Bathing right after you burn can dry the already parched skin further. Wait awhile if you can and during the wait drink lots of water or tea of oat straw and horsetail. Both are high in high nourishing minerals and silica (silicic acid) which is what the body uses as a building block to repair itself.

When it is time to bathe, take extra care not to stress your skin further with drying soaps and shower gels. In fact, skip the soap if you can at first and immerse yourself in a tub of warm water to which you have added a gallon or more of an infusion of chamomile flowers and oat straw that will heal, soothe and nourish the skin. Apple cider vinegar in the bathwater is also soothing and helpful. When you get out of the tub, gently pat your skin dry and reapply calendula oil. Give it some time to soak in. For those extra-sensitive areas around your bathing suit line, use the beautiful red healing oil of St. Johns Wort, which is especially good for relieving pain from injury.

Use these herbs in this order at the first sign of sunburn, and you will minimize the damage to your skin.

Merry is an herbalist and longtime creekside resident on Mill Creek in Salt Lake City. Go to to learn more about upcoming trips into the wild.

This article was originally published on July 27, 2007.