What does aftersun do and do you really need it?

No one means to do it, but a British beach in summertime is often a landscape of pink and red sunburned bodies. Spending time in the sun can catch out even the most devoted sun cream wearers from time to time. While aftersun can't reverse sun damage, its soothing and hydrating ingredients can ease short-term sunburn symptoms.

The benefits of aftersun

We've all been there - despite stepping out into a day in the sun with the best of intentions, forgetting to apply enough sunscreen or failing to cover up can all too easily result in sunburn.

When you notice your skin turning red, stinging, or becoming sensitive to the touch, it's a clear sign that harmful UV (ultraviolet) radiation from the sun has damaged or killed your top layer of skin cells (the epidermis).

What you may not know is that even a 'sun-kissed' golden brown suntan - where the sun causes your top layer of skin to produce more of the colour pigment melanin - is a sign of irreparable sun damage. There is no such thing as a healthy tan!

While short-term sunburn issues include painful showers and restless nights, long-term consequences range from premature skin ageing to skin cancer. Unfortunately, aftersun can't tackle the latter, but it can help soothe your skin.

What does aftersun do?

If you're confused about aftersun, you're not alone. Most people have the same questions: Does aftersun limit skin damage? Is it just another moisturiser? Can it make sunburn pain go away?

Dr Paul Banwell1 summarises its main use: "Aftersun moisturises the skin after sunburn. However, it doesn't just have to be used to treat sunburn, as it is really just a moisturiser."

Your skin should ideally be between 20% and 30% water, but sunburnt skin is drained of moisture leaving it feeling dry, irritated, and flaky. Aftersun hydrates and locks more water into your skin.

"Compared to other moisturisers, aftersun does contain additional soothing ingredients that will calm the skin after burning and help reduce redness. Aftersun products often contain aloe vera plant extracts, which help replenish moisture lost from exposure to the sun's UV rays," Dr Banwell adds.

Aloe vera is a plant with special healing powers - its anti-inflammatory properties2 can help to soothe and cool down hot, stinging sunburn. It's also rich in antioxidants, such as vitamins A, C, and E3. This can help to heal the symptoms of sunburn, although it can't reverse UV damage.

The best aftersun might also include cucumber extract. If you've ever used slices of this vegetable on your eyelids, you'll know that it's able to soothe skin and reduce swelling. When applied to sunburn, this can also reduce your pain4.

FAQ: does aftersun help you tan?

"Aftersun will not help you tan, but it may prolong your tan by moisturising the skin and therefore stopping peeling and making your skin look healthier," explains Dr Banwell. He stresses that you don't need aftersun to do this and that in fact any moisturiser will help.

FAQ: does aftersun help prickly heat?

"Prickly heat causes bumps or blisters to appear in a rash across areas of skin during hot weather," says Dr Banwell. "Aftersun may help the symptoms of prickly heat by cooling and moisturising the skin. Aloe vera can certainly be very soothing for prickly heat.

"I would suggest taking precautions to avoid prickly heat, such as staying in the shade, keeping hydrated, having cool showers, and wearing loose-fitted clothing."

Aftersun limitations

Prevention is better than cure

If there's one thing you should remember about sunburn and aftersun, it's that preventing sun damage is by far the best course of action. Aftersun may be soothing and cooling, but no treatment can repair damage caused by UV radiation.

"Always make sure you follow advice to prevent sunburn, wearing a sun cream with a high SPF (sun protection factor) and staying out of the midday sun," Dr Banwell cautions.

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Allergic reactions

As with most lotions and potions, there's a small chance that your skin could be irritated by certain ingredients. For example:

  • Cetostearyl alcohol - an alcohol widely used in cosmetics to thicken and stabilise formulas. In rare cases, an allergic reaction can cause eczema (contact dermatitis), an inflammatory skin condition resulting in itchiness and skin rashes. This is more common for people with stasis eczema - a form that affects the lower legs - and for people with leg ulcers5.
  • Phenoxyethanol - a common preservative that occasionally causes skin rashes, and which may irritate people who have eczema.
  • Aloe vera - this plant is considered safe for most people, but sometimes allergic reactions come in the form of eczema.

If you have sensitive skin or have had allergic reactions to skin products in the past, check the label or ask a pharmacist about any potential irritants if you're unsure.

When aftersun isn't enough

Not all sunburns are the same. In fact, some can be severe and require medical attention. Consult your doctor if you have blisters or if your sunburn is accompanied by severe pain, headache, a high temperature or chills, confusion, nausea, or vomiting. These may be signs that you have heatstroke or sun poisoning, both of which can be very dangerous.

When should you apply aftersun?

A good sun care routine in summer involves applying sun cream regularly throughout the day to avoid sunburn and applying aftersun to keep your skin looking and feeling vibrant and healthy. The best aftersun application would be after showering, as washing off sun lotion first and massaging into damp skin will help your skin to lock in more aftersun hydration.

To keep your skin super hydrated, you may wish to apply hyaluronic acid before using aftersun. This helps your skin to draw in even more moisture.

If like many others you find yourself buying aftersun only after you've burnt, you should shower and apply liberally at least every morning and evening - or as often as you like - until your symptoms disappear.

FAQ: can you use aftersun as a daily moisturiser?

Yes, most aftersun products are very similar to standard moisturisers. In fact, Dr Banwell points out that aftersun is often more lightweight to ensure heat can escape from your skin. It also tends to include fewer perfumes that can potentially irritate wounded skin.

FAQ: does aftersun go out of date?

Yes, always check the bottle for its use by date. "Aftersun, as it is similar to moisturiser, will most likely be fine for a long time, but the longer it has been open, the less effective it will be," adds Dr Banwell.

FAQ: should you put on aftersun after using a sunbed?

"Sunbeds bring on premature aging, wrinkling of the skin, eye problems, and a high risk of skin cancer - they are dangerous, giving out greater doses of UV rays than the midday sun," warns Dr Banwell. There is a lot of evidence linking sunbed use with skin cancer diagnosis6.

"If you do choose to use sunbeds, then using aftersun after a treatment will not do any harm in itself. The aftersun will help cool your skin and put back some of the moisture lost during the tanning, but I advise people not to use sunbeds," says Dr Banwell

Remember, regardless of its soothing, hydrating properties, aftersun is no magic formula. We are all human and accidental sunburn happens, but you can always try to prevent sun damage in hot weather by:

  • Wearing protective clothes, sun hats, and sunglasses.
  • Applying sun cream.
  • Seeking shade, especially during midday.

Further reading

  1. Dr Paul Banwell runs The Banwell Clinic and is the previous head and for under of The Melanoma and Skin Cancer Unit (MASCU) in East Grinstead.
  2. Luo, Zhang, Wei, Shi, Fan, Xie, Zhang, and Xu "Aloin suppresses lipopolysaccharide-induced inflammatory response and apoptosis by inhibiting the activation of NF-κB".
  3. Hęś, Dziedzic, Górecka, Jędrusek-Golińska, and Gujska "Aloe vera: natural sources of antioxidants - a review".
  4. Mukherjee, Nema, Maity, and Sarkar " Phytochemical and therapeutic potential of cucumber".
  5. Aakhus and Warshaw "Allergic contact dermatitis from cetyl alcohol".
  6. Colantonio, Bracken, and Beecker "The association of indoor tanning and melanoma in adults: systematic review and meta-analysis".
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