Some people claim that coconut oil can relieve sunburn. However, oil-based moisturizers can cause the skin to retain heat, which may make sunburn worse.

For this reason, the Skin Cancer Foundation (SCF) cautions against using oil-based moisturizers and petroleum products for sunburn.

It is best to use doctor-recommended practices for treating sunburn. These may include taking frequent cool baths or showers and applying a moisturizer containing aloe vera.

In this article, we look in more detail at whether coconut oil can help relieve sunburn. We also examine alternatives to coconut oil, along with sunburn prevention measures.

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There has been no recent research on the potential benefits of using coconut oil as a treatment for sunburn.

A 2020 animal study looked at the effects of using virgin coconut oil on the skin of albino mice with sunburn from UV light. Although the researchers found that the oil had anti-inflammatory properties and reduced skin thickening as a result of UV damage, the study did not focus on whether virgin coconut oil helped sunburn heal any faster than a placebo.

As a result, it is unclear whether coconut oil could have benefits for treating sunburn. The SCF advises that using oils on sunburn may worsen the symptoms. Coconut oil can cause the skin’s pores to become blocked, which can trap heat, leading to more pain and heightening the sensation of burning. Blocked pores can also contribute to acne.

It may be the case, therefore, that coconut oil works better for reducing UV-related damage after sunburn has healed.

However, more high quality research on how coconut oil affects humans is necessary to confirm this.

According to a 2021 review article, most sunburns heal without any treatment at all. However, if a person wants to relieve the symptoms of mild sunburn, there are several things they can try at home.

Coconut oil may trap heat in the skin, so it is unlikely to be a good first-line treatment for someone who has just developed sunburn. Instead, it is best to use other remedies first, such as:

  • taking frequent cool baths to reduce heat
  • applying a hydrocortisone cream to inflamed areas after bathing
  • using a moisturizer that contains aloe vera or soya
  • avoiding anesthetic creams, such as those that contain benzocaine, as this may cause more irritation
  • drinking extra water to prevent dehydration
  • taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to reduce pain
  • protecting the skin from further sun exposure by covering it up when outside

If someone wants to use coconut oil, they can purchase virgin coconut oil and use it straight on the skin as a balm. Alternatively, they can use a moisturizer that contains this ingredient. It may be best to do this once the sunburn has completely healed.

Other home remedies that people can try include:

  • Colloidal oatmeal: Some doctors and clinics recommend cool colloidal oatmeal baths for sunburn. Many people use colloidal oatmeal to treat dry or itchy skin.
  • Aloe vera lotion: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggest using aloe vera lotion as a sunburn treatment. An older study from 2011 notes that aloe has a soothing, cooling effect. It is also an effective moisturizer, and experts believe that it stimulates new cell growth.
  • Black and green tea: In traditional Chinese medicine, cooled black or green tea is a remedy for sunburn. Tea contains antioxidants and has anti-inflammatory properties. In animal studies, tea appears to reduce UV damage, and green tea in particular may reduce the number of cells that sunburn damages. People can apply the chilled tea directly to the skin.

Sunburn with blistering

It is important to note that if sunburn causes blisters to appear on the skin, a different treatment is necessary. A person should avoid touching or breaking the blisters. Instead, they should bandage the area lightly in sterile gauze to prevent infection. People can use hydrocortisone cream once the blisters break.

An antiseptic ointment may also be an option for sunburn with blistering if it looks as though an infection is present. However, people should only do this with the recommendation of a dermatologist due to the possibility of a skin reaction to the ointment.

It is important to contact a doctor straight away if a person with sunburn:

  • is dehydrated
  • has a fever higher than 101°F (38°C)
  • has severe sunburn that covers more than 15% of their body
  • experiences extreme pain that lasts longer than 48 hours

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) notes that skin cancer rates are rising. Getting sunburn raises the risk of developing skin cancer, so taking steps to prevent it is crucial.

Coconut oil is not an effective sunscreen. It may have a small amount of SPF but not enough to protect the skin from UV damage. For this, a person needs a broad-spectrum sunscreen that has an SPF of 30 or above and protects against both UVA and UVB light.

It is best to apply the sunscreen at least 30 minutes before sun exposure and then reapply it every 90 minutes while outside. If the skin gets wet, it is essential to reapply the sunscreen after drying off.

Other measures to prevent sunburn include:

  • Covering the skin: Wear clothing that covers exposed skin. This may include broad-brimmed hats, sunglasses, pants, and long sleeves. Lightweight cotton and linen can help someone stay cool while still covering their skin.
  • Limiting sunlight exposure: UV light is most intense between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Avoid being outside during these hours, or stay in the shade. Remember that windows do not block out UVA light, so those who sit near one or often travel by car or plane still need to take precautions.
  • Refraining from tanning or using tanning beds: There is no such thing as a healthy natural tan, as all tanning involves a degree of UV damage to the skin. According to the SCF, just one session on a tanning bed before the age of 35 years increases the risk of developing melanoma by 75%. Worldwide, the number of cases of skin cancer that indoor tanning causes is higher than the number of lung cancer cases that smoking causes. For those wanting to appear tanned, it is safer to use fake tanning products instead.

Learn more about the impact of tanning and how to minimize the risks.

The SCF advises against using oil-based products to treat sunburn. Coconut oil may not be a good option for sunburn because it might trap heat in the skin, worsening the symptoms.

Instead, people can use other home remedies, such as cool baths, aloe vera, or over-the-counter medications to reduce pain. It is also important to stay hydrated and avoid more sun exposure.

People may wish to use coconut oil as part of their skin care routine after a sunburn is no longer painful or sore. However, they should not use it as a sunscreen, as it does not offer enough sun protection.