According to Ranella Hirsch, MD, board-certified dermatologist and co-founder of Atolla Skin Health, sun blisters occur when excessive inflammatory damage from UV rays disrupts connections between cells and separates the skin. While sun blisters usually look like your run-of-the-mill, fluid-filled blisters surrounded by red, swollen skin, some appear to be small white or almost-yellow bumps.
Sun blisters are second-degree burns, meaning they affect both the top layer of skin (the epidermis) as well as the layer underneath that includes blood capillaries and nerve endings (the dermis). It’s important to note that second-degree sunburns can be just as serious as burns caused by fire or chemical exposure. If sun blisters worsen or fail to improve after a few days, we highly suggest seeking immediate medical care.
If yours are in the fresh beginning stages, though, follow the below derm-approved tips for easy relief.
How to treat sun blisters
1. Do. Not. Pop. Them.
Dr. Hirsch’s number one suggestion (which is so important that she repeated it four times during our interview) is to avoid popping sun blisters under any circumstance. As she explains, the thin layer on top of the blister is essentially nature’s band-aid, and protects the area from infection while the underlying skin heals. Popping or picking at a sun blister (even "accidentally") significantly increases the chance of infection and can cause damage that leads to scarring.
To keep the blister safe from harm, Dr. Hirsch recommends wearing loose cotton clothing and—despite the natural instinct to inspect and obsess over the area—avoid touching it as much as possible. Most sun blisters will heal on their own if left alone.
If your blister does somehow pop, carefully clean the area with mild soap and water, apply antibiotic ointment, and loosely cover the open blister with a gauze bandage. After the fact, be sure to keep an eye on it: If a rash forms or pain significantly increases, see a doctor immediately.
2. Stay hydrated
Because blistering skin can cause water loss, you'll want to drink plenty of H2O post-burn. Upping your water intake will keep the skin hydrated and help with wound repair. To relieve some of the burning sensation, gently apply a cold, damp compress to the area, and take a pain reliever to reduce swelling and discomfort. Though it may be tempting to relieve some of the pain with ice, resist the urge, as this can irritate and cause injury to the already-compromised skin.
3. Moisturize, moisturize, moisturize
In addition to hydrating internally, topically hydrating ingredients can also help ease the burning sensation. According to Dr. Hirsch, a thin layer of aloe vera gel or a lightweight, fragrance-free moisturizer should do the trick. Just be sure to avoid applying thick occlusives like Vaseline or other petroleum jelly-based products to the area, as they can actually trap heat—which isn't ideal when your skin is already burning. You should also steer clear of any active treatments and topical anesthetics, as they, too, can further irritate compromised skin.
How To Avoid Future Sun Blisters
First and foremost, apply sunscreen. And then reapply. And reapply again, and again, and again (ideally every two hours). Look for a broad-spectrum formula with an SPF of at least 30 (though Hirsch says 50 or greater is best). Try to avoid direct sunlight, especially during those hot midday hours when the sun is strongest. Seek shade, and wear a hat to protect your scalp and face. If you burn easily, consider investing in UPF clothing, which can significantly lower the amount of UV radiation that reaches your skin.
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