What is a sun blister?
According to Jaimie Glick, MD, a board-certified dermatologist for New York Dermatology Group, sun blisters are fluid-filled bumps caused by a severe sunburn and represent a second-degree burn. These blisters occur when excessive inflammatory damage from sun exposure disrupts connections between cells and separates the skin, leaving behind the painful aftermath.
Because sun blisters are second-degree sunburns, 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), says Ranella Hirsch, MD, a board-certified dermatologist. It’s important to note that second-degree sunburns can be just as serious as burns caused by fire or chemical exposure.
While typical sunburn symptoms include itchy red skin or a peeling sunburn, Dr. Hirsch says sun blisters usually look like your run-of-the-mill blisters filled with clear or white fluid. “Typically, sun blisters will overlay a bad sunburn,” adds Dr. Glick. “Areas very commonly susceptible are the shoulders, back, and nose, although it can happen anywhere.”
If your sunburn blisters popped (something you want to avoid, but may happen accidentally), you may notice sunburn blisters leaking yellow fluid or clear fluid—something Dr. Glick says is normal. But “thick, smelly fluid can be a sign of infection,” she says, and indicates the need to seek medical attention.
How long do sunburn blisters last?
When you’re dealing with blisters from the sun, you want them to go away ASAP—they’re painful, uncomfortable, and leave the surrounding skin feeling hot and tender. Unfortunately, if you’re wondering how long sunburn blisters last, the bad news is that they don’t typically disappear overnight. This sunburn treatment takes time.
Because sun blisters are second-degree burns from excessive sun exposure, Dr. Glick says they can take one to two weeks to heal—“even longer if appropriate wound care is not performed.” If you notice that your sun blisters are worsening after a few days (or you’re experiencing swelling of the skin, a fever, or any other abnormal physical symptoms) seek immediate medical attention. A physician will ensure you're getting the care you need to heal.
If your sun blisters are in the fresh beginning stages, though, follow the below dermatologist recommendations for proper sun blisters treatment.
How to treat sunburn blisters
If you’re looking for expert-backed tips on how to treat sunburn blisters, you’ve come to the right place. These dermatologist recommendations will keep your skin happy and healthy, as well as help speed up the healing process so you can get back to feeling like yourself as quickly as possible. Your guide to sunburn care, coming right up.
1. Do. Not. Pop. Them.
Dr. Hirsch’s number one suggestion on how to treat sunburn blisters (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, protecting 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. The best sun blisters treatment is simply leaving everything alone, allowing the area to properly heal.
If your sunburn blisters popped and you notice sunburn blisters leaking yellow fluid or clear fluid, carefully clean the area with mild soap and water, apply antibiotic ointment, and loosely cover the open blisters with a gauze bandage. After the fact, be sure to keep an eye on the area. If a rash forms or pain significantly increases, see a doctor immediately.
2. Stay hydrated
Because blistering skin can cause water loss, any treatment for sunburn—especially one this severe—involves drinking 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, using topically hydrating ingredients is an important part of sunburn care, as it 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.
Skin protection tips to avoid future sun blisters
Once you get a sun blister, you’re never going to want to get one again. That’s where proper summer skincare (ahem, summer sun protection) comes in. Using the dermatologist recommendations below will help you prioritize your skin health whenever you step foot outdoors.
First and foremost, the most crucial part of summer sun protection—and, let’s be real, year-round skin health and skin protection—is applying sunscreen. Don’t just apply it though. Reapply again, and again, and again (ideally every two hours). Look for a broad-spectrum formula with an SPF of at least 30 (though Dr. Hirsch says 50 or greater is best). Have reactive or acne-prone skin? There are plenty of great sunscreens for sensitive skin to choose from.
Avoid direct sunlight
This summer skincare tip may seem obvious, but it’s an important one. Try to avoid direct sun exposure, especially during those hot midday hours when the sun is strongest (and you’re at an increased risk of sunburn). Seek shade and wear a hat to protect your scalp and face.
Give sun-protective clothing a try
If you burn easily, consider investing in UPF clothing for summer sun protection, which can significantly lower the amount of UV radiation that reaches your skin. By slightly changing your summer skincare habits, you’ll keep your skin healthy now and in the future.
Frequently asked questions about blisters from sun exposure
What is the fastest way to get rid of sun blisters?
The fastest sun blisters treatment is caring for the second-degree burn properly. To give you the TL;DR, Dr. Hirch says a sunburn treatment this severe involves never ever popping a sun blister, wearing loose cotton clothing that doesn't irritate the area, staying super hydrated (aka drinking lots of water!) to help with wound repair, and applying a thin layer of soothing aloe vera or a lightweight moisturizer over the area. If your sun blister is more severe, Dr. Glick recommends seeing a doctor who can evaluate the issue and prescribe something to speed up the healing process. Lastly, always practice proper skin protection to prevent future sun blisters.
Is it better to pop a sun blister or leave it?
The worst thing you can do for a sun blister is pop it. Because the blister is protecting the underlying area from infection, any popping or picking is only going to slow down the healing process, as well as increase your risk of infection. Avoid the temptation and allow blisters from sun exposure to fully heal. If your sunburn blisters popped accidentally, clean the area, put on some antibiotic ointment, and cover everything up with a gauze bandage.
How long does it take for sun blisters to go away?
As far as how long sunburn blisters last, they can take up to two weeks to fully go away. As your skin is healing, Dr. Glick recommends practicing proper sunburn care and completely avoiding the sun for an extended period of time. Also, ensure you’re tending to your wound using the expert-approved tips above, such as never picking or popping the blisters and drinking lots of water. “See a physician if the lesions aren’t healing in a timely manner,” says Dr. Glick. Your doctor can help get your skin back to normal.
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