Recently by Mark Sisson: Eating Earth: Exploring the Mysterious World of Geophagy
People who like to say an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure are smug jerks, especially when it comes to sunburns. While they were eating spoonfuls of tomato paste, canned flamingo, and fish oil, nibbling on grape seeds, using portable vitamin D test kits, and smearing green tea all over their bodies, sure, they didn’t get burned, but were they really living? Because you sure were. You were out there in the sun, just basking in it, arms outstretched to accept its vibrant rays like it was a commercial for a venereal disease medication. You may have gotten a little baked, a little too much color, but it was well worth it… right?
Well, now you’ve gotta deal with this sunburn business. It’s red, it hurts, it’s veritably unhealthy, and you’re about to start peeling. What do you do? How can you soothe the flaming epidermis? How can you halt, or perhaps even reverse the damage before it gets out of hand?
Recent research has apparently found the culprit responsible for a sunburn’s pain: an inflammatory molecule called CXCL5. CXCL5 is a chemokine, a protein that recruits inflammatory immune cells to damaged tissue. In sunburned tissue, researchers found that CXCL5 was present in large quantities. Later, they found that as sunburned rats healed, an antibody began specifically targeting and reducing CXCL5 levels. This reduced pain. As of now, there exists no known home remedy (or pharmaceutical remedy) for triggering CXCL5 antibodies — if that’s even something we want to mess around with, since pain exists for a reason — but there are many home remedies for dealing with the pain.
Yes, home remedies for sunburns are plentiful, but few have anything to back them up but hearsay and anecdote. Anecdote can be incredibly useful (I’ve included some of the more interesting ones below), but let’s also take a look to see which remedies, if any, have supporting evidence.
Aloe vera is the classic remedy. You get a bad sunburn and almost anyone’s initial response is “Apply some aloe.” Is this advice warranted? Well, the actual aloe vera plant has over two millennia of history as a medicine across many traditional cultures spanning multiple regions, including China, India, Latin America, Japan, Russia, and Africa. Modern research has confirmed its effects on blood lipids, glucose tolerance, wound healing (has been shown to slow and speed up healing rates in different studies), and first- and second-degree burn recovery, but, strangely enough, not on sunburn. It neither prevents nor heals sunburns. That said, it does appear to soothe the pain associated with sunburns, so go ahead and apply away.
Kukui Nut Oil
The kukui tree was introduced to the Hawaiian islands roughly 1,500 years ago by early Polynesian explorers. It was henceforth and hitherto employed by the islands’ inhabitants in both medical and nonmedical arenas, in particular the oil from the kukui nut. Kukui nut oil was used as fuel, as a laxative, as a topical joint pain and arthritis reliever, and, most famously, as a reliever of skin conditions — including sunburn. The oil’s efficacy has never been “proven,” but I think 1,500 years of steady use (PDF) by a sunbaked population with extensive sunburn experience elevates kukui nut oil beyond mere anecdote.