For some people, summertime is as synonymous with gnarly sunburns as with backyard BBQs, pool days, and beach trips. And while having fun in the sun is what summer’s all about, sunburns do more than just affect you physically — they can also burn your chance of a great night’s sleep.
What happens to your body when you get a sunburn?
Sunburns are a result of damage to the DNA of the skin cells. So, essentially, a tan signals that the cells have been damaged and are dying. The actual burn, or the redness that you perceive, is the result of inflammation from dilated blood vessels that allow your body to remove those dead, damaged skin cells.
The burn may be because you spent too much time in the sun, but your ability to tan vs. burn is genetically determined by your skin phonotype, which is based on how much melanin your skin produces when exposed to the sun. People with fair skin have less melanin than those with darker skin tones, making them more susceptible to burns, which can lead to freckles, suspicious moles, and even skin cancer.
Despite your best efforts to stay protected from or avoid the sun, being outdoors in the summer may leave you with a burn. If the damage to your skin is done, here's how to minimize its effects tonight.
How to cool your sunburn down and fall asleep
The best way to protect your precious nighttime Zzz’s is to practice thorough sunburn prevention in the first place, of course. Easy tips from dermatologists and experts include avoiding the sun between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., wearing protective clothing, and applying (and reapplying!) sunscreen throughout the day, particularly if you’ve been in the water.
But once you have a burn, these remedies might help:
- Cold compresses: Soak a clean cloth in ice water, then apply it on the inflamed areas for five minutes. Do this a couple of times to help relieve pain and reduce swelling. If your skin is feeling especially fiery, you can also wrap ice in a washcloth (or even frozen peas in a dish towel) and apply in 10- to 15-minute intervals, but never apply ice directly to inflamed skin, as you can worsen the damage.
- Cool showers: When it's hot outside, a cool shower can help prepare your body for sleep; when you're sunburned a cool shower can feel amazing and cool you off before bed. The key is not to make the water too cold — you'll risk waking yourself up — and don't scrub or use astringent cleaners while you're showering, so that your skin can heal.
- Pain relievers: In some cases, taking Tylenol or ibuprofen can help relieve discomfort. Plus, it has anti-inflammatory effects that may help the skin heal.
- Aloe vera: Apply gel or cream containing aloe vera (known to provide natural anti-inflammatory benefits!) to help moisturize, soothe, and cool the inflamed skin. If you’re prone to burns, try keeping a bottle in the fridge — that additional cooling element can feel great when your skin is warm.
- Sleepwear: Too much friction can aggravate the sunburn, so choosing fabrics like jersey cotton, loosely woven linen or silk can offer a bit more comfort. Pro tip: Sleeping nude may actually be your best bet, unless your sheets are harsh on the skin. (In that case, it may be time for new sheets. Choose between linen, jersey cotton, or bamboo).
- Moisturizer: All that sun has dehydrated your skin, so moisturizer will help with the healing. Because the skin barrier has been damaged, choosing a moisturizer with no fragrances or harmful irritants will help your skin to heal faster and provide more relief.
- Shade: Staying out of the sun when you are already burnt prevents a sunburn from getting worse. Don’t let the sun’s rays dig deeper into your skin.
- Hydration: Water is critical for replenishing your body after sun exposure. Try to drink just enough to hydrate yourself, but not so much that you'll need to wake up overnight to use the bathroom. This is also a good time to minimize alcohol.
If you find your normal sleep position is being agitated by your sunburn, try the tips above before resorting to a brand-new sleep style, but know that it's normal to kick off sheets or toss and turn when you're hot.
Keep in mind that if your sunburn includes symptoms like severe blisters, skin infections, excessive discoloration, or sustained fever, nausea, chills, and dehydration — it’s time to see a doctor.
Why does a sunburn feel worse at night?
After the initial redness and inflammation, it’s natural to assume your skin couldn’t get any worse. However, a sunburn can actually take about one to three days to fully develop, meaning the irritation you feel on day one may continue to advance throughout the night, affecting your sleep.
Below are four of the biggest ways a bad sunburn can affect your sleep:
- Sunburns can result in a fever, chills, itching, and a burning sensation that makes it uncomfortable to fall asleep and, if painful enough, stay asleep.
- Sunburns can lead to dehydration, which may cause you to up your water intake. However, lots of water can cause you to wake up (a lot) in the middle of the night to use the bathroom.
- Poor temperature regulation from feeling feverish or feeling hot and cold in different areas of your body can cause sleep issues too, especially if you’re struggling to get comfortable. The ideal temperature for sleep is a chilly 65-68 degrees, so if you're feverish from a sunburn, it can be even harder for your body to reach that optimal sleep temperature.
- Lastly, if lying on your back or having sheets touch your burned skin is painful, the discomfort will make it difficult to fall — and stay — asleep.
“What are a few lousy nights of sleep really going to do to me in the long run?” you ask. The answer: a lot. Keep in mind that with every night of low-quality sleep, your overall sleep debt continues to expand and can take exponential recovery time.
If a sunburn is severe enough to wake you up, get out of bed and try some of the above tips, like applying a cool compress, taking a pain reliever, or drinking water. If you're worried it'll wake you up later, try freezing a water bottle that you can bring to bed and rest atop your sheets as a cooling device, like summer's answer to a hot water bottle. There are also higher-tech products for hot sleepers, like the Ebb CoolDrift Versa.
Oops, I slept in the sun again — why does this keep happening?
You might have heard that the sun is good for sleep — and probably thought those vitamin D naps were good for you — and to a degree, the sun is good for sleep. But being tired after a full day of sun exposure doesn’t mean you’ve unlocked the secret to falling asleep. Your body is doing a whole heck of a lot more than you thought as you were lounging by the ocean.
What’s causing the total fatigue after a beach day is your body’s attempt to combat the effects of prolonged exposure, namely: constant temperature regulation, dehydration and chemical changes in your blood related to sunburns.
This doesn't mean you should completely avoid going outside, though. Our bodies are chemically attuned to live in harmony with the rise and fall of the sun. When the sun goes down, melatonin levels in our brains rise, signaling that it’s time for sleep, and when the sun rises, our hormone levels rise and tell our bodies, “It’s time to start the day, baby!”
The best sun protection is prevention
The benefits of enjoying sunlight (especially in the morning) can help us get our natural circadian rhythms set for the best sleep ever. But too much sun can disrupt our sleep both in physical and hormonal ways.
Sunburns are better prevented than treated — and remember, the long-term consequences of consistent overexposure to the sun include premature aging and wrinkles, the onset of sunspots and freckles, and in severe cases, the development of skin cancer.
As you spend time outdoors, simply reapplying sunscreen won’t protect you from feeling physically drained. You’ll want to stay in the shade during the hottest hours of the day, wear long sleeves or SPF-protective hats, or sit beneath an umbrella to help keep your skin out of direct sunlight. Not only will this prevent sunburns (which is the best method of avoiding sleepless summer nights), but you’ll be able to just enjoy the gorgeous day without worrying about your skin at night. Plan to get out first thing in the morning, before the sun is high enough in the sky. You'll minimize risk of a burn and help set your circadian rhythm by exposing yourself to morning sun.
Lastly, don’t forget to hydrate. Sunburns continuously draw fluid from the skin, which can often leave you feeling fatigued and dry. Replenish your electrolytes throughout the day but avoiding drinking too much water right before bed, so you can sleep uninterrupted by any nighttime bathroom breaks.