- Lips are vulnerable to the sun’s UV rays as the skin is thinner than that of the body and have very little protective melanin
- Symptoms of sunburned lips include redness, swelling, tenderness and irritation
- Repeated sunburns can damage skin and increase the risk of developing cancer
- Treatment includes home remedies and over-the-counter medications
Overexposure to the sun’s UVA rays can cause sunburned lips with accompanying symptoms of inflammation, dryness, blistering and scabbing. Long-term effects of repeated sunburn can result in discoloration, damaged cells and increased risk of skin cancer, or melanoma.
Lips are especially vulnerable to the sun’s harmful effects but are often neglected when it comes to sun protection. Fortunately, there are several ways to safeguard your lips from sunburn such as applying an over-the-counter (OTC) lip balm with SPF 30 or higher and following some preventative measures.
Why Do You Get Sunburned Lips?
Compared to the rest of the body, the skin on the lips is more susceptible to sunburn as the skin is thinner and has less pigmentation.
The lower lip is particularly fragile as it has a higher level of sun exposure compared to the upper lip which is protected by the nose and positioned slightly downward. This explains why 90% of lip cancers develop on the lower lip.
Symptoms of Sunburned Lips
The first signs of sunburn typically develop within 2–5 hours after sun exposure, with full symptoms presenting within 24 hours.
Symptom severity will depend on the level of sun exposure and where you fall within the six categories of the Fitzpatrick skin type scale. This is an important tool that measures skin color and UV effects. Skin types I–III are at highest risk of sunburn and skin cancer due to UV damage, while types IV–VI have the lowest risk.
Symptoms of sunburned lips include increased sensitivity, dryness and tightness, burning and mild swelling. For more severe burns, lips will feel more tender and blisters and cracks will form. As the lips heal, dead skin cells will shed and peel off.
A common sign of healing is the development of itchiness. This is a normal response of the body’s wound-healing process and is a result of a combination of factors: release of histamines due to the burn injury and the growth of new skin cells.
Symptoms of sunburned lips typically last about 1 week, but could last up to 2 weeks in severe cases.
Can sunburn cause swollen lips?
Yes, swelling naturally occurs due to the body’s inflammatory response to the skin damage. For milder sunburns, the swelling will subside within a few days, but for more severe burns swelling may last longer. If blisters are present, this will add even more time to the recovery period.
Blisters caused by sunburn vs. cold sores
Blisters due to sunburns can be easily confused with the herpes simplex virus (cold sores).
Once you contact the virus, cold sores can be triggered in several ways: exposure to the hot sun or cold wind, stress or illness. One telltale sign of a cold sore developing is a sensation of tingling and burning in one spot.
In terms of appearance, sunburn blisters are commonly fluid-filled small, white bumps whereas cold sores are smaller clusters of tiny bumps that develop both on and around the lips.
How to Treat Sunburned Lips
Typically, lips that are mildly sunburned can be effectively treated at home without any medication. However, for moderate to severe sunburned lips, OTC medications such as anti-inflammatories and topical ointments can relieve pain and swelling.
Aloe vera is a well-known plant that offers multiple benefits for skin healing. It is commonly used to soothe the redness and pain that accompanies sunburns by reducing inflammation, and it can effectively cool down overheated skin. It can restore moisture to dehydrated lips and accelerate wound healing.
Aloe vera also contains vitamins A, C and E. These vitamins are antioxidants and can neutralize free radicals, preventing further damage to the skin.
You can purchase aloe vera products over the counter or simply use the gel fresh from the plant. For faster symptom relief, chill the gel first and apply as needed to hydrate, nourish and calm sunburned lips.
Moisturizers can go a long way in easing sunburn symptoms as they are very effective at reducing swelling and redness, and soothing irritated, dry skin.
Choose fragrance-free moisturizers that are formulated specifically to restore lost moisture such as CeraVe or Vanicream. The first cream contains ceramides and hyaluronic acid to lock in moisture and speed up healing; the latter is an occlusive substance that draws moisture to the lips and has emollients to soften and smooth lips.
For moderate to severe sunburns several OTC medications are available to relieve symptoms through different mechanisms of action. Medications such as Tylenol and ibuprofen (Advil) can lessen pain while antihistamines can calm itching and swelling.
A sunburn depletes the body’s natural store of fluids. This not only affects the lips but the entire body, and can cause fatigue, nausea and headache.
Dehydration will also interfere with wound healing, preventing your sunburned lips from healing properly. It is therefore important to drink plenty of water to replenish this lost moisture.
While your lips are healing, avoid alcoholic and caffeinated drinks as these are diuretics and cause water loss.
Hydrocortisone cream is a topical medication normally used on the body. It can be safely applied to the lips to reduce redness and swelling – but use sparingly and avoid licking your lips.
You can also choose among a wide variety of in-store lip balms—medicated or not—to moisturize, soothe and nourish your lips. Look for ingredients such as lanolin, an established treatment for very dry skin, shea butter, known for its anti-inflammatory and nourishing benefits, and beeswax which can slough off dead skin and provide a layer of protection to fragile lips.
Treatments to Avoid
Avoid Vaseline and any moisturizers that contain petroleum. While petroleum is effective in sealing in moisture it is not able to restore moisture once it’s been lost.
Lidocaine and benzocaine are effective topical anesthetics but are not appropriate treatments as they are not formulated for use on the lips; they can also cause an allergic reaction.
You should avoid popping any blisters and allow them to resolve on their own. Blisters provide a protective barrier by preventing germs from entering; the fluid within protects the damaged skin from further injury.
Home Remedies for Sunburned Lips
Home remedies offer fast relief for sunburned lips through the use of simple, inexpensive ingredients that target dryness, inflammation and irritation.
Applying a cold compress provides an effective means of reducing the burning sensation of sunburned lips while simultaneously cooling damaged tissue. The cold constricts blood vessels to reduce blood flow, which effectively relieves inflammation, swelling and pain.
Apply the compress to the lips intermittently for several minutes using one of the following:
- Wrap an ice pack, ice cubes or a bag of frozen vegetables in a thin towel; never apply directly to your lips as this can cause further damage
- Apply chilled green tea bags or sliced cucumbers; both have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties
- Soak a clean washcloth in chilled skim milk (full fat can hold in heat) to reduce pain and inflammation; the proteins in the milk create a film to protect exposed nerve endings
DIY topical treatments
Moisture-rich oils or a soothing oatmeal paste can all work to alleviate the symptoms of sunburn. You can choose among the following:
- Almond oil is a powerful moisturizer with the added benefit of vitamin E to counteract sun damage and reduce inflammation and swelling
- Coconut oil is rich in vitamin E and has anti-inflammatory and antibacterial benefits; it can ease symptoms of burning and peeling
- Glycerine oil softens and hydrates lips, and removes dry flakes
- Combine colloidal oatmeal and water to form a soothing paste for dry, itchy lips
How to Prevent Lips From Getting Sunburned
As part of your regular skin care routine, it is highly recommended to apply an SPF of at least 30 to all areas of exposed skin to avoid sun damage. Ensure you protect your lips at the same time with a lip balm containing the same level of protection or higher.
Use the lip balm generously and reapply every hour or so; lip balm is easily rubbed off through eating and drinking. Avoid being in direct sunlight from 10 am and 2 pm, when UV rays are most dangerous. Maintain this habit on cloudy days and during winter, since UV rays can penetrate through clouds.
You can also lower your risk of sunburned lips by wearing a broad-brimmed hat or cap.
How Long Do Sunburned Lips Take to Heal?
How long it takes for sunburned lips to heal will depend on the severity of the burn. Treating the burn will greatly improve the symptoms of dehydration, irritation, pain and swelling.
Mild burn symptoms such as swelling, irritation, dryness and peeling should resolve within 2–3 days. More severe sunburns require longer to heal as the damage is deeper and more extensive. If there are blisters, they will slowly drain, shrink and eventually peel off. Time to complete healing can take 1–2 weeks or more, based on severity.
When to See a Doctor
See your doctor if your lips are not healing properly or if you have pus-filled blisters surrounded by red streaks – this is a sign of infection. You will likely be prescribed a topical ointment and an antibiotic.
In addition, extreme sunburns (aptly named sun poisoning) are characterized by the following symptoms:
- Fever and chills
- Severe blistering and pain
- Signs of infection
If you experience these symptoms, contact your doctor as this is a serious medical condition.
Most often, symptoms of sunburned lips are mild and can be effectively treated at home. For fast relief, start treatment immediately at the first signs of sunburn. Symptoms include redness, irritation, dryness and swelling of tissue.
The easiest way to avoid sunburns is by using an SPF 30 lip balm when outdoors and reapplying the balm every hour. Avoid the sun during 10 am and 2 pm.
If you do develop sunburned lips, ensure you drink plenty of water to rehydrate depleted stores in your body. For immediate relief you can apply a cold compress, and take a pain reliever or an antihistamine. Soothe irritation and dryness with an application of moisturizer, lip balm or aloe vera gel.
For more severe burns, you can purchase an OTC product such as hydrocortisone cream.
However, for severe burns accompanied by fever, nausea or signs of infection, seek the attention of a medical professional.
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