A person displays their sunburned feet

Sunburned Feet: 5 Tips for Soothing Redness, Burning & Swelling

If you’ve ever had sunburned feet, the days of torment that followed probably still send shudders through your soles. Somehow you survived the throbbing, broiling, blistering, itching and peeling. 

If hours of outdoor activities are on the docket, it’s always a good idea to protect your exposed skin (feet and toes included) with sunscreen. Overlooking your feet when applying your liquid sun shield can be a painful mistake, though. For whatever reason, we tend to ignore our feet when lathering up or spraying down. Inner monologue: “My feet won’t get burned. I won’t be out there that long. I can always get them when I reapply.” 

Sunburn hurts like heck, and by all accounts, feet cooked to a crisp in the sun are particularly painful. Even after the redness, burning and swelling are gone, there’s cellular damage from the ultraviolet rays. Repeated burns cause greater damage and increase your risk for skin cancer. That said, sunscreen is always your first line of defense when lounging on the beach, canoeing down the river or spectating your favorite sport from the stands.

But, as we all know, sunburn happens. And when your feet get fried, you’ll be desperate for anything to help speed the recovery process along. Here are five tips for treating burning, swollen feet from sunburn and finding solace after your solar straits. 

1. Soak your feet in cold water and use cool compresses.

Oh no! You wore sandals to the all-day backyard barbecue sans sunscreen. Now it’s your feet that look like they’ve been sitting on the grill. They’re a riled-up red that’s hot to the touch, and the intense burning sensation has you on the brink of tears. No fighting fire with fire here—cold is what you need to beat the heat.

Take a tub, bucket or large bowl and fill it with cold water. Don’t use ice, though. That could damage your already stressed-out skin. Dipping those dogs in chilly H2O should give you immediate relief. Depending on where you are in the healing process, you may want to add natural ingredients to your post-sunburn soak. Try apple cider vinegar or baking soda to reduce inflammation or oatmeal if the itchiness is driving you insane.

After your soak, periodically apply cool compresses to those hot zones. Washcloths dipped in cool water or even milk will help temporarily short-circuit those nerve endings till the burning lets up.  

2. Stay hydrated, take pain relievers and moisturize with aloe vera.

Launching this three-pronged offensive will also help you through the first and worst stage of sunburned feet when you start to seriously wonder if amputation might be slightly less painful. Downing lots of water, taking over-the-counter pain relievers and moisturizing are a must when you have sunburn on your feet.

Drinking water may not prevent sunburn as Tom Brady famously claimed, but sunburn can definitely dehydrate you. Sunburn draws fluids to the skin’s surface and away from the body, so you’ll need to keep replenishing them as your feet heal. You may also want to wash down some ibuprofen or Tylenol to help curb the pain and swelling. Coincidentally, both of these painkillers may actually reduce skin cancer risks

Dermatologists also recommend a number of topical creams and moisturizers for sunburned feet. (Pro tip: Keep the Banana Boat gel in your fridge for arctic application that will feel heavenly.) Some of these remedies contain a soothing gel taken from the aloe vera plant that’s been shown to promote healing for first- and second-degree burns.

3. Elevate your feet to lessen swelling. 

Can sunburn cause swelling in your feet? Swelling is common symptom of sunburn. If the sunburn is more severe, your feet, ankles and lower legs may become extremely swollen—a condition known as edema. Tiny blood vessels in your feet called capillaries leak fluid that builds up in surrounding tissues, which can lead to swelling and blisters—lesions often associated with more serious sun poisoning. 

If you have swollen feet from sunburn, get them up! Gravity is working against you and causing fluid to pool in your feet and ankles. If your job requires a lot of walking, you may need to take a couple of days off. Squeezing those stinging, swollen masses into shoes isn’t likely, so you might as well kick them up on the nearest coffee table or ottoman and give them a break from all the sun-induced trauma.  

4. Institute a ban on shoes and socks, if possible.

Sunburn on your feet won’t take kindly to friction. That means you may have to forgo socks, shoes and sandals for a few days. Anything rubbing against your super-sensitive, scorched skin is going to feel like sandpaper. If you don’t want to be walking on your tippy toes to avoid the brutal chafing, go barefoot as much as possible.  

Unfortunately, shoes—like shirts—are required in most public places. That said, you’ll want to wear loose-fitting flip-flops or sandals if you can get away with it. If closed-toe shoes are a must, choose your saggiest, softest socks and that pair of sneakers that’s always been a little too big. And as soon as you’re able to free your feet, slip them into these cold therapy socks with reusable ice packs for some sweet relief.    

5. Try a creative remedy for sunburned feet.   

If none of these remedies seem to soothe your sunburned feet, it’s time to get creative. Some swear by concoctions made from items you may already have in your pantry or refrigerator. No harm in trying if you’re OK with going the unorthodox route.

Mixing high-fat plain yogurt with honey is one such antidote for your anguished appendages. Coat the tops of your feet with the goo and wait 10 to 20 minutes before rinsing with cool water. Honey’s anti-microbial properties foster healing, and yogurt contains lactic acid, a superb exfoliator for gently removing dead skin. 

Have any black tea packets around? The tannins in tea are typically good at neturalizing sunburn. Just soak the bags in tepid water for about a minute and then drape them on the hottest hot spots. The tea’s numbing effect will be a welcome respite—even if only for a bit.

Sadly, there’s no cure-all for sunburned feet. Figure out which approach works best for you and stick with it until the suffering eventually subsides. Next time you spend several hours outside with anything less than shoes on, we have no doubt you’ll be slathering your feet in sunscreen to avoid another round of toasted tootsies.