Before every summer picnic and beach trip, you probably slather your child with sunscreen. But you might be forgetting an important area prone to burning: the lips.
Your lips (especially the lower lip) are constantly exposed to sunlight when outside. They’re also thinner and contain less melanin than other parts of the body, which makes them susceptible to damage from UV rays. Sunburned lips cause pain and blistering – and they may increase your risk of developing skin cancer later in life – so it’s important to take the proper precautions. Here’s what you need to know about preventing and treating sunburned lips.
If lips become sunburnt, your child will likely develop some of the following symptoms over the next 24-48 hours.
Dryness and tightness
Blister on the lips
Splitting with or without bleeding
Like with sunburn on the rest of skin, the symptoms will last about 3 to 5 days.
Note that if the pain is accompanied by tingling or itching, you may have cold sores on your lips instead. Cold sores are red blisters filled with fluid, while sunburn blisters are small and white.
To prevent sunburned lips, your child should wear a lip balm with SPF 30 or higher, says Adena Rosenblatt, M.D., Ph.D, a pediatric dermatologist at The University of Chicago Comer Children’s Hospital. She adds that you can also apply cream-based sunscreen to your lips – preferably one with natural active ingredients like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Both lip balm and sunscreen will provide a physical barrier from the sun’s UV rays.
Apply the lip balm or sunscreen 15-30 minutes before going outside, and re-apply often. Sunscreen will likely wear off after eating, drinking, swimming, rubbing your mouth, or licking your lips. Pay special attention to your lower lip; since it projects more from the face, it has greater potential of being burned.
Debra M. Langlois, M.D., an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan, suggests wearing a physical barrier like a wide-brimmed hat. Staying in the shade also helps protect your lips. But the best way to prevent painful sun damage – and the potential repercussions like skin cancer that may come with it – is avoiding direct sunlight between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
“For the most part, treating sunburned lips is a matter of waiting it out,” says Dr. Rosenblatt. She suggests applying a moisturizer like Aquaphor or shea butter-infused balm to soothe and heal lips. Many parents choose aloe vera instead – preferably fresh aloe or 100% aloe vera gel, which doesn’t pose a threat if accidentally ingested. However, Dr. Rosenblatt warns that aloe vera is a common cause of skin allergies, so be careful using it on your child’s body.
Dr. Langlois says that staying hydrated is also key to the healing process. “Give breast milk or formula to babies with sunburned lips and give water to older children,” she explains. Liquid combats dehydration that’s often associated with sunburn, and drinking plenty of water will help restore sunburned lips to health.
If moisturizing lip products and hydration don’t help, Dr. Langlois advises parents to try home remedies. For example, you can apply cold compresses (such as a washcloth dipped in cold water or milk) to the lips. As a last resort, give your child a safe amount of anti-inflammatory medication like Tylenol.
You should seek medical attention for severe lip pain and inflammation, especially if it’s accompanied by fever and rash. This may indicate an allergic reaction to the sun (yes, it’s possible!). And don’t pop blisters on sunburned lips, since this can lead to pain and possible infection.