This column is in response to a reader's e-mail that asked, “Could you do a little list of food or herbal remedies for sunburn sometime soon? Someone told me [to try] mashed potatoes for sunburn and I am wondering if there is something more inconspicuous. ...” Mashed potatoes? Now that's an entertaining thought. If laughter is the best medicine then surely slathering oneself in cold mashed potatoes would take the pain away.
Before you get to needing a sunburn remedy, remember: There's no substitute for prevention. Use sunblock for chrissakes. Even an hour spent wandering around the flea market at 9 a.m. can turn your shoulders beet red, so be sure to slather them with sunblock. Keep hydrated too. Being out in the New Mexico sun can dry you out faster than a drunk in his first rehab program. If you get home and can sense that you've had too much sun you might want to take an aspirin, Tylenol, Advil or Aleve; it can help with the inflammation and keep your sunburn from getting as painful as it could be. It's also possible that using these drugs, known as NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), can prevent the formation of a certain enzyme that is responsible for pre-cancerous changes in the skin (read: there's a remote chance they'll help prevent skin cancer).
What you shouldn't do is hop in the shower and scrub yourself vigorously with soap. Let your skin retain some of its protective oils. Look in the kitchen for some food-derived ingredients that can help. Did your grandmother (the same one who cleaned the whole house with vinegar and brushed her teeth with baking soda) ever tell you to put cool, wet tea bags on your sunburn? Mine did. I thought she was crazy but hoo-eee did it take the pain away. In addition to providing a general cool, wet feeling, the chemical makeup of the tea can actually help to reduce swelling and repair sun damage.
There are several ways to reap the soothing benefits of tea. You could just make some tea, let the bags cool and plop them on the painful parts, holding them in place with some gauze if necessary. Or, you could make a huge batch of super-strong tea using, say, a whole box of green tea and a whole box of peppermint herbal tea, allow it to cool, then dunk a big bath towel in it and lie under a fan with the cool, wet towel spread over your roasted body. If that sounds too messy, you could take a batch of super-strong tea, add it to some cool bath water and macerate your bright pink parts until the throbbing stops. See now, doesn't that sound good?
Vinegar is also said to possess some of the same qualities as NSAIDs and is an old-school method of reducing the pain and swelling of a sunburn. Try pouring some distilled white vinegar (the cheap stuff) into a clean spray bottle. Put a few drops of lavender or rosemary essential oil in with the vinegar and you'll smell a little less like a freshly tossed salad.
After all that—if your burn isn't so bad you've got blisters—feel free to moisturize your skin with a light layer of olive oil. It's rich in antioxidant vitamin E and though it probably won't prevent your burned skin from peeling off in sheets, it may help the skin beneath to repair itself faster.