While many of turn to soothing aloe vera to treat sunburns, others have been experimenting with coconut oil—an ingredient fantastic for skin hydration but not necessarily proven for after-sun care. To learn more about whether coconut oil can hydrate sunburned skin, we turned to experts, including board-certified New York dermatologists Dr. Blair Murphy-Rose and Dr. Michele Green.
First, it’s helpful to learn what, exactly, a sunburn is. “The most common type of sunburns are superficial burns that cause redness, inflammation, and discomfort,” explains NYC board-certified . “When sunburns cause damage to deeper layers of the skin they can lead to blistering and even skin breakdown, if severe.” Fortunately, she says that most sunburns don’t require medical care and can be easily treated at home. “Sunburns warrant medical attention if the burn covers a large surface area of skin, blisters are extensive, pain is not controlled by NSAIDs, or you are having systemic symptoms like fever, headache, nausea, confusion, or fainting,” Murphy-Rose concludes, noting that these side effects are most common with second and third-degree burns.
So, Since we’re as eager to find new skincare remedies as you are, we tapped a few of the industry’s top derms for their thoughts on how coconut oil compares to aloe.
Can You Use Coconut Oil on a Sunburn?
While you can use coconut oil on a late-stage sunburn, it will make a new sunburn worse, so it’s best to stick to tried-and-true treatments like aloe vera . According to Murphy-Rose, all occlusive products, like oils and ointments (coconut oil included), should be avoided in the first few days following a sunburn—hence why so many people have historically reached for aloe vera over coconut oil.
The reason you don’t want to apply coconut oil to newly-burned skin is that, thanks to its occlusive properties, it can smother the skin and make your burn look and feel even worse. “This is because applying any oil over a fresh sunburn will trap the heat on the surface of your skin,” Green explains. “This can worsen the burn, increase inflammation, and keep your skin hot and red making the healing process take longer.”
Due to the potentially harmful effects of immediately applying coconut oil to burned skin, Murphy-Rose says that you’re better off to stick to non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen, paired with aloe vera gel, hydrocortisone cream, and cool compresses until your burn has subsided a bit.
When Is it Safe to Use Coconut Oil on a Burn?
You Can Use Coconut Oil Once the Skin Has Cooled
“Once the skin has cooled [to the touch], it is time for you to get all the benefits coconut oil has to offer your skin,” Green says. “Using organic coconut oil to soothe sunburn will nourish and energize the skin cells. That will stimulate your body’s healing and repair process to naturally help your skin shed those excess layers of dead cells that make it rough, uneven, dull, and scaly.”
Don’t Use it on a New Burn, Blister, or Severe Burn
Whatever you do, don’t apply coconut oil to blistered or broken skin—even if it feels cool to the touch. Both Murphy-Rose and Green advise against it given its trapping nature. And when in doubt, your safest option is to skip coconut oil altogether and stick to better-supported healing methods.
Coconut Oil vs. Aloe Vera
While you can reap some benefits from coconut oil when it comes to sunburn, Murphy-Rose says she still advises to use aloe vera for burns. “ I prefer aloe vera in the early phase of a sunburn,” she says, “It will not occlude skin or trap heat, so it can be used to immediately soothe (and even cool) the skin,” Murphy-Rose says.
At this point, it’s no secret that aloe vera is the fan-favorite when it comes to sunburn relief. That’s because, according to Green, aloe vera is ripe with antioxidants and antibacterial properties that work together to inhibit the growth of bacteria and promote healing and overall healthier skin. “Aloe vera is also widely known to accelerate the healing of burns—studies have shown that it’s an effective topical treatment for first- and second-degree burns,” she adds. “Aloe vera can be beneficial for the skin as well—it contains enzymes, vitamins A and E, and also anti-inflammatory properties that can help with dry skin, acne (specifically on superficial acne rather than deep or cystic acne), and inflammation.”
Of course, coconut oil is not without benefits. “Coconut oil is a great moisturizer for when you need something that is both soothing and simple,” Green says. Just stick to aloe vera in the first few days before transitioning to coconut oil.
When used correctly, coconut oil can be used on a sunburn. But due to its heat-trapping properties, it can actually make a sunburn worse if you use it on newly burned skin. If your skin is warm to the touch, reach for aloe vera instead. And, in general, dermatologists still consider aloe vera to be the gold standard for treating a sunburn, so use it instead of coconut oil whenever possible.
And of course, the best thing you could do for your skin is to avoid a sunburn in the first place by seeking shade, wearing SPF 30 or higher every single day (and reapplying every two hours), and avoiding peak UV exposure hours in your area.