Some body parts are more likely to get sunburned than others. For example, your lips are a particularly vulnerable spot for sunburns. Generally, sunburned lips become swollen, tender, and red. In some cases, blisters will form, similar to how blisters can form on sunburned skin on other body parts.
Most sunburns heal on their own. Still, taking pain relievers, applying cool compresses, or using topical creams, can help reduce pain, swelling, and redness. However, if you develop blisters with symptoms like fever, headache, or chills, consult a healthcare provider right away.
Preventing sunburned lips can reduce your risk of skin cancer. Most skin cancers affecting the lips tend to be squamous cell carcinomas. The leading risk factor for skin cancer on the lips is exposure to the sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays.
What Causes Sunburned Lips?
If you don't protect your lips with SPF products, they are more likely to get sunburned.
"Many people lick their lips, so they lick the sunscreen off," Debra Jaliman, MD, a dermatologist, told Health. "Some people don't apply sunscreen because they have lipstick or lip gloss on and don't want to remove it, but harmful UV rays will penetrate the product if it doesn't contain sun protection. So, a lip balm with SPF should be an essential part of your routine."
Also, one of the easiest ways to prevent sunburned lips is to keep your lips out of the sun, Rhonda Q. Klein, MD, a dermatologist based in Connecticut, told Health.
After a lip sunburn, precancerous inflammation called actinic cheilitis (AC) can develop. AC can lead to SCC. In its early stages, AC might look and feel like chapped lips. However, consult a dermatologist if you notice something on your lip that feels scaly, looks like a burn, or turns white.
Take Pain Relievers
If your sunburn feels painful, taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can help. For example, aspirin or ibuprofen can reduce discomfort. NSAIDs can treat swollen and red lips, as well.
Use Cold Compresses
A cold compress reduces inflammation and pain, noted Dr. Jaliman. Simply rinse a soft washcloth or dip it in ice water. Then, gently hold it against your lips.
After applying cool water to your lips, moisturizer reduces flaky, dry skin. If you use moisturizer while your lips are still wet, it will help trap the water.
Apply Topical Treatments
To speed healing, try products with panthenol and glycerin, said Dr. Jailman. Panthenol retains moisture. At the same time, glycerin is a protective layer that prevents moisture loss.
Also, look for topical treatments with vitamins C and E, both of which reduce skin cell damage. Lip treatments with cortisone may also decrease inflammation.
In contrast, avoid products that end in "-caine," like benzocaine and lidocaine, which can worsen symptoms. Likewise, do not use butter, petroleum jelly, or products made with oils, especially on blisters. Those products may clog the pores near your lips and cause infection.
Bandage Any Blisters
If your sunburned lips form blisters, applying bandages can prevent infection. However, bandaging the skin near your lips may be hard. Therefore, try not to touch, pop, or pick at blisters if you cannot bandage them.
If you develop a fever, headache, or chills, consult a healthcare provider right away. Those may be signs of an infection.
Living With and Managing Sunburned Lips
Most sunburns, on your lips or any other body part, heal on their own. Still, you can take a few steps to lessen discomfort during healing. For example, make sure that you're staying hydrated (b). Also, wear a lip balm with an SPF of 30 or more daily.
Ensure you also avoid the sun until your lips have fully healed. The UV index is at its highest from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. If you must go outside during that time, consider wearing a wide-brimmed hat just to be on the safe side.
Further, if you develop any of the following symptoms, contact a healthcare provider right away:
- Feeling dizzy
- Quick breathing
- Rapid heart rate
- Feeling very thirsty but not urinating
- Pale, clammy skin
- Fever and chills
- Sunken eyes that are sensitive to bright lights
- Blisters that do not heal or worsen
Preventing sunburned lips is key to reducing your risk of skin cancer. One of the most significant risk factors of skin cancer is frequent sunburns, especially blistering ones.
A Quick Review
Your lips are a particularly vulnerable spot for sunburns. If you have sunburned lips, taking pain relievers, applying cool compresses, or using topical creams, can help reduce pain, swelling, and redness. Consult a healthcare provider if you develop severe symptoms like fever, headache, or chills.
Supreet BD, Mathivanan S, Merchant MI, et al. Squamous cell carcinoma of lower lip reconstructed with bilateral fan flap. Ann Maxillofac Surg. 2019;9(1):211-213. doi:10.4103/ams.ams_3_16
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Nemours Foundation. I got blisters from a sunburn. What should I do?.
Guerra KC, Crane JS. Sunburn. In: StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing; 2022.
American Academy of Dermatology Association. Skin cancer.