How do you sleep with a sunburn? We ask an expert

A brunette woman wakes up from her sleep to touch the sunburn on her shoulder
(Image credit: Getty Images)

While summer days mean more fun in the sun, an unfortunate side effect of the warmer weather can be sunburn. A nasty sunburn is painful and can seem even more uncomfortable at night when you're trying to sleep. That's why we've called upon a sleep expert to show us how to sleep with a sunburn.

When it comes to sunburn and sleep, even the temperature regulating properties of the year's best mattress won't be able to cure your discomfort. Fortunately, Dr Hana Patel, resident sleep expert at Time4Sleep, is here to advise us on how we can sleep with a sunburn on different parts of the body. 

“Sunburn often leaves your skin feeling sore and painful, making for an uncomfortable sleep," says Dr Patel. "Depending on where you’ve burnt your body, you’ll want to opt for a sleeping position that avoids putting pressure on the sunburned areas."

With the help of Dr Patel, we've created this guide on not letting a scarlet suntan get in the way of a good night's sleep. The sleep expert also answers some of the most frequently asked questions about sunburn, including why it somehow always feels worse at night. 

Why does sunburn feel worse at night? 

A young woman inspects the sunburn on her arm

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Have you spent a day enjoying the sunshine, only to discover that you're as red as a lobster when you arrive home? Well, there's a simple reason for that. “If you’ve caught the sun during the day, your sunburn may feel worse that night as it usually takes 4-6 hours for sunburn symptoms to arise," explains Dr Patel. 

The sleep doctor also suggests that it's not that sunburn feels worse at night-time, it feels worse at bedtime. “The soreness of sunburn can also be exaggerated by the pressure of lying down to sleep at night," she says. "And the damaged skin may be irritated by contact with your bedding.”

How can you treat sunburn before bed?

A close-up of aloe vera gel on a hand to treat sunburn

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Before you settle in for an uncomfortable night, Dr Patel says to first prep yourself in the evening to limit the pain of a bad sunburn. She suggests cooling down with a cold shower or cool, damp towel and take a paracetamol if you're in pain. As for nightwear, opt for loose-fitting clothes or pyjamas made from cotton or silk. "Never wear tight clothing over a sunburn as this can rub harshly against your skin, causing friction which will further aggravate the damage,” she says.

However, the most important thing you must do (both in the evening and throughout the day) is hydrate your skin and body. "Apply generous amounts of aloe vera to the sunburned areas to reduce inflammation and soothe your skin, and of course drink plenty of water throughout the day to help your body recover,” advises Dr Patel. 

A woman sleeps on a silk pillowcase and bedding

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Dr Patel also recommends adjusting your sleep set-up as well, opting for bedding that won't rub against your skin: “If sleeping under a duvet or blanket, make sure you’re choosing non-irritating bedding, such as cotton or silk."

Sleeping on one of the year's best cooling mattresses might not be able to help with your sunburn, but it will prevent overheating at night from adding to your overall discomfort.

How can you sleep with sunburn on your legs? 

A close-up of a man with sunburn on his legs.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Unfortunately, your legs come into contact with your bed no matter which position you sleep in. However, Dr Patel says grabbing some extra pillows should be able to help.  “To ease the pain and reduce any swelling from sunburn on your legs, you should use pillows to raise them slightly," says the sleep expert. 

Make sure the pillows you are using aren't too high, but high enough to elevate your legs. Also, cover the pillow in a cotton or silk case to reduce irritation. 

How can you sleep with sunburn on your back? 

Close-up of sunburn marks on woman's back

(Image credit: Getty Images)

If you're a back sleeper, catching the sun on your back and shoulder blades can make sleeping particularly uncomfortable. Dr Patel suggests trying to sleep on your side or stomach instead. If this isn't an option, use several pillows to help you sleep in the supine position. 

"Prop your head up slightly by stacking two to three pillows to relieve some of the pressure from lying on your back," she suggests. “It’s also a good idea to keep your room cool with a fan to reduce the feeling of heat from your burn.” 

How can you sleep with sunburn on your arms and shoulders? 

Man applies soothing cream to a sunburn on his arm

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Most people lie on their side to get comfy, but a burn on the arms or shoulders can make sleeping in that position impossible, But there are a few things you can do to alleviate discomfort.

“For sunburn on your arms and shoulders, try to sleep on your back," advises Dr Patel. "Again, using pillows to help prop your arms up can alleviate pressure as well as help to keep you from tossing and turning throughout the night which could cause further irritation.”  

Frances Daniels
Sleep Staff Writer

Frances Daniels is a Sleep Staff Writer at Tom's Guide and her role includes covering all mattress and sleep news, in addition to mattress reviews and buyer's guides, plus sleep accessories such as pillows and mattress toppers. Frances is a PPA-accredited journalist and is hugely interested in the relationship between good sleep and overall health. When not writing about mattresses and sleep for Tom's Guide, Frances enjoys writing about women's issues, health and wellbeing, the environment, and her native Wales.