Does a Sauna or Steam Room Help a Sunburn? (With Watch Outs!)

Getting a pretty nasty sunburn can happen very easily no matter how careful you are, even on overcast days where it doesn’t seem like you should be at risk of burning. A bad burn can put you out of commission for a few days while you heal. Does a sauna or steam room, which have other benefits for the skin, help sunburned skin to heal?

Neither a sauna nor a steam room will help a sunburn heal. The damage done by the sun’s ultraviolet rays causes irritation and redness which will remain warm or even hot to the touch for several days depending on the severity of the burn. It’s best to stay away from other sources of heat, including saunas, which can interfere with proper healing. 

What would happen if you took a sauna with a sunburn anyway? Are there any circumstances when a sauna or steam room might provide a benefit to a sunburn? Keep reading for more details.

Is it okay to go to a sauna or steam room with a sunburn?

It seems almost intuitive that the beneficial properties a sauna can provide to the skin might be helpful in the healing of the skin from a bad sunburn. Should you try it?

It’s a bad idea to go into a traditional sauna, or a steam room, with even a mild sunburn. Not only will the heat interfere with the sunburn’s healing, but you could make the burn itself worse. Extra heat on top of already painful sunburn is likely to aggravate any irritation, pain, and discomfort you may already be experiencing.

A steam room is a bad idea for largely the same reasons as a traditional sauna. While it may seem that the high-moisture environment of steam should provide extra hydration to the skin, there’s a counter-effect from the hot steam that offsets any benefit of exposure. You want to cool that burn, not heat it up!

Better to directly apply cool, damp towels directly to the affected area than to tax your already damaged skin’s surface to further sources of heat. You can enjoy the sauna once your sunburn heals!

What does heat do to a sunburn?

The principal benefits saunas are thought to offer under optimal conditions include increasing blood flow and oxygen to the surface of the skin, which aids in overall health, elasticity, and collagen production.  Shouldn’t sauna heat be a good thing, then, for the damaged skin of a sunburn?

Heating the damaged surface of sunburned skin in a sauna does not aid healing or benefit skin the way traditional sauna heat benefits healthy skin. Instead, sauna heat will just irritate the sunburn, worsening any pain and inflammation. Since a sunburn stresses and dehydrates your skin, excess heat is likely to contribute to already existing dehydration.

Your goal should be to cool that burn down, not heat it up! 

You’ll also want to treat and remedy the drying effects of sunburn, which can be significantly dehydrating. Restore moisture from the outside and from within simultaneously by drinking plenty of fluids, with plain water being the most beneficial. Applying cool water gently to the surface of the burn (by taking a gentle cool shower) will also soothe the burn. Cool, damp compresses and loosely wrapped ice packs can provide comfort and relief as well as aiding the process of healing.

What does hot water or steam do to a sunburn?

The very worst sunburn I ever experienced happened hiking in Utah. We ran out of water with about 4 miles to go in a rocky canyon, a highly technical hike that included bouldering – hard work which led to a lot of sweating! After 13 hours in the canyon in 90°F temps, I was thirstier than I’d ever been, dehydrated to the point of not even sweating anymore, and my skin was a brilliant lobster red. 

The only treatment available to me was to drink water (my thirst seemed unquenchable) and saturate clean cotton t-shirts with water once we were back at camp, then apply the wet fabric to my burn. I kept water-saturated cotton on every scorched inch of my skin all night. In the morning, I was amazed by the transformation. The pain was nearly gone, and the redness had abated significantly.

Lots of water, then, is clearly your friend.  So is it water, period, that’s beneficial to a sunburn?  Would a regular warm shower or steam room also help heal you up? 

Neither hot water nor steam will make your sunburn worse outright… but they won’t provide much in the way of benefit. The warmth will likely be uncomfortable and could irritate the inflammation, (which would probably be painful).  In the worst cases – say, if you have a sunburn so severe your skin blisters – the steam from a steam room could increase your exposure to the potential for infection.

So remember to keep away from sources of more heat until that healing process is well underway, especially with severe burns. This includes staying out of the sun, wearing non-restrictive clothing that allows the skin exposure to the open air (unless you’re wrapped in wet cool cotton), and freedom from potentially irritating contact with the fabric of clothing. And of course, absolutely avoid the heated air in a traditional sauna.

Are infrared saunas okay for sunburns?

Manufacturers of infrared saunas extol their benefits, and research does exist that shows infrared saunas are beneficial in the healing process for burns.

Infrared saunas are actually fine to use with a sunburn and can be even beneficial. The proven benefits to the healing process of burns are due to the penetrative effects of infrared light. While it may seem counter-intuitive, an infrared sauna could actually help the healing process.

Though whether you want to feel the heat of any sauna with a sunburn, even if there is a potential for healing, is another consideration… you may be satisfied just to keep cool and wait it out.

How to get rid of a sunburn more quickly

It’s admittedly not easy to tolerate a bad sunburn for any length of time. Most of us would like to heal up as quickly as possible. In addition to the trick of cool wet compresses and lots of hydration, along with keeping in as cool an environment as possible, here are a few ways to help your body over the hurdle of healing from too much sun.

To heal sunburn quickly stay out of the sun, keep the burned area clean, cool, and moisturized, and well-hydrated by drinking plenty of plain water. Avoid heat, cologne, and perfumed moisturizers. Use cool, damp compresses, and if there’s significant irritation or inflammation, try an anti-inflammatory to help reduce redness and pain.

It’s also a good idea NOT to try to use products with “-caine” in their names, such as benzocaine. These creams and topical ointments could cause irritation or even an allergic reaction, and in extreme cases, a disorder called methemoglobinemia that restricts the oxygen saturation of the blood, which can even be deadly.

Additional tips for caring for sunburn from Mayo Clinic can be read here. If you have a severe burn, blisters larger than your fingernail, or extreme pain, err on the side of caution and seek medical advice.