A June 2018 Facebook post recommending menthol shaving cream (or shaving foam, as it is called in the UK) to alleviate the pain of sunburns has accrued more than 230,000 shares. A repost by another person with the same photographs was also shared thousands of times:
The original post has since been edited based on the large reader response, but the second one was more to the point:
menthol foam shaving cream for 30 min, don’t rub it in, just let it sit on your skin.
Reapply if necessary.
You’re welcome 🙂
The original poster claimed that her mother-in-law had received the advice in the post from a doctor four decades before. Although the images could be construed as an immediate effect, the description said that three days had passed between the first and third photographs:
First, buy you some Menthol foam shaving cream. It has to be the foam and it has to have menthol in it. We found Gillette shaving cream on Amazon since we had problems finding menthol foam in stores. We ended up buying 6 cans of it, but it works out because we live in Texas and sunburns happen a lot. (Plus, we have given a couple cans to friends.)
Next, apply the shaving cream on the burn. It may seem like it’s a strange shaving ritual, but trust me! Don’t rub it in, just let it sit on your skin. It will start bringing all that heat out (you’ll be able to feel it). You may feel like you are itchy too, but that’s a good thing! Itching means healing.
Then, after about 30 minutes, the shaving cream will seem like it has dissolved in spots. It will seem like it’s not as moist and a little dried out. You will feel as if you’re becoming a little cold, at least on the sunburned part of your body. THAT IS A GOOD SIGN!
Next, rinse it off in a lukewarm or cool shower or bath. It’s just to get the residue off.
Finally, if you still need it, do it again the next day. Usually after that second treatment, the sunburn disappears.
The pictures show my treatment. The final picture was taken the third day after my sunburn. I slept great after the first treatment and when my shoulders still felt hot from the burn the next day, I had another coating of shaving cream on just my shoulders. I have not had any peeling either. I use this on my kids too!
A number of sun safety protocols have been updated in the past forty years. For example, doctors started recommending the use of sunblock for outdoor activities; although sunburns were once considered simply a side effect of summer activities, they are not recommended:
Excessive sun exposure, even without sunburn, increases your risk of skin cancer, such as melanoma. It can damage the DNA of skin cells. Sunburns in childhood and adolescence may increase your risk of developing melanoma later in life.
Those recommendations are no longer confined to summer, either. The American Academy of Dermatologists advises that sunblock be used for all outdoor activities year round, to minimize sun damage and cancer risk:
Every day if you will be outside. The sun emits harmful UV rays year-round. Even on cloudy days, up to 80 percent of the sun’s harmful UV rays can penetrate your skin.
Snow, sand, and water increase the need for sunscreen because they reflect the sun’s rays.
That said, sunburns still happen, of course. The original post said that between the first and third photographs of a sunburn and partly-healed skin, three days had passed. Three days is roughly the amount of time it takes for a mild sunburn to completely heal, and is also just before skin peeling sets in:
Sunburn is a sign that the body is trying to repair damaged skin, and this can take time. How long it lasts will depend on how severe the sunburn is:
- Mild sunburn will continue for approximately 3 days.
- Moderate sunburn lasts for around 5 days and is often followed by peeling skin.
- Severe sunburn can last for more than a week, and the affected person may need to seek medical advice.
- The immediate symptoms of the skin feeling hot, looking red, and feeling sore, will usually worsen 24–36 hours after exposure to the sun.
Pain is often at its worst 6–48 hours after burning.
If the skin is going to peel, it will usually start to happen 3–8 days after sun exposure.
Sunburn improvement is expected after three days, whether or not menthol shaving cream is applied to affected skin. Menthol’s cooling effect is likely part of the draw, and a soothing effect might seem beneficial to those suffering with a painful sunburn.
However, the National Poison Control Center says of topical application of menthol that it can actually exacerbate the problem:
Menthol can cause eye and skin irritation. When used on the skin, menthol is typically diluted into a “carrier oil”, lotion, or other vehicle. If a high-percentage menthol product is applied to the skin, irritation and even chemical burns have been reported. There are a few reports of people being very sensitive to menthol and having severe skin reactions to even small amounts.
On the website of skincare expert Paula Begoun, a page about sensitized skin (such as from a sunburn) cautions against the use of ingredients like menthol:
When problem ingredients (see the list below) aggravate skin’s surface, a chain reaction can occur that makes oily skin worse, possibly triggering more breakouts.
Dry skin is just as susceptible to the effects of sensitizing ingredients as any other skin type. The difference is that instead of skin becoming oilier, it becomes drier, visibly flaky, and can look dehydrated and dull. We’re certain that’s not what anyone wants from their skincare products!
In a separate page on individual ingredients, Begoun says of menthol:
Derived from peppermint, menthol can have the same sensitizing effect as peppermint on skin. Despite its documented ability to sensitize skin, menthol is included in a surprisingly large number of products. Unfortunately, the cooling, refreshing sensation menthol causes is direct evidence that your skin is being sensitized, not soothed.
In specific response to the viral menthol shaving cream sunburn post, UK-based doctor Sonal Shah advised first avoiding sunburns, and then avoiding the advice in the post:
“The reason some people find that shaving foam can help sunburn is because it contains menthol and when menthol touches the skin it provides a cooling effect,” explains Dr Shah.
“However it is not a remedy that I would recommend, mainly because it could put you at risk of infection.”
Instead, if you do get burnt Dr Shah recommends following these simple steps:
- Try to cool down the skin with cold compresses or cold flannels, be careful not to apply ice directly to the skin.
- Apply after sun or aloe vera gel to the skin to help soothe it, a good tip is to leave after sun cream in the fridge, so when applied to the skin it can soothe any discomfort.
- Buy treatments over the counter that contain silver sulphadiazine which can help with burns.
- Take paracetamol, ibuprofen or antihistamine to stop the pain and itching may help.
- Avoid picking or bursting blisters, as this may expose the area and lead to infection.
- Keep the area clean and dry, and wear loose fitting clothing to avoid things rubbing over the area.
- Avoid things like vaseline or toothpaste.
The advice about menthol shaving cream and sunburn is not well considered for a few reasons. One is that experts recommend avoiding getting a sunburn at all, if possible. When sunburn is inevitable, the resulting sensitized skin is susceptible to infection, and menthol can exacerbate that risk. Although menthol may feel soothing, it can also intensify the sensation of the burn and it offers no known benefit. Sunburned skin should improve in three days whether or not menthol shaving cream is applied to it, and applying it can worsen discomfort and potentially lead to infection.