5 traditional Slavic cures for sunburn

These are the natural ways that our ancestors used to treat sunburn!

Hans (CC0), Pixabay

Sunburns? Even though I am in the southern Slavic lands, through some genetic quirk of my ancestry, I am what is lovingly referred to “as white as cheese”, and at the time of my childhood sunblock wasn’t used. And if it was, it was an SPF 4, or an 8, if you were a crazy person. It was a majestic, ancient time when every sunblock smelled “tropical” which was just another word for an awful artificial coconut smell. Of course, nobody bothered to put it on their children, and I spent a good portion of every summer getting and recovering from various sunburns.

But as bad as the sunburns themselves were (and as fascinatingly disgusting the later stages of peeling were), there was one thing that was even more horrific and disgusting- The traditional sunburn cures. Of course I compiled a list of them for you, because misery loves company, and younger generations should learn of the horrors we had to endure before SPF 40 became the norm.

Yogurt or Sour Milk

The first and foremost cure for sunburns was always either yogurt or sour milk. The poor unfortunate child would come home as red as a lobster, and a family member (usually mother or grandmother) would declare that the “heat needs to be pulled out” and at that moment the fight or flight instinct would kick in. Of course, there was no point in arguing, and there was no escape, so the child would be laid face-down on a sheet, have some form of fermented milk spread over their backs and shoulders and sometimes covered with a cheesecloth to stop the whole thing from sliding away. There usually weren’t any books to read, or TV to watch because for some reason (I suspect gleeful sadism) they would point you away from it, and all you could do was listen to the world around you and choke on the smell of yogurt slowly turning to cheese on your back.

To this day I can’t really eat yogurt, kefir or anything of that type.

Fish ointment

Another favourite was the dreaded fish-ointment. This usually came as stage two of treating the sunburn, after the “heat was drawn out”. It was (and still is) made of fish fat/oil and is supposedly very rich in vitamin A and helps the skin regenerate. While the original idea was to make the burns go away faster, all it really made go away were your friends, because you would be running around slathered in fish ointment with a t-shirt clinging to your greasy back smelling like a fish-market at closing time.  Nobody really ever wanted to play with the kid smelling of fish, even though we all, at some point, were the kid smelling of fish.

Olive Oil

My mother used it as a sunblock, and would joyfully roast in the sun half of the day without ever getting sunburned, or so she claimed. Applying it as a sunburn soother usually just left me smelling like olive oil, and feeling and being incredibly greasy. Due to the fact that it also seemed to stain, you could have been sure that any t-shirt you wore would forever and ever be marked with a greenish-yellow stain for all eternity. Farewell my beloved Mickey Mouse tee, I still remember you!


Another favorite when it came to “drawing out the heat” or “pulling out the heat” were potatoes.  As I am writing this there is a serious discussion going on between my friends if the potatoes need to be grated or just sliced to get the full effect. Either way, you’d be lying there covered in potato and possibly, once again, the obligatory cheesecloth, turned away from the TV or anything interesting, and while, for a change, at least the smell wasn’t as horrible as the yogurt or various oils, the water from grated potatoes would run down in rivulets down your back and tickle something awful. Of course, if you scratched, you’d be in pain. Amazingly enough, this has never managed to put me off potatoes.

Chamomile tea

Ah, the ever popular chamomile tea. Was there anything it couldn’t do? It was used for tummy aches, eye infections, inflammations of any kind, and was the favourite drink to give children.  In the case of sunburns, it would be brewed, left to cool, and either cloth diapers or towels would be soaked and then placed on the sunburned spots. You may have been given some of it to drink too, just in case. Of all things offered, it certainly smelled the best!

All in all, those were horrible, dark times, and to this day I am certain our parents derived some amount of joy from our suffering, even though they were trying to help us and do what was best. But really… they could have chosen something less smelly.

What do you think?

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