Why Does a Sunburn Peel–and What Can You Do About It?
As if the pain of a sunburn wasn’t bad enough, in the days following, you might also find yourself covered in dry, flaky, peeling skin.
“There are different severities of sunburn,” says Gabriel Neal, MD, a clinical assistant professor at Texas A&M College of Medicine. “If your skin is peeling, then it’s a mild to moderate sunburn.”
The burn itself–that sore red or pink tinge to your skin–can show up just a couple of hours after you’ve been exposed to the sun. The sun sparks a “cascade of chemical reactions” starting in the pigment-forming cells called melanocytes, explains Doris Day, MD, a dermatologist with Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. “They produce more pigment and that sits like an umbrella over your skin cells to protect the DNA from [further] sun damage.”
The color and sting of a sunburn go away in three to 10 days, sometimes to be replaced by peeling. “The sun has caused DNA damage to the [sunburned] skin cells, and the cells commit suicide,” Dr. Neal says. Skin cells are always dying and sloughing off without you noticing, but a sunburn speeds up the process, leading to visible peeling.
How to treat a peeling sunburn
Even though you might be tempted to peel off that flaky skin, it’s not a great idea, Dr. Neal says.
“Whenever the outermost layer of skin is disrupted from a cut or a burn or any type of damage, it opens the door for infection,” he says.
“If you’re going to peel, you’re going to peel,” says Dr. Day. “But the worst thing to do is to pull off dead skin, because it exposes skin cells that weren’t ready to be exposed and increases the risk of infection and scarring.” (It’s even worse to pop post-sunburn blisters, which can appear after an even more serious burn.)
Instead, try exfoliating–very gently!–a week or so after the sunburn with a gentle body scrub or brush, advises Dr. Day.
You'll also want to rehydrate your parched skin. “A sunburn will cook the water out of your skin, so it leaves you really dry,” she says. “The skin gets thirsty for water. If you hydrate super, super well, your skin will still peel, but it won’t be as obvious.”
Rather than a thin lotion, go for one of the thicker, occlusive preparations like Skinfix Ultra Rich Body Butter ($15; amazon.com) or Theraplex Barrier Balm ($16.50; dermstore.com) to moisturize and calm itching.
The best time to apply is right after a bath or shower. “You already have water on your skin, and you can lock it in,” Dr. Day says. Reapply frequently–and liberally.
Ibuprofen can help ease any sunburn-related pain and inflammation, as can aloe vera gel. See a doctor if your sunburn is accompanied by blistering over large parts of your body, fever, headache, or vomiting.
Prevention is the best protection
Even better than gels and lotions is making sure burns don’t happen in the first place. This will help keep your risk for skin cancer in check and prevent premature signs of aging.
“Basically the most important word is prevention,” says Natalia Jaimes, MD, a dermatologist with the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, part of the University of Miami Health System. “That means sun avoidance (seeking the shade if you’re walking); sun protective clothing, including a hat and sunglasses; and sunscreen,” explains Dr. Jaimes, who is also an assistant professor of dermatology and cutaneous surgery at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.
Look for water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher, and put it on before you head out into the glare. Don’t forget to reapply around every two hours.