Why Does Your Skin Peel After a Sunburn?

Whatever you do, don't pull off the flaky skin.

A sunburn—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. This is because the sun sparks a "cascade of chemical reactions" starting in the pigment-forming cells called melanocytes, explained Doris Day, MD, a dermatologist with NYU Langone Health. "They produce more pigment and that sits like an umbrella over your skin cells to protect the DNA from [further] sun damage."

"There are different severities of sunburn," said Gabriel Neal, MD, a clinical associate professor at Texas A&M University. "If your skin is peeling, then it's a mild to moderate sunburn."

As if the pain of sunburn wasn't bad enough, in the days following, you might also find yourself covered in dry, flaky, peeling skin.

Why Sunburn Peels

The color and sting of sunburn are temporary, and sometimes the burn can be replaced by peeling, according to MedlinePlus. "The sun has caused DNA damage to the [sunburned] skin cells, and the cells commit suicide," Dr. Neal said. Skin cells are constantly dying and sloughing off without you noticing, according to Nemours Children's Health. A sunburn speeds up the process, leading to visible peeling.

According to MedlinePlus, you should see a healthcare provider if your sunburn is accompanied by:

  • Painful blisters
  • Nausea
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Feeling faint
  • Fast heartbeat

Don't Peel It Yourself

Even though you might be tempted to peel off that flaky skin, it's not a great idea, Dr. Neal said. "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," Dr. Neal said.

"If you're going to peel, you're going to peel," Dr. Day said. "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 increase the risk of infection and scarring."

It's even worse to pop post-sunburn blisters, which can appear after an even more serious burn, according to MedlinePlus. Dry bandages can prevent infections associated with blisters.

What To Do Instead

Instead, try exfoliating (very gently!) a week or so after the sunburn with a gentle body scrub or brush, advised 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," Dr. Day said. "The skin gets thirsty for water. If you hydrate super, super well, your skin will still peel, but it won't be as obvious."

Since the skin is dry, it would be a good idea to moisturize by applying lotion right after a bath or shower, according to the Better Health Channel. "You already have water on your skin, and you can lock it in," Dr. Day said. Reapply frequently and liberally.

Ibuprofen can help ease any sunburn-related pain and inflammation, as can aloe vera gel, according to Nemours Children's Health.

Prevention Is the Best Protection

Even though sunburn is temporary, you want to make sure it doesn't happen again. This will help keep your risk for skin cancer in check and prevent premature signs of aging, according to MedlinePlus.

"Basically, the most important word is prevention," said Natalia Jaimes, MD, a dermatologist with the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Miami. "That means sun avoidance (seeking the shade if you're walking); sun protective clothing, including a hat and sunglasses; and sunscreen," explained Dr. Jaimes.

Look for water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher, and put it on before you head out into the glare, according to MedlinePlus. And don't forget to reapply around every two hours.


Whether it's sore, burning, or peeling off—sunburn can be a pain. The sun can cause damage to the skin, and that damage can cause your skin to peel off. It's important to try to resist the urge to peel it off yourself.

Unfortunately, sunburn happens. But it's important to prevent it from happening again by wearing a hat, sunglasses, and plenty of sunscreen whenever you step outside.

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