7 Reasons Your Skin May Be Peeling, Plus How to Help Prevent ItDecember 05, 2022
Once your skin starts to peel, it can be hard to get it to stop. But with so many different causes associated with peeling skin, it can be challenging to avoid it completely. Still, if you bring yourself up to speed on all the factors that can potentially cause peeling to occur, you’ll be in a much better position to tackle your flaking skin. Keep reading to find out what peeling skin is, what can cause your skin to peel, how you can get your peeling skin under control, and last — but certainly not least — how you can prevent your skin from peeling in the first place.
What Is Peeling Skin?
Peeling skin refers to the shedding of the outermost layer of skin. Your skin is composed of three distinct layers: the epidermis, or the top layer that locks in your skin’s hydration, the dermis, which is the middle layer and contains collagen, and the hypodermis, the bottom layer that connects your skin to underlying tissues. According to board-certified dermatologist Dr. Carmen Castilla, “Flaking or peeling skin is typically a sign of inflammation in the epidermis and disruption of the skin barrier.”
This can occur anywhere on the body, and can happen to people of all age groups, skin types, tones and ethnicities. Since there’s more than one reason why your skin can start to peel, pinpointing a root cause can prove difficult.
“The structure of the epidermis is typically described as ‘brick and mortar,’” says Dr. Castilla. “The bricks are the keratinocytes, i.e. the skin cells, and the mortar is ceramides and other fatty acids that glue the cells together. Together they are commonly referred to as the ‘skin barrier’. Inflammation in the epidermis pushes these bonds apart, which manifests on a clinical level as skin peeling or flaking. Anything that causes inflammation in the epidermis or disrupted bonds between the skin cells in the epidermis can lead to skin peeling or flaking.”
Common Peeling Skin Areas
It’s possible to experience peeling skin practically anywhere on your body, but common areas include your face, hands, feet and scalp. Essentially, where you are likely to experience peeling skin depends on what specifically is causing the peeling. Ahead, we get into the specifics of the different factors that can cause skin peeling on different areas of your body.
Why Is My Skin Peeling?
Not sure what’s causing your skin to peel? Below, we’re sharing seven common causes of peeling skin, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Peeling Skin Cause #1: Dryness
When your skin is dry, it is essentially lacking moisture. This can occur due to a number of reasons, including exposure to hot or cold weather or low humidity environments. That’s why most people experience skin dryness during the winter months. Subzero temps, whipping winds and artificial heat can cause the skin to dry out quickly. In addition to a dulled appearance, dry skin can also begin to flake off when touched or scratched, leading to skin peeling for some.
Peeling Skin Cause #2: Sunburn
Have you ever spent too much time outdoors, exposed to UV rays without proper sun protection, only to come back home and notice your skin looks red and feels hot to the touch? Chances are you’re experiencing a sunburn. Your skin may not start to peel right away, but a telltale sign of sunburn is dead skin cells that eventually peel off to allow for new cells to come to the surface.
Peeling Skin Cause #3: Allergic Reactions
Did you recently switch out your moisturizer for a new formula or switch your laundry detergent? It’s possible your skin is having an allergic reaction to certain ingredients in your skincare products, soaps, detergents, shampoos and more. When that happens, some people may experience skin peeling as a result.
Peeling Skin Cause #4: Certain Skin Conditions
When your skin is prone to certain inflammatory skin conditions — think: psoriasis and eczema — peeling skin may be more of a frequent occurrence. That’s because both psoriasis and eczema can cause itchy, scaly skin that can begin to peel. Both conditions are chronic, but there are ways to help control symptoms.
Peeling Skin Cause #5: Seborrheic Dermatitis
Seborrheic dermatitis is a skin condition that mainly affects your scalp causing scaly patches, red skin, and dandruff. According to the Mayo Clinic, seborrheic dermatitis is a condition that can cause peeling skin.
Peeling Skin Cause #6: Over-Cleansing
Whether you’re cleansing your face or your body, overdoing it can have a negative impact. Harsh soaps and cleansers can strip the skin of moisture, and if you kick your cleansing habit into overdrive you risk drying out your skin significantly. As we mentioned earlier, skin that’s dry can begin to flake and peel.
Peeling Skin Cause #7: Athlete’s Foot
“On the feet, you always have to consider foot fungus,” advises Dr. Castilla. “This is a common cause of peeling on the soles of the feet and can be accompanied by scaling between the toes and increased redness on the feet.”
When your feet are sweaty for too long and stuck inside tight shoes, a fungal infection called athlete’s foot can begin to develop. Symptoms of athlete’s foot can include a scaly rash that feels itchy, strings, and burns. This dryness and scaling can lead to peeling skin on your feet.
How to Heal and Stop Peeling Skin
How you should address peeling skin largely depends on what is causing it in the first place. If your peeling skin is a result of dryness associated with the climate, you can take steps to help restore your skin’s moisture levels, like keeping your skin hydrated with rich creams. Also, be sure to stay hydrated by drinking the recommended amount of water daily.
Another thing to keep in mind to keep your peeling skin from getting worse is to be extra gentle when carrying out your skincare routine. Avoid rubbing your skin abrasively with towels or cloths, since they can make peeling worse. After bathing, gently pat your skin dry with a soft towel and follow immediately with moisturizer from head to toe.
When trying to heal peeling skin, using gentle skincare products is also important. Dr. Castilla recommends “gentle skincare with a mild, cream-based cleanser, twice daily use of a fragrance-free, cream-based moisturizer and avoidance of any active ingredients,” like glycolic acid, retinols, salicylic acid, lactic acid and more.
“If you have peeling skin that does not go away after a few days of gentle skincare, you should see your board-certified dermatologist for further evaluation,” she says. Your dermatologist may suggest prescription medication if your peeling skin is caused by certain underlying issues.
Lastly, keep your skin covered with protective clothing when heading outdoors, and be diligent with applying broad-spectrum sunscreen. Taking necessary precautions to avoid a sunburn can help prevent your peeling skin from getting worse.
How Can You Prevent Peeling Skin?
Here are some tips that can help reduce the chances of your skin from peeling.
Tip #1: Hydrate From the Inside Out
In addition to moisturizing your skin morning and night, drink the recommended amount of water each and every day. The best time to hydrate your skin is directly after bathing while your skin is still slightly damp.
Tip #2: Avoid Drying Skincare Ingredients
Certain skincare ingredients are notorious for causing skin peeling. These can include acne-fighting ingredients like benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid, as well as multitasking powerhouse retinol. If your skin is prone to peeling, talk to your dermatologist about alternative products or ingredients you can use to target your concerns.
If you are using products with active ingredients, be conscious that you are using them thoughtfully and in the right combination. “When starting active ingredients such as retinoids, start only a few nights per week and increase the frequency of use as your skin tolerates it,” explains Dr. Castilla. “Do not combine a chemical exfoliator (glycolic acid/lactic acid) on the same nights you are using a retinol, this can be very irritating to the skin.”
Tip #3: Be Diligent With Sunscreen
To keep sunburn at bay, apply broad-spectrum SPF prior to heading outdoors, rain or shine, and reapply at least every two hours. Take additional sun protection measures such as wearing protective clothing, seeking shade and avoiding peak sun hours.
Tip #4: Reach for Hypoallergenic Alternatives
If you suspect that your skincare products are to blame for your skin peeling, you may be allergic to some of the ingredients. Some common skin irritants can include parabens, fragrances, and silicones. Talk to your dermatologist about whether or not hypoallergenic skincare products are worth your while.
Tip #5: Protect Your Skin From Environmental Factors
“For those that experience dry peeling hands, ensuring to wear gloves outside in cold weather is a great preventative measure,” says Dr. Castilla. “Gloves will protect your hands from the cold wind that can further irritate and dry your skin. Applying moisturizer to moist hands and then wearing tight-fitting cotton gloves to bed is also helpful.”
Dr. Castilla also recommends having a humidifier in your home during the winter or if you live in an arid climate.
Tip #6: Swap Out Your Skincare Products Seasonally
Since environmental factors like the weather affect the skin, the products you use during the colder months may need to be different from the ones you use when it’s warm outside. “Generally speaking, thicker creams should be used in the winter/arid environments and lighter lotions should be used in the summer/more humid environments,” says Dr. Castilla. Your dermatologist can help you determine if you need to switch up your skincare routine seasonally.
Editors’ Favorite Moisturizing Products
If your peeling skin is due to dryness, take a look at some of these editor-approved formulas packed with hydrating ingredients.
The customer-favorite Kiehl’s Ultra Facial Cream is our pick for a super hydrating face moisturizer to incorporate into your winter skincare routine. Formulated with squalane and glycerin, it’s lightweight while still effectively providing up to 24 hours of hydration. We love the way it melts into the skin without feeling greasy or heavy.
As established above, proper SPF application is crucial to preventing peeling skin as a result of sunburn. We like the Anthelios Mineral Tinted Face Sunscreen for everyday sun protection because it has a tinted matte finish that evens out your complexion almost like face makeup.
Opting for a body wash specifically developed for extremely dry skin, like this one from CeraVe, is a good way to ensure that you aren’t accidentally using a cleanser with drying ingredients. Packed with ceramides and hydrating hyaluronic acid, this body wash is accepted by the National Eczema Association for use on eczema-prone skin.
Consider adding a serum, such as the Vichy Minéral 89 Hyaluronic Acid Face Serum, to your skincare regimen for an extra dose of hydration. This plumping booster is suitable for all skin types and works to strengthen and repair your skin’s moisture barrier.
It’s not enough just to moisturize your face. You should be moisturizing your entire body daily, as well. The CeraVe Moisturizing Cream can be used on all skin types, including dry to very dry skin. It has slow release technology to guarantee that moisture is delivered to your skin long after you’ve applied the cream.
Additional reporting by Jordan Julian.
Photo: Chaunte Vaughn