How to Treat Peeling Skin After a Sunburn, According to an Expert

August 24, 2022
Genesis Rivas
By: Genesis Rivas | by L'Oréal
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I’ll admit, I have some pretty bad skin-care habits, especially for a beauty editor! I don’t know what it is, but I am awful at resisting the urge to pop my own pimples, squeeze the dirt out of the pores of my nose and, my favorite, peel my sunburned skin. Recently, after one very sleepy experience at the beach, I got a bad sunburn that resulted in peeling skin. Despite hearing rumors that you’re not supposed to peel sun-damaged skin, I did it anyway. Then, I realized the reason I never took this tip seriously was because I never knew if there was any truth to it — so, I finally asked an expert. Here, board-certified dermatologist and founder of Dr. Loretta Skincare, Loretta Ciraldo, M.D., explains why skin peeling sometimes happens after a sunburn, plus why I (and you) should leave this peeling sunburned skin alone.

Why Does Your Skin Peel After a Sunburn?

To understand why we shouldn’t peel the skin after a sunburn, it’s important to know what causes the peeling in the first place.

“Our skin constantly goes through a very subtle, invisible shedding process where dead cells fall off the skin's surface,” says Dr. Ciraldo. “But when we are exposed to UVB rays, it kills off the top layers of skin cells prematurely and causes the damaged skin cells to die and start to shed in a more massive, visible way.”

Why Shouldn’t You Peel Sunburned Skin?

“It is healthiest to leave these dead cells to peel off and shed by themselves,” says Dr. Ciraldo. “If we try to pry them off prematurely, we can often take living skin along with it and trigger poor or prolonged healing, increased irritation and inflammation, and even possible infection.”

What’s the Best Way to Prevent Peeling Skin?

The best way to handle peeling skin is to prevent it all together (and maybe don’t do what I did, which is take a nap at the beach — oops). Dr. Ciraldo says prevention in the form of applying and reapplying sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher before you go out is the best way to prevent sun damage.

“Also, remember that you can get sunburned through clouds, so keep reapplying sunscreen as directed on the packaging even if it’s a cloudy day.” If you need a sunscreen recommendation, we like the La Roche-Posay Anthelios UV Correct Face Suncreen SPF 70 with Niacinamidebecause it offers maximum protection (and hydration!) and is safe to use on your face and body. Another way to work more sun protection into your routine is to reach for a moisturizer that’s infused with SPF, like the Kiehl’s Ultra Facial Cream SPF 30.

Kiehl’s Ultra Facial Cream SPF 30

What to Do if You Experience Peeling Skin

That being said, if accidents happen and you do forget to apply or reapply your sunscreen, there are a few things you can do to avoid the urge to peel your sunburned skin. According to Dr. Ciraldo, moisturizing your skin with a thick moisturizer makes it more difficult to peel. The CeraVe Moisturizing Cream is a great choice. You can also take an oatmeal bath with cool water to help soothe the sunburn and hydrate your complexion. “If you don't have a tub, apply cool compresses to peeling areas and then follow up with a body lotion,” advises Dr. Ciraldo.

If you’re like me and still can’t resist the urge to pick, cover up the peeling area with soft clothing. “If you can't see it or get to it that easily, you are less likely to peel it away.”

Photo: Shutterstock

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