If your skin’s shedding less like a human and more like a serpent, it’s probably skin damage from a gnarly sunburn. But certain illnesses, a medication allergy, or an autoimmune disease could also be to blame.
Here’s how to figure out what’s going on with your skin and how to stop skin peeling.
Skin peeling is usually caused by sunburn and is a sign that the upper layer of your skin (aka the epidermis) was damaged by the sun’s rays.
But there are other (often less common) reasons for peeling skin, such as:
- an immune system disorder
- a viral, bacterial, or fungal infection
- dry skin
- frequent hand-washing
- keratolysis exfoliativa (a skin condition that causes peeling on the palms of the hands or soles of the feet)
- rare skin disorders like acral peeling skin syndrome and exfoliative dermatitis (peeling skin all over your body that usually requires hospitalization)
- allergic reactions
- skin sensitivity to products like retinol or vitamin C
- cancer and cancer treatment
If you’re experiencing skin peeling that wasn’t the result of sun exposure, talk with a doctor before trying out at-home remedies.
We know it’s tempting, but resist the urge to peel off your skin! You’ll just cause more damage. (And hey, please don’t pick or pop your zits, either.)
Let your bod shed that skin in its own time and take a more soothing approach. Here’s what helps peeling skin.
1. Take an over-the-counter (OTC) pain reliever
To soothe any pain or discomfort associated with tender, peeling skin, take an OTC pain reliever like ibuprofen or aspirin.
These meds will also help reduce inflammation and redness.
2. Apply an anti-inflammatory gel or cream
Certain topical ingredients can help soothe inflammation from peeling skin. Here are some natural and OTC options:
- Aloe vera. Aloe vera is known to soothe irritated skin and may be especially beneficial after a sunburn. Applying an aloe vera-based gel or cream can cool your skin, reduce inflammation, and slow or reduce peeling.
- Cortisone cream. An OTC cortisone cream can help soothe irritation, redness, swelling, or discomfort.
- Aspirin powder. If you’re not allergic to aspirin, some folks swear by crushing up a few aspirin tablets into a fine powder to soothe inflammation topically. Mix the powder with a splash of water until it makes a goopy paste. Apply it to the affected areas, let it dry, and wash it off with lukewarm water. (Try a patch test first, just to be safe.)
Don’t use oil- or petroleum-based creams like Vaseline. These formulas trap heat and may actually make peeling and irritation worse.
3. Keep your skin moisturized
According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association, frequently applying an unscented moisturizer is the best sunburn remedy.
To help seal in hydration, moisturize right after bathing, when your skin’s still a bit damp.
4. Shower or bathe in cool water
Lukewarm showers or baths (or even cold ones, if you can handle it!) can help soothe the burn and prevent more peeling. Avoid super-hot showers, which can further irritate and dry out your skin.
You’ll also want to skip scented soaps and oils, which can make irritation worse. So save that bath bomb for another time and use gentle unscented soap.
If your skin is blistered, avoid showering and stick to baths. The water pressure of a shower could pop your blisters and trigger more pain and irritation.
Cool tip: Soaking in a cool colloidal oatmeal bath may also help soothe your skin after a sunburn 🛀.
5. Don’t exfoliate
Scrubbing off that peeling skin is a big no-no. Exfoliating when your skin’s already peeling isn’t ideal, because you’ll expose more redness. Instead, lightly pat your skin dry with a towel when you hop out of the shower — and moisturize regularly.
The rest of your skin will slough off when it’s ready.
6. Use a cool compress
Placing a cool, wet compress on your skin for about 30 minutes will soothe irritation and give you some much-needed relief.
Just make sure not to apply ice or an ice pack directly to your skin. This can irritate it even more. If you’re using an ice pack, wrap it in a towel.
7. Drink water
Dehydration can make peeling and dryness even worse. To hydrate your bod from the inside out, make sure you’re drinking plenty of water and limiting caffeinated beverages, alcohol, and other diuretics. (And yes, sparkling water is hydrating.)
8. Cover up and wear SPF
Any UV exposure can further irritate your skin, even if you go out when it’s cloudy.
To protect your dermis from further damage, wear loose, breathable clothing over your peeling skin. Add a hat to protect your face too.
If you have sunburn, your skin will usually start to peel a few days after the initial burn. In mild cases, the peeling usually stops in about a week, once the burn is healed.
Signs of a severe burn include:
- blistering or large areas of peeling (like your whole dang back)
- fever or chills
- confusion or dizziness
🚨 Burns that cause a fever or blistering may require medical attention. If you’re feeling chilled and feverish, contact a doctor. 🚨
If your skin’s already peeling like a boa constrictor, no judgment — everyone makes mistakes (as Hannah Montana wisely said).
But here’s what you *should* have done and how you can prevent it from happening next time:
- Wear sunscreen. You’ve heard it a million times, but you should always wear sunscreen to protect your skin.
- Limit sun exposure. Because the sun is strongest at midday, try to get your rays in the early morning and evening and avoid the most harmful rays between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
- Cover up. Tank tops and bathing suits have their place, but you should really cover up when the sun is blazing. Sun hats and light cotton and linen clothing are your friends.
- Apply aloe, stat. If you just basked in the sun a little too long, no worries. The best thing to do now is apply aloe or another moisturizing cream ASAP. This can help hydrate your skin before peeling starts.
- Take a cool shower. Taking a cool shower right after sun exposure can help diffuse heat.
- Do patch tests. Before trying a new skin care product, do a patch test to help prevent unexpected irritation. Skin can take some time to get used to harsher ingredients like retinol, hyaluronic acid, and vitamin C. Applying products once or twice a week at lower concentrations can help your skin acclimate. If you’re not sure what’s best for your skin, consult a dermatologist.
Not to sound like your mom, but sunburns and peeling can seriously damage your skin. Sunburn can increase your risk of skin cancer and put your skin at risk of premature aging.
Stay protected by wearing sunscreen, being gentle with your skin, and doing patch tests with new products. If you’re not sure what’s up with your skin, talk with a board certified dermatologist for help.
If you do get sunburned, moisturize and take a cool bath stat! OTC pain relievers and topical anti-inflammatory creams can also help.