Peeling Sunburns: Why They Happen & What To Do If It's Happening To You
Normally, we do our best to avoid sunburns. We apply the right type of SPF for our skin, with the right amount, and do so regularly—especially when outdoors and in the water. Still, burns happen. And we know that burns can look different for everybody (some turn a vivid shade of pink, while others feel tighter and itchy). Yet, there's one type of sunburn we can all experience, and it's unfortunately a type that is not very fun: peeling skin.
So if it happens to you, you might be curious, to say the least. Let's look into why skin peels, as well as what to do if you find yourself in this position.
Why do sunburns peel?
Peels can look like smaller flakes or larger, blisterlike splotches. Either way, it's caused by the same issue. "The outer layers of skin cells actually are so damaged by the sun that they die, and that's why they slough off," says Morgan Rabach, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and co-founder of LM Medical in NYC.
Can you do anything to help heal sunburned skin?
So the short answer is no. You can't heal the damage, because "once the skin is burned, there is not much you can do to prevent it from peeling off; the cells are damaged, so it is safer for them to come off anyway," says Rabach.
However, you can tend to the skin with gentle, nonirritating moisturizers to soothe the areas while they are in the process of healing. "Use bland emollients and moisturizers without fragrances or other additives, and take ibuprofen for pain," says board-certified dermatologist Michele Farber, M.D., of Schweiger Dermatology Group in NYC. Here are some natural lotions for sunburn relief. Again, these will help soothe the skin as it's healing and may help temper inflammation; however, they won't necessarily speed up the healing process itself.
And as Rabach reminds us, just take it easy for a while. "Keep out of the sun after a burn, and apply cool compresses," she says.
Finally, if the burn is severe enough, you may want to see your dermatologist or doctor. "If a sunburn is covering a large part of your body, you have blisters, or systemic symptoms like fever, chills, or fatigue, you should see your doctor," says Farber.
Can you exfoliate the skin to speed it up?
We may sound like a broken record at this point, but you should really just let your skin do its thing and heal itself with time. Exfoliation, be it manually peeling or with a physical exfoliator, will only cause more irritation to the area.
"Let it be—since the underneath layers are more sensitive and friable, it's best to let the dead skin peel itself off naturally without pulling it, as you can tear further into the skin," says Rabach.
Faber agrees, as trying to lift the skin off yourself will only make the process go on for longer. (Exactly what you were trying to avoid in the first place.) "Exfoliating or peeling off sunburned skin will delay healing; definitely avoid this," says Farber. "Trying to speed things along yourself will leave you more prone to infection and scarring."
How can you prevent it?
You likely know the answer to this one, but it's worth stating again: Use SPF appropriately. You should use a safe mineral sunscreen (a few of our faves, here), apply at least a shot glass-worth, and reapply every two hours or after getting out of the water.
"Your best defense is being diligent about sun protection and sun avoidance," Faber reminds us. "Skin is particularly sensitive after a sunburn, and sunburns increase the risk of skin cancer, so it is even more important to be careful to avoid subsequent burns. Wear a wide-brimmed hat, stay out of the sun between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. when UV rays are strongest, and reapply SPF 30 or above every two hours."
If you have a sunburn, it may be painful and annoying, but your best course of action is to let your skin heal itself: Do not pick it or peel it yourself. You can, and should, apply soothing moisturizers to the skin to help with inflammation, but other than that? Let time heal it.
Alexandra Engler is the beauty director at mindbodygreen and host of the beauty podcast Clean Beauty School. Previously, she's held beauty roles at Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire, SELF, and Cosmopolitan; her byline has appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and Allure.com. In her current role, she covers all the latest trends in the clean and natural beauty space, as well as lifestyle topics, such as travel. She received her journalism degree from Marquette University, graduating first in the department. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.