- Sunburn peeling is the result of the body rejecting sun-damaged skin cells as a part of its natural healing process.
- Even limited exposure to UV radiation can result in peeling skin.
- Peeling can be reduced or eliminated with simple at-home solutions.
- Never pick at peeling skin, as this can lead to further damage and infection.
Sunburn is an inflammatory reaction to the damage caused to skin cells by ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Most burns are superficial first-degree burns, however longer sun exposure and poor sun safety practices can lead to more severe second-degree burns. The healing process of these burns leads to sunburn peeling, which is caused by dead and damaged skin sloughing off as new skin regenerates.
Peeling skin is not, in and of itself, a cause for concern, but it can be of aesthetic concern for some people, especially when it occurs on the face and neck. Peeling can feel uncomfortable; it is typically accompanied by a persistent itching sensation, and can sometimes lead to scarring.
Many cases of sunburn peeling can be controlled or prevented with at-home treatment. The most effective solutions treat damaged areas immediately, before peeling even begins.
Why Does Skin Peel After a Sunburn?
UV radiation penetrates skin cells and causes direct damage to the structure of cellular DNA, which results in the cells either mutating or being destroyed. Peeling occurs when the body purges these dead and damaged skin cells.
Peeling can be caused by either first- or second-degree burns. First-degree burn is the result of sun damage being isolated to the epidermis – the outermost layer of skin. These burns typically cause mild discomfort, itching, redness and peeling.
Second-degree burns are more serious. UV radiation penetrates deep into the dermis, the layer of tissue beneath the surface skin, which contains capillaries and sweat glands. Damage to the dermis can cause swelling and blistering to appear on the skin’s surface, and is often extremely painful.
First-degree sunburns typically begin peeling two days after sun exposure. As second-degree burns take longer to heal, they usually begin peeling after 1–2 weeks.
What does it look like?
As damaged skin begins to peel, areas of new skin will be revealed. These areas appear red in color, are very tender, and are vulnerable to infection and further irritation. Sunburnt skin that is left undisturbed will peel in scattered, irregular patches, as the time it takes for the underlying skin to regenerate will vary depending on the depth of different areas of the burn.
As first-degree burns heal, they typically appear as patchy areas of red, flaking skin intermingled with tender areas of new skin. Second-degree burns will be similar, but with deepened redness, swelling and the addition of blisters.
Depending on the severity of the burn, blisters can range from pea-sized bumps filled with clear liquid to large, raised, swollen lumps filled with yellow pus. Blisters that burst will bleed and scab over, and can sometimes scar.
When the damaged skin has completed the peeling process, the red areas will dissipate and the underlying skin fully regenerates. The skin tone of the newly regenerated areas will sometimes slightly differ from the normal skin tone.
Should you peel your sunburn?
You should avoid picking at sunburned skin, as this interferes with the healing process and can cause damage to healthy skin in the surrounding area. This can worsen discomfort and lead to infection.
How long does the peeling last?
Sunburnt skin will stop peeling once all the sun-damaged skin has been purged, and the underlying skin has fully regenerated. Minor burns typically peel for 2–3 days; second-degree burns will peel for about 1 week.
How to Prevent a Sunburn from Peeling
Proactive measures can help reduce peeling. The most important first step is to cool down your skin; this will contain the damage and prevent your burn from worsening. Apply a moisturizer to soothe and hydrate damaged skin, and help reduce the severity of peeling.
Once out of the sun, your sunburn can still continue to briefly worsen due to the residual heat trapped inside your skin. If left untreated, this trapped heat will continue to damage and kill skin cells, exacerb inflammation and ultimately intensify peeling.
Apply a cool compress or take a cool bath to quickly reduce this residual heat, prevent further damage and speed up the healing process.
A cool compress can be made easily by wrapping a bag of ice cubes, crushed ice or bag of frozen vegetables in a wet towel. Do not place ice directly on your skin, as this may damage your skin.
For severe sunburns, place a cool compress on the sunburnt area for 30 minutes twice a day, until your skin heals and the peeling stops.
Water-based moisturizers containing ingredients such as glycerin have potent hydrating effects that can help to reduce the severity of peeling skin. Glycerin (glycerol) is a natural humectant – it draws moisture from both the air and from deeper tissues into the surface skin. This hydrates and softens damaged tissues, supporting and accelerating the healing process.
Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant that can effectively soothe dry and flaky skin and reduce inflammation. Look for moisturizers formulated with vitamin E, as these can ease the symptoms of sunburn, soothe discomfort and may reduce the severity of peeling.
Avoid the use of oil or petroleum-based moisturizers such as vaseline. The primary aim of first aid treatment for burns is to reduce the heat of the affected tissues; oil-based moisturizers create a seal over the skin which will trap the heat. This can cause the burn to worsen in condition, ultimately exacerbating peeling.
Topical application of aloe vera gel soothes and moisturizes sunburnt skin, and decreases inflammation. These combined effects contribute to advance the healing process of sunburn and reduce the duration of the peeling period.
Extract the gel directly from aloe vera leaves and apply to your skin or purchase a natural over-the-counter (OTC) gel product. Avoid aloe vera topicals containing chemical preservatives, as these can worsen irritation.
How to Treat Sunburn Peeling Once It Starts
Once a sunburn has begun to peel, it can be a difficult process to stop. Additional measures can be taken, however, to reduce the severity of peeling and ease some of the burn’s discomfort as it heals.
Colloidal oatmeal baths
Soaking in a cool or lukewarm colloidal oatmeal bath can relieve the stinging, itching and burning sensation of sunburn. This is because oatmeal has anti-inflammatory and moisturizing properties. Oatmeal baths also promote skin healing, and will accelerate the regeneration of sunburnt tissues.
Soy peptides are topical cosmeceuticals rich in amino acids that encourage protein regeneration and enforce the skin’s barrier function. They have been found to protect the skin against the damaging effects of UV radiation and reduce the incidence of sunburn. These peptides also stimulate the production of hyaluronan (hyaluronic acid), the lubricating agent found throughout the body’s soft tissues.
As such, topical application of soy-based moisturizing creams and lotions can reduce dryness and peeling, as well as speed up the healing process.
Should you Exfoliate Peeling Skin After Sunburn?
No, skin should not be exfoliated, either chemically or mechanically, while it is healing from sunburn.
Exfoliating products containing ingredients such as retinoids, glycolic acid or salicylic acid can irritate and damage sunburnt skin, as well as the tender skin regenerating underneath. Scrubbing cleansers and exfoliators that contain granules should also be avoided until skin is completely healed.
When to See a Doctor
Sunburn peeling is rarely a cause for medical concern, and does not typically warrant a doctor’s care. However, you may wish to seek medical attention if your burn is accompanied by fever, nausea or chills.
Additionally, those with severe blistering that typically results from second-degree sunburns should seek medical attention. A doctor can prescribe topical treatments to speed up the healing process, antibiotics to stave off infection and pain medication to ease any discomfort.
Watch for signs of infection, as an infected burn can lead to serious health complications. Symptoms to watch out for include:
- Fluid oozing from the affected area
- Blisters that become inflamed or turn yellow
Peeling is a normal part of a sunburn’s healing process, however it tends to be uncomfortable and unsightly. Simple at-home measures can be taken to reduce inflammation, speed up healing and ultimately reduce the severity and duration of peeling.
Applying a cool compress is an important and effective first measure to stop burning, and help prevent sunburn from peeling. Once peeling has begun, colloidal oatmeal baths, aloe vera gel and OTC water-based moisturizers can reduce burn severity, as well as soothe discomfort and ease inflammation.
Regularly moisturizing the sunburnt area will accelerate healing and reduce the amount of time it takes for the damaged skin to peel. Look for water-based moisturizers containing ingredients such as glycerin and soy peptides; avoid oil-based moisturizers, as these can worsen the burn.
Sunburn peeling does not usually require professional medical attention, but be sure to see a doctor if you experience symptoms such as nausea, chills or severe blistering, or if your burn begins to show signs of infection.
- D’Orazio, J., Jarrett, S., Amaro-Ortiz, A., & Scott, T. (2013). UV radiation and the skin. International journal of molecular sciences, 14(6), 12222–12248. doi:10.3390/ijms140612222
- Fluhr JW, Darlenski R, Surber C. Glycerol and the skin: holistic approach to its origin and functions. Br J Dermatol. 2008 Jul;159(1):23-34. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2133.2008.08643.x
- Guerra KC, Crane JS. Sunburn. [Updated 2018 Nov 23]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2019 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK534837/
- Reuter J, Jocher A, Stump J, Grossjohann B, Franke G, Schempp CM. Investigation of the anti-inflammatory potential of Aloe vera gel (97.5%) in the ultraviolet erythema test. Skin Pharmacol Physiol. 2008;21(2):106-10. doi:10.1159/000114871
- Reynertson KA, Garay M, Nebus J, Chon S, Kaur S, Mahmood K, Kizoulis M, Southall MD. Anti-inflammatory activities of colloidal oatmeal (Avena sativa) contribute to the effectiveness of oats in treatment of itch associated with dry, irritated skin. J Drugs Dermatol. 2015 Jan;14(1):43-8. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25607907
- Schagen, Silke Karin. (2017) Topical Peptide Treatments with Effective Anti-Aging Results. https://www.mdpi.com/2079-9284/4/2/16/pdf