We're hoping you already know how important it is to wear sunscreen daily—and are abiding by this golden skincare rule. However, even if you make valiant attempts at safeguarding your skin, the truth is that sunburns do happen—and are no fun to deal with when they do. They can be seriously uncomfortable in the immediate aftermath and the days following when that burnt skin starts to peel off.
And when that happens, it's an almost innate instinct to want to peel off those layers of dead skin; it's imperative to resist the urge to peel or pick at a sunburn, no matter how much you want to. Ahead, board-certified dermatologists Dr. Jeremy Brauer and Dr. Kenneth Mark explain precisely why this is so important and what to do instead.
Meet the Expert
- Dr. Jeremy Brauer is a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Spectrum Skin and Laser in Westchester, New York.
- Dr. Kenneth Mark is a board-certified dermatologist and cosmetic dermatology expert.
Why Do Sunburns Peel?
In short, it's part of the healing process. "When the skin gets burned, the cells get damaged," Mark explains. "The body works to get rid of the damage, which results in peeling skin." He adds that when skin swells due to a sunburn, the excess pressure on the skin can also contribute to the peeling, which typically starts on the third-day post-burn.
Is It Bad to Peel a Sunburn?
Yes, it is. Brauer stresses the importance of avoiding exfoliating or picking at sunburned skin. "You need to let your body heal naturally," he says. "This overlying skin serves as protection and slowly peels away on its own when the skin underneath is ready for exposure. Peeling a sunburn before the skin has fully healed puts you at risk for uneven skin tone, scarring, and even painful blisters if the area is re-exposed to the sun." Mark adds that picking or peeling also leaves the underlying skin vulnerable to infection because it's exposed to outside elements and germs.
Can You Prevent Sunburn Peeling?
"The best way to prevent sunburn peeling is to prevent the sunburn," Brauer says. However, once the burn does occur, peeling is part of the natural healing process and is almost always likely to occur to some degree, he adds. Still, applying soothing ingredients, such as aloe, as well as taking an OTC non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug at the first sign of a burn may help prevent peeling, Mark says.
How Can I Treat a Peeling Sunburn?
The rules for treating burnt skin are the same whether or not the skin is peeling. Avoid sun exposure and protect the area with sunscreen and clothing until the skin has completely healed, advises Brauer. Cool baths and OTC non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs can also help ease some of the discomfort.
Most importantly, make sure to moisturize the area. "Applying topical emollients aids in the retention of moisture with the goal of maintaining and repairing the skin barrier," Brauer explains. "By doing so, dryness, redness, and irritation may be diminished." He recommends looking for ingredients like aloe vera and soy, which are moisturizing and soothing.
Keep your moisturizer in the fridge to help cool and soothe your sensitive, burned skin.
The Final Takeaway
It may be tempting to peel your sunburn, but experts strongly advise against it. Picking at or exfoliating your sunburn can lead to uneven skin tone, scarring, and even painful blisters. The best course of action is to let the sunburn heal naturally. While you wait, you can manage the affected area by avoiding the sun, wearing sunscreen, and applying soothing moisturizers.