Why Does My Skin Peel When I Get a Sunburn?

Summer is the time of year when we spend much more time outside — for most of us, at picnics, hiking, and spending time on the water — which also means we expose ourselves to more chances for sunburns without the right protection like sunscreen or ultraviolet-blocking clothing.

Sunburns can range from mild to severe, and generally, mild to moderate sunburns are the ones that peel. But why? And what can you do about it? Below, our skincare experts help answer all of your questions about why your skin peels after you get a sunburn.

Why does my skin peel when I get a sunburn?

When your skin is overexposed to damaging UV B rays, the sun actually damages the DNA in your skin cells. Your body’s natural defenses that are trying to protect you from the UV rays are overwhelmed, which causes a toxic reaction we know as a sunburn. Because your skin cells’ DNA is damaged, the dead cells slough off, which leads to peeling.

How can I treat a peeling sunburn?

There are several tips for treating a peeling sunburn, but the best treatment is to prevent sunburns altogether by wearing SPF 30 or higher daily and wearing protective clothing like a hat when you’re going to be outdoors — even for a short time like running an errand.

Drink plenty of water. A sunburn saps the water out of your skin, so you need to drink plenty of water to rehydrate and give your skin cells the opportunity to regenerate.

Take ibuprofen for pain. To soothe the pain associated with a mild to moderate sunburn and also help with inflammation, pop a few ibuprofens in the first few days after the burn. You can also apply a topical sunburn medication — usually a lotion or gel containing aloe.

Don’t peel. Peeling excess skin after a sunburn can be one of the worst things you can do. You can open your body up to infection and can uncover skin cells that aren’t ready to be exposed, which can lead to scarring.

Moisturize, moisturize, moisturize. Find a thick moisturizing lotion to help rehydrate skin and calm irritation. If your skin is dry after a sunburn, peeling will be much worse.

Gently exfoliate. A few days after the initial sunburn, you can try gently exfoliating peeling skin with a warm washcloth or loofah. We don’t recommend using an exfoliating cream like a sea salt or sugar rub, which may be too harsh on damaged, delicate skin.

Disclaimer: This blog provides general information and discussion about medical, cosmetic, mohs, and surgical dermatology. The words and other content provided in this blog, and in any linked materials, are not intended and should not be construed as medical advice. If the reader or any other person has a medical concern, he or she should consult with an appropriately-licensed dermatologist or other health care worker.