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Peeling skin after a sunburn | Why and how to manage

Updated: May 31, 2023

To understand why the skin peels after a sunburn, first it is important to really understand what a sunburn is to understand why your skin is peeling. Read more...



sunburn peeling skin

Photo: Wix

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Video: Techei

Why does skin peel after a sunburn?

To understand why the skin peels after a sunburn, first it is important to really understand what a sunburn is. After UV exposure, there are changes that occur in the skin. The superficial skin cells called keratinocytes take on changes that are referred to as sunburn cells. The UVB damages the DNA of these cells, some of which may undergo cell death while others may survive with their damaged DNA passed on to future generations of cells. Vascular changes in the dermis cause the skin to swell along with histamine release. After the swelling and edema subside, the superficial layers of skin that had been under tension start to shed or peel. This appears as sloughing of the skin, especially the cells that were directly damaged by UVB.

Is it wrong to pick peeling skin that has been sunburned?

I know it’s tempting to peel the skin that has been sunburned, but please don’t. This skin is not always ready to be removed and may result in raw, denuded areas and possibly pinpoint bleeding. Ideally smothering the skin in an emollient to help this adherent skin shed when it is ready is better. If the free edges of peeling skin become frustrating, gently trimming the free edges without pulling or tugging the adherent skin is ok. If the skin is pulled off too quickly, the open raw areas are at risk for infection and can lead to scarring.

What should I do to manage peeling skin after a sunburn?

I tend to recommend smothering the affected areas with Vaseline or petroleum jelly at night and even potentially covering these areas with saran wrap. This helps serve as hydration as well as a barrier to permit the skin to heal overnight. The peeling skin can release itself easier when this occurs with less chance of reactive swelling or inflammation.

Video: Techei

What is the best way to protect myself from a future sunburn?

A full sun protective plan that includes sun protective clothing, sunscreen products, hats, sunglasses, and shades is ideal. Take a look at the weather app on your smartphone. If you scroll down you will see the UV index listed at the time of day and position you are in. If this index is a 3 or above, it will indicate that it is best to wear sun protection. This is a great gauge to take the guesswork out of when to wear sunscreen.

How bad would you say it really is to pick off sunburnt skin that's peeling?

Please don’t pick the sunburnt skin off. I am not sure how to rate how bad it is other than to say just don’t do it. The free edges not adherent to the skin can be gently trimmed but the skin that is still adherent is not ready to come off.

sunburn peeling skin


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