If a day at the beach, in the pool, on the boat or in the yard has turned you into a lobster, you can be pretty sure of what comes next, in a few days or a week after the initial sunburn: peeling skin. And with it, perhaps, a strong temptation to pull off the unsightly dead skin.
“The topmost layer of skin peels after a sunburn as part of the healing process,” said Micaela Wolfe, a board-certified dermatology nurse practitioner at Water’s Edge Dermatology. “It’s the body’s way of getting rid of damaged cells. The peeling ceases around the same time the skin underneath is ready for exposure.”
Here are some steps to take — and a few to avoid — to ease sunburn pain, help the skin heal and, if you’re lucky, limit skin peeling. (The only surefire way to avoid peeling is to protect yourself against sunburn in the first place.)
The first step: Treat the burn
Treat a sunburn right away to speed up the healing process and limit the after-effects.
- Take cool showers or baths to cool the skin and temporarily relieve the pain
- Apply cold compresses.
- Gently slather on store-bought pure aloe vera gel, especially after a shower. Aloe vera acts as an anti-inflammatory as well as a moisturizer and may reduce the amount of peeling you face later on. (Tip: Keep the aloe in the fridge for a nice cooling effect.) If you don’t have aloe, the American Academy of Dermatology recommends a moisturizer that contains soy.
- Take an over-the-counter painkiller such as ibuprofen or aspirin ASAP — within the first few hours if possible — to help with sunburn pain and limit swelling (unless your doctor has advised you not to take these medications).
- Apply an over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream, following the package directions, if the burn is bothersome.
- Drink extra water to stave off the dehydration a burn can cause.
- Stay out of the sun or wear protective clothing (UV-blocking clothing is best) to protect the skin while the burn heals.
- Apply petroleum jelly or an oil-based skin cream, as these trap the heat of the burn, which slows the healing process and increases irritation
- Take a hot shower
- Use harsh soap (try a moisturizing body wash instead)
- Rub the skin
Treating the peeling skin
If your skin peels despite your best efforts, follow these tips:
- Continue to regularly apply aloe vera gel or moisturizer. “This will speed skin healing as well as soften the dead skin and make it less tempting to remove,” said Wolfe.
- Protect yourself from the sun. Your burned skin needs time to heal. In fact, your skin is more prone to damage from UV rays for as long as several weeks after a burn. “I highly encourage the use of SPF protective clothing to help with sun protection, along with sunscreen use,” said Wolfe.
- Peel the dead skin. “Until the dead skin falls away on its own, the skin underneath is too raw for exposure and prone to infection,” said Wolfe. If you find it hard to resist the temptation to peel, cover your skin with loose clothing so you don’t see it.
- Exfoliate the skin by scrubbing.
The worst of the peeling should be over in about a week. “Help the skin stay healthy by keeping the skin moisturized, especially after a shower,” said Wolfe. In the meantime, stock up on broad-spectrum sunscreen so you don’t find yourself in the same red-hot situation again. Remember, getting too many sunburns or even just one that blisters increases your risk of developing skin cancer, as does any unprotected UV exposure, even without the sunburn.
Article Written By: Marianne Wait is an award-winning health and wellness writer based in New Jersey.
Medical Review By: Micaela Wolfe, APRN