- To treat sunburn peeling, you should apply aloe vera or a moisturizer to the infected area.
- For fast relief, you can take a cold shower or take anti-inflammatory pain medication like ibuprofen.
- Do not exfoliate or peel away loose skin once it’s started, as this can cause infection.
- This story is part of Insider’s guide on How to treat sunburn.
Sunburns can cause redness, swelling, pain, and in more severe cases, peeling. Peeling skin is a sign that your body is healing itself, but it can be irritating, itchy, and unsightly while it’s happening.
If your skin starts flaking after a particularly bad sunburn, the one thing you absolutely should not do is pick, peel, or scratch the peeling skin.
“Do not pick peeling skin because it can make you more prone to infection,” says Shari Lipner, MD, PhD, a dermatology professor at Weill Cornell Medicine. This is because pulling or scratching off peeling skin can expose unhealed skin underneath, which will not have the proper barrier to fend off potentially harmful bacteria.
So while your skin is peeling, it’s best to allow your body to repair itself. Your skin will usually stop peeling on its own once the sunburn has healed, which takes about a week for mild to moderate burns.
In the name of finding relief, here are five tips on how to treat peeling skin, along with simple steps you can take to avoid getting sunburned altogether.
1. Use a cold compress or take a cool shower
Applying a cold compress or taking a cool shower won't necessarily stop the peeling. However, if your sunburn feels especially warm, swollen, and uncomfortable the cool temperatures may provide temporary relief.
It's also important to avoid using loofahs and scrub brushes when showering, as these can pull on or irritate peeling skin, Lipner says.
You can make cold compress at home by adding ice cubes to a sturdy plastic bag. Never apply ice directly to sunburned skin because the severe cold could damage the skin farther and potentially worsen peeling and delay the healing process.
2. Apply aloe vera or a moisturizer
Using the right moisturizer may help speed up the healing process and reduce peeling.
Joshua Zeichner, MD, the director of cosmetic and clinical research at Mount Sinai Hospital, recommends using a product containing aloe vera gel, as aloe can help hydrate your skin and has anti-inflammatory compounds that can reduce swelling and promote healing.
"It is rich in water and skin-soothing sugars that form a protective seal over the surface of the skin," Zeichner says.
3. Try Medihoney
MediHoney is medical-grade honey that you can purchase over-the-counter at your local pharmacy. MediHoney is different from what you buy at your local grocery to drizzle on bread and biscuits.
Honey's high sugar content makes it an effective antibacterial agent, which can prevent infection and promote healing. However, store-bought honey may contain various strains of bacteria that could potentially cause an infection.
Medihoney is sterile and therefore the safest option. You can apply MediHoney directly to the burn or on a breathable wrapping like gauze.
4. Take an anti-inflammatory medication
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication like aspirin or ibuprofen can help soothe the skin and relieve some of the pain from sunburn, Lipner says.
You can take medication orally or crush up tablets of aspirin or ibuprofen and mix them with some water to form a paste that you can then gently rub onto the sunburn. You can also purchase anti-inflammatory creams. However, similar to moisturizers, avoid petroleum or oil-based creams.
5. Take an oatmeal bath
Colloidal oatmeal has anti-inflammatory properties that can reduce swelling. It also helps the skin trap in moisture which helps with the healing process.
Colloidal oatmeal is not the same as the oatmeal you eat for breakfast, however, you can use whole oats to make colloidal oatmeal. Stick some uncooked whole oats into a food processor or blender and reduce to a fine powder. Add about 1 cup to a luke-warm or cool bath and soak for 10-15 minutes.
Stop peeling by preventing sunburn in the first place
If you hate the sight and feel of dead skin flaking off your body in giant paper mache-like strips, there's good news. If you take preventative measures to avoid getting sunburn in the first place, then you'll never have to experience sunburn peeling again.
One of the best things you can do is protect your skin by covering it up with a hat, long sleeves, pants, or close-toed shoes. Sunburn occurs when your skin is exposed to too much ultraviolet (UV) light. By covering up you can prevent sunburn, or protect an existing sunburn from farther damage that may increase the risk of extensive peeling.
If the skin damage is severe enough, this will lead to a process called programmed cell death, in which your body gets rid of cells that are damaged or unneeded.
"This translates to dryness and peeling skin," says Zeichner, adding "once the skin is burned severely, it will shed, and there is no stopping it.
Here are some more tips to prevent sunburn:
- Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen of at least SPF 30, and make sure to check the expiration date.
- Avoid the sun during peak hours between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Or make sure to spend plenty of time in the shade during that window.
- If you don't have any sunscreen, wear wide-brimmed hats, long sleeves, and pants.
- Stay protected even when you're indoors or driving since you can still get a sunburn through windows.
If you've already sunburned and want more advice on how to find relief from the throbbing, hot pain, then check out our guide on how to treat sunburn.
The bottom line
If you are concerned that your burn is not healing or that you may have an infection, visit a doctor as soon as possible.
Once your skin has finished peeling, you need to be extra careful about sun protection, as peeled skin can be burned more easily for up to a few weeks.
Related articles from Health Reference:
- What is sun poisoning and what makes it different from sunburn
- The causes of dry skin, from hot showers to winter weather
- Vitamins A, B, C, and E are good for your skin
- Why you should never treat a sunburn with vinegar
- How to get rid of oily skin safely without drying it out or causing acne
- Does aloe help sunburn? Here's why it's one of the best remedies