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Why Does My Skin Peel After a Sunburn?

A shoulder peeling from a sunburn.
Aloe vera cream, which can help with a sunburn.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 17 August 2014
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Everyone who has experienced a sunburn is familiar with the unsightly skin peel after a sunburn which inevitably accompanies it. The peeling is caused by the sloughing off of dead skin to make way for the new, tender skin underneath. While it may not look too pleasant, it is an important part of the healing process, but there are several ways in which peeling can be reduced or be made slightly less unpleasant.

When your skin is sunburned, it's basically lightly cooked from the outside. Extended sun exposure causes severe damage to the upper layers of the skin, killing those skin cells and creating a characteristic area of redness and blistering, in the case of severe burns. Typically, in the first few days after the sunburn, the dead skin remains intact, while the body busily builds up new cells underneath; the dead skin acts as a protective layer while these cells grow, as they are very fragile when they are new.

The skin peels after a sunburn when the new cells underneath are ready to be exposed to the world, which happens to coincide with the time when the last of the moisture departs the damaged upper layers of the skin. The dried skin in turns starts to flake, peel, and eventually slough off to reveal brand-new cells underneath. During this phase, these cells are typically very vulnerable to sun damage, because they have not experienced the power of the sun before.

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Obviously, the best way to avoid the infamous skin peel after a sunburn is to not get sunburned in the first place, with the use of protective garments and creams. In addition to preventing sunburn, protective steps will also keep the skin in better condition, which means that it will look better well into old age. Sunburn has also been linked with an elevated risk of certain cancers, which is another strong argument for covering up in the sun.

For those who are already sunburned, taking care of the sunburn can help ease the peeling process. Sunburned skin should be washed with mild soap in lukewarm to cool water and patted dry, rather than being rubbed. Some people find that a spritz of vinegar after a shower helps to ease the itching associated with sunburns, and also reduces peeling skin; an application of moisturizer can also help to keep the damaged skin moist, making it less prone to peeling. It is also a good idea to allow plenty of fresh air to pass the site, rather than keeping a sunburn under wraps. Eventually, however, the dead skin will have to go, and some people prefer to let nature take its course rather than trying to reduce the rate of peeling.

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Discuss this Article

anon342432
Post 17

I had random spots starting to peel and I put tanner on them, but that didn't work, so I tried my facial skin peel, which is gentle. My skin is all the same now and looks great. It was a ten minute miracle fix. I just put some tanning moisturizer on it afterward and it looks great and healthy again.

anon331260
Post 16

My skin is still peeling in patches and it's been over two weeks. How long should I expect to be peeling?

anon314312
Post 15

I am fair and I used to get sunburned regularly as a child. My poor mother tried to protect me but sunscreens were not nearly as good then (in the 50's) as they are now. I was sponged off many times with vinegar and it helped the pain.

What I want you to know is that it does not mean you won't get skin cancer later. I have had many basal cells (a form of skin cancer) removed as a result of my sun exposure as a child. I have also had one malignant melanoma. Please always wear sunscreen.

anon277440
Post 14

Call me weird, but I like the peeling after the sunburn. The skin comes off in patches and flakes and if you peel it off carefully it comes off in nice, big patches that you can look at to see the texture of your skin, even the pores! Just imagine if I had a microscope!

To me, the peeling is the fun part of a sunburn, even if I do avoid getting them.

Excuse me while I go back to playing with my peeling skin. I've been looking forward to the peeling part since I got burned accidentally at the waterpark.

anon277283
Post 13

My skin never even peels somehow, and I get sunburned so easily!

anon266714
Post 12

I hate peeling. It makes you look ugly and ashamed to show your face. How do you reduce peeling?

anon220162
Post 11

I've just been for a short holiday on Varca beach in Goa, India and that terrible suncream SF30 doesn't work. I am covered in peeling, painful skin, even on my lips, chin and feet. My best solution is simply to wear a cap while in the sea. It's irritating, but you don't want to die of skin cancer later in life, do you?

anon192329
Post 10

I have only had one bad sunburn and have gotten red a few times. If I get in the sun, I use broad spectrum sunblock. The best course in prevention, but when I received a pretty severe burn, aloe vera gel provided the most relief. I had tried Noxema and Solarcaine spray but got little relief. After two miserable days, a friend suggested aloe gel. I tried it and that did the trick. Taking an anti-inflammatory such as Ibuprofen can also provide some releif.

anon113836
Post 8

I'm a red head with the fairest skin possible. Tanning salons deny me -- yeah, that pale lol. I've had my share of sunburns and apple cider vinegar is a miracle worker.

I usually take a cold shower for about five minutes, air dry if possible. If not, pat dry and then i just cover myself in the A.C.V and i don't feel pain, itching, or dryness at all! i love it!

I guess when you're in that much pain or ready to rip your head off from the itching, you'll try anything, right? get on it!

anon109806
Post 7

how long does it take for peeling skin to finish peeling?

anon98538
Post 6

i got a bad sunburn a week ago and my back is starting to peel and when the old skin comes off its dark and underneath it's bright pink. is that supposed to happen? (the bright pink)

anon96625
Post 5

i used vinegar. it relieves the itching after about 30 seconds. its best to spray it on. don't rub or dab. just leave it.

anon90352
Post 4

I have been told that vinegar does help with sunburn. My mom said one year when she was young she got burned and thought she could not burn again and ended up in a vinegar bath.

wiseoledad
Post 3

I don't know about the vinegar, but I'm a big fan of aloe. There are some pretty good burn gels out there with aloe and a bit of painkiller in them.

Minny -- Meanwhile, stay out of the sun! Set a timer and don't burn. There is nothing a-peeling about skin cancer.

minny
Post 2

Holy cow, do I know about sunburn. I have no common sense about how long to stay out in the sun and I end up burned every year. I don't intend to do it, but it happens anyway.

I have some regular methods to reduce the burn, but I have never tried vinegar. Has anyone else tried this and if so, does it work?

bananas
Post 1

It peels because the top layer was actually burned. Too much sun and heat in a short time burns off the outer layer of the skin. If exposure to the sun is slow and gradual there will be no peeling.

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