How To Heal A Peeling Sunburn — & Not Make It Worse

Photographed by Rockie Nolan.
When summer rolls around, your biggest obstacle in life shifts from somehow trudging to work in six inches of snow to avoiding being burnt to a crisp in the sun. Unfortunately, contingency plans fall through — you forget to reapply sunscreen after 2 hours, the SPF is too low, you forget your umbrella in the rush to get out the door — and you find yourself leaving the beach early to go home and nurse a sunburn.
Every sunburn goes through a similar healing process: After getting out of the sun, the burn develops for about 12 hours; you take a cold shower, drink some water, put on some aloe vera (not coconut oil), and pray that the sting goes away soon. Then, about a week later, it starts to peel.
For some people, this stage is the one and only enjoyable part of having a sunburn. After days of pain, you're rewarded with a brief moment of satisfaction: to pick, peel, and shed the dead skin right off your body. As gross as it sounds, the temptation to peel your own sunburn is pretty normal — but, as you can imagine, not a great idea.
To start, a peeling sunburn is a sign that serious damage has been done to your skin on a deep cellular level as a result of excessive UV-ray exposure. The peeling is a defense mechanism. "The sun has essentially destroyed the top layers of skin, and now your body needs to remove the damaged cells and replace them with newer, healthier cells," dermatologist Rachel Nazarian, MD, FAAD, explains.
Peeling normally starts anywhere between two days to a week after you first notice your burn. Depending on its severity, your skin could shed for up to two weeks. Even after the peeling mostly stops, you're not totally out of the woods. "The entire healing period may take weeks to months," dermatologist Tiffany Libby, MD, explains. "Peeling skin represents your body’s way of healing from within, as it rids itself of the damaged and dead skin."
Unfortunately, there's no way to prevent your skin from peeling, but there are a few ways you can help speed up the process. Since a sunburn disrupts the skin's barrier, Dr. Libby suggests using topical sunburn treatments formulated with ceramides to help hydrate and soothe the inflamed skin. Dermatologist Matthew Lin, MD, adds that peeling can be an uncomfortable process, especially if the skin is itchy. He suggests that lotions and certain cleansers can help the dry skin (Dr. Nazarian recommeds Bio-Oil, which includes vitamins A and E, to soothe a burn), but to avoid anything with harsh soaps and detergents that may worsen the peeling. Try taking cool baths or showers, applying aloe vera extract, and using topical anti-inflammatories to help relieve any itching and irritation.
Photographed by Rockie Nolan.
Most importantly, as long as your skin is peeling, you should be staying out of the sun. The period of time following a sunburn is a dicey one for the skin, says Dr. Nazarian. "The risk of a deeper, dangerous burn is more likely," she warns. "Make all attempts to avoid sun exposure during this time." Dr. Lin agrees: Any additional UV exposure will harm more of your cells' DNA, which can prolong the pain and damage. "More sun exposure will also increase your risk for skin cancer because cumulative DNA damage can result in cancer-causing mutations," he explains.
Oh, and in the meantime, do not pick your sunburn. This only disrupts the skin from doing what it needs to recover. The only kind of skin-peeling we co-sign is the kind that happens after you put on a peel-off face mask or soak your feet in Baby Foot.
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