If Peeling Sunburn Is Bad For You, Why Does It Feel So Good?

Photographed by Caroline Tompkins.
Who among us gets excited when a sunburn starts to bubble, because it means you're going to start peeling? Obviously a sunburn is never something to be stoked about, and picking at a one is certainly not going to help the healing process. But it's hard to resist the sheets of dead skin waving in the wind like bonito flakes, begging to be carefully ripped off of your body. While this might disgust some people, it's actually pretty normal to crave picking at your skin, especially when you're already peeling.
"Everybody picks; everybody’s picked a pimple, pulled an errant hair," says Suzanne Mouton-Odum, PhD, a psychologist in Houston, and member of the scientific advisory board of the TLC Foundation for Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors. And when it comes to peeling sunburn specifically, there are a few fascinating reasons why it's so irresistible, she says.
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We're all different, which means that peeling sunburn provides a different "function" for each person, Dr. Moutin-Odum says. "Some people like the way [skin] looks when it’s being peeled off; it’s more visual or sensory," she says. Other people might not like the way it looks when their skin is falling off, so they peel it off to prevent it from looking that way. Or some might find the blistery texture of sunburned skin repulsive, so they feel like they have to get rid of it, she says.
In certain cases, peeling is less of a sensory experience than it is a mental one. "Some people have beliefs about [sunburn], so it feels good from a thought process way," Dr. Mouton-Odum says. For example, you might be under the assumption that if you peel old skin off, new skin will grow back, or you might think that the skin is dead and therefore has to be picked off. (It's actually better to let your skin molt on its own, because peeling can result in scarring.) "Sometimes people feel like they’re achieving some goal in peeling off their skin," she says. The action can also be emotional, and people actually feel a sense of relief or sense of pleasure from pulling or peeling the skin, she says. And then, some people will say that peeling is just a habit and it doesn't do anything for them.

Sometimes people feel like they’re achieving some goal in peeling off their skin.

To be clear: just because you like to peel sunburn doesn't mean that you have a disorder. However, skin-picking can get so compulsive that it becomes clinically diagnosable. Skin-picking disorder, also called excoriation disorder, is defined as recurrent skin-picking that results in lesions or damage, significant distress, or functional impairment. Technically, it's listed in the Diagnostic And Statistical Manual, the guide clinicians use to diagnose mental illnesses, as an "obsessive compulsive-related behavior," Dr. Mouton-Odum says. And while we don't know exactly how common skin-picking disorder is, she estimates around 1.5-4% of the population have it.
Usually, "it’s not a problem until it’s a problem," Dr. Mouton-Odum says. As with any behavior, if you find that your skin peeling or picking is causing you harm, or if you tried to stop and aren't able to, that's a sign that it could be problematic, she says. (If you want to learn more about what body-focused repetitive behaviors are and how they're treated, check out the TLC Foundation's website.)
Know that skin-picking disorder is very treatable, and skin picking doesn't always indicate that there's a deeper issue. "I think a lot of people assume it might be really bad, and maybe there's something terribly wrong with me," Dr. Mouton-Odum says. "It’s not true. Most people that pick their skin are pretty high-functioning, lovely, creative individuals that just pick their skin too much." And considering how universally ap-peeling (LOL) picking sunburn can be, it's only a matter of time before someone makes a board game (like Dr. Pimple Popper's) so people can safely get their fix.
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