Much like watching those strangely addictive pimple-popping videos from Dr. Pimple Popper, peeling your flaking, sunburned skin can be incredibly entertaining. Is it a bit nasty? Sure. But for whatever reason, once you start peeling a sunburn, it’s difficult to stop until the dry skin is all gone.
Peeling a sunburn “can provide psychological satisfaction. Some find it relaxing and even soothing, almost like scratching an itch,” explains Sonia Batra, MD, a dermatologist and co-host of the television show The Doctors..
That said, the next time you come back from a boat trip looking like a lobster, you should resist the urge to peel your skin, however tempting it may be. While it might seem harmless, it can actually put you at risk for infection. Here’s why.
Why do you peel after a sunburn in the first place?
So you spent some time sitting out under the hot sun, and now you’re paying the price for it. If your skin starts to peel, says Batra, that means you got burnt bad — like, really bad.
“Peeling is a sign that significant damage has occurred,” she explains. “It’s your body’s way of getting rid of damaged cells that could potentially become cancerous.”
Here’s why: when you get a sunburn, your skin is damaged by UV radiation. So your body heals itself by forming a new layer of skin underneath. “In about four to seven days, a new layer of skin has fully formed and the dead skin that was protecting the new layer begins to peel off,” she says.
Because your skin is vulnerable in this state, it shouldn’t be peeled off. “The skin underneath is working to heal itself. Peeling it before it is ready can interfere with that process and open skin up to infection,” she says.
That’s because picking at your sunburn makes it easier for bacteria to enter your skin. “Any time the barrier of the skin is disrupted, it provides a doorway for bacteria,” says Batra. If you do get an infection, that can increase the risk of scarring.
How to treat a sunburn — the right way
As fun as it might be to peel a sunburn, try to resist the urge to do so. “If you are suffering from a burn and the skin is starting to peel, don’t exfoliate. Avoid harsh scrubs, coarse washcloths or loofahs over the area,” Batra says. “Also, as hard as it might be, try not to scratch the burned skin – it can have the same damaging effect.”
Instead, apply a nice lotion like Vaseline Intensive Care Advanced Repair ($8.48, Jet.com). Your skin is likely parched and dry from the sun, and lotion will provide moisture and slow down the peeling process. “Taking an over-the-counter pain relief aid such as ibuprofen will reduce inflammation and decrease peeling,” Batra says.
Once you’re on the mend, if you absolutely have to go back out in the sun, be extra careful with your sunblock application. “After a burn, if you must go back out in the sun, it is even more important to wear sunscreen,” says Batra. “My favorites contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, as these are mineral sunscreens that provide a physical barrier to deflect ultraviolet light.”
Be sure to apply a sufficient amount — about 1 oz., or a shot glass-ful, to exposed areas — and re-apply every two to three hours. And if you have acne, look for products that don’t clog your pores or have the word “noncomedogenic” on the label.
Batra recommends Elta MD UV shield SPF 45 ($25, Amazon.com) or CeraVe SPF 30 Sunscreen Body Lotion ($14.22, Amazon.com), or you can check out our other suggestions here:
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