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.
But your skin doesn’t find it nearly so satisfying. Peeling seems incredibly harmless—hey, you’re just tidying things up—but you really need to resist the urge, says Shari Lipner, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of clinical dermatology at Weill Cornell Medical College. “You’re going to further damage the skin and make yourself more vulnerable to infection,” she says. Here’s why.
Why do you peel after a sunburn in the first place?
When you get a sunburn, your skin is damaged by that UV light that felt so good to sit in, run in, and party in. “There’s nothing good about getting those UV rays other than it feeling good. It doesn’t do anything good for your skin,” says Dr. Lipner.
“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.”
Your epidermis—your very outer layer of skin cells—“it’s your barrier between the outside world and between you and infecting organisms,” says Dr. Lipner. That’s what gets damaged. Your body regenerates a new top layer of skin cells, but for a while, as you’re peeling, the skin underneath is exposed and vulnerable.
“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.
What you shouldn’t do to peeling sunburn
Aside from leaving skin alone, you should avoid using harsh exfoliators.
“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.”
You also shouldn’t ignore significant burns according to the Mayo Clinic. Visit the doctor if the burn covers a large portion of your body, or if you experience a fever, pain, headache, nausea or chills. You’ll also want seek medical help if you or notice signs of an infection, which include swelling, pus, or red streaks near blisters.
How to treat a sunburn — the right way
Be sure to keep skin moisturized. “When you damage the epidermis, you can lose a lot of moisture, and you want to put it back,” says Dr. Lipner. “You want to do the most you can to help repair that barrier that’s protecting you from the outside world.” She recommends using lotions containing soy or aloe, like Vaseline Aloe Soothe.
If sunburn is making you incredibly uncomfortable, “taking an over-the-counter pain relief aid such as ibuprofen will reduce inflammation,” Dr. Batra says. Cool compresses can help relieve the pain of sun damage, too.
Once you’re on the mend, if you absolutely have to go back out in the sun, be extra careful with your sun protection. You can use sun-protective clothing, hats, and sunglasses. But no matter what, sunscreen is a must.
“After a burn, if you must go back out in the sun, it is even more important to wear sunscreen,” says Batra. You need sunscreen that not only contains an SPF above 30, but that also provides “broad-spectrum” protection, to shield you from UVA rays as well (not just the UVB ones that burn you). “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 the amount that would fit into a shot glass, to exposed areas — and re-apply every two to three hours. See Men’s Health’s picks for the 10 Best sunscreens for men.
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