The goal is for this to never happen—but if it does, here's how to proceed.

By Rebecca Norris
August 05, 2020
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woman squirting sunscreen on hand
Credit: Getty / Kittiphan Teerawattanakul / EyeEm

There are a slew of things you can do to avoid a bad sunburn—with the proper precaution, it's even possible to never experience one again. If you do get burned by the sun, know that after-care is critical, especially if the burn begins to peel during the healing phase. As for why this happens? We tapped New York City-based cosmetic dermatologist Dr. Michele Green to find out. Ahead, discover what causes peeling, the best way to avoid it, and how to treat it. In other words, consider this your guide to post-sun skincare.

Why do sunburns cause peeling?

According to Dr. Green, sunburns (and excessive sun exposure as a whole) accelerate skin cell rejuvenation, which causes the cells to flake off. "Skin cells are always regenerating, bringing new and refreshed ones to the surface. When you get a sunburn, it causes this process to occur at a much faster rate," she explains. This isn't a good thing, despite the fact that we equate sloughed-off, exfoliated cells with younger-looking skin. Remember, unprotected, excessive UV exposure is never beneficial to your health.

What's the best way to avoid flaking?

There are two ways to avoid peeling. First, protect your skin at all times so that you simply cannot get sunburned. Second, keep your skin as moisturized as possible, as the more hydrated it is, the less likely it is to flake off if you do experience a burn. "With moisturized skin, you will still have some superficial peeling—however it will not be as apparent as with skin that is dry," Dr. Green explains. Work the latter piece of advice into post-burn care, she adds, especially if you peel: Repeatedly applying a gentle moisturizer will help. "This keeps the skin hydrated and facilitates cell turnover to remove the damaged skin," she notes.

How can I treat my peeling skin?

Though hydration is key, not all lotions were created equal. Look for moisturizers that contain nourishing ingredients that will support the healing process, like aloe vera gel. It's no secret that aloe is a staple for post-sun relief. In fact, Dr. Green says it's one of the most effective ingredients available for treating sunburn. "Aloe vera gel is a natural anti-inflammatory and will restore and heal the skin faster," she says. Oatmeal is also soothing, she notes, and advises mixing it with lactic acid-rich cold milk and applying a compress on the burn; oat's antioxidants and calming properties prevent itching (which is critical if you've started to peel). If your sunburn is painful, Dr. Green says to turn to over-the-counter hydrocortisone before flaking begins. "Hydrocortisone is effective at soothing pain and irritation from sunburn," she states.

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