Once your skin is sunburned to a certain degree, peeling is inevitable. Peeling is your body's way of repairing the outer layer of skin (dermis) damaged by the sun, explains the Mayo Clinic. Expect temporary discoloration in your skin during the peeling process, which can take several days to completely subside.
What Is Sunburn?
A sunburn can be caused by exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays, whether through intentional outdoor tanning or use of a tanning bed or sun lamp. Exposure to UV light causes your skin to produce more melanin, says the Mayo Clinic. Melanin production, which results in a tan, is your skin's defense mechanism–a way to keep UV rays from creating more extensive damage. Your skin can only protect itself so much, however. Some people are genetically incapable of producing enough melanin; their skin burns more readily, after shorter periods of exposure to UV rays. The longer you stay out in the sun, the greater at risk you are for a bad sunburn that produces redness, inflammation, pain and even blistering.
Once you have a sunburn, the damage to your skin is inevitable. Before your skin starts to peel, the Mayo Clinic suggests using easy home remedies to reduce inflammation and discomfort to hot, burned skin. Use wet, cold compresses or take a cool shower. Nonprescription pain relievers, such as ibuprofen or aspirin, can be taken daily until inflammation and pain subside. (Aspirin should never be given to children under the age of 2, or children over the age of 2 and teenagers who are getting over the chickenpox or the flu.) Drink plenty of liquids to rehydrate your body. You can also put several nonprescription topicals on the burn, such as a moisturizer, aloe vera lotion or 0.5 to 1 percent hydrocortisone cream. Mayo Clinic experts state that hydrocortisone creams may help your skin heal more rapidly after a bad sunburn.
Extra-gentle care is needed once your skin begins to peel, says the Mayo Clinic. Continue to use moisturizing cream and keep your fingers away from the peeling area. If the sunburn resulted in watery blisters, don't pop them. They may burst on their own, and if they do, apply nonprescription antibacterial cream to the raw skin. You can also cover the affected area with gauze to help prevent infection. Skincare expert Paula Begoun states that caring for a sunburn is much like taking care of any other type of burn. Don't coat the burned area with thick, greasy salves such as butter or other oils.
See Your Doctor
Although most sunburns can be effectively managed using self-care, there are times when you may need medical treatment. The Mayo Clinic indicates you should see your physician if sunburn blisters cover a large part of your body; if you experience a high fever, nausea, chills, confusion and severe pain; or if the sunburn isn't responsive to home treatment after a few days. Signs of an infection caused by a bad sunburn may include open blisters that ooze pus, areas of increased pain and swelling, and red streaks around the blisters that extend outward in a linear formation.
A severe sunburn doesn't just cause unsightly peeling, cautions the American Academy of Dermatology. Sun exposure not only causes age spots and wrinkling. It also increases your risk for skin cancer; more than 90 percent of skin cancers affect skin that's exposed to the sun. The National Institutes of Health states that you should always wear sunscreen with a sun protection of at least 30, paying particular care to your face, nose, ears and shoulders. Make sure your lip balm contains sunscreen as well. Avoid getting out in the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when UV rays are strongest. When outdoors, wear a wide-brimmed sun hat and sunglasses. Protect your skin with clothing that covers your arms and legs.