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  • Share your skin goals and snap selfies

  • Your dermatology provider prescribes your formula

  • Apply nightly for happy, healthy skin

Got sunburn? Here’s how to help prevent peeling

Proper sun protection can help you avoid sunburn in the first place—but these tips to help prevent sunburn peeling are here when you need them.

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Curology Team
Nov 16, 2022 · 6 min read

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How to prevent sunburn from peeling
We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.
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  3. > Got sunburn? Here’s how to help prevent peeling

You know how it goes. You’re out having fun in the sun, you forget to reapply your SPF, and before you know it, it’s happened. Sunburn! It’s red, painful, inflamed, and hot to the touch, and it’s the last thing anyone wants after a day of having fun outdoors. Making matters even worse is the extra-dreaded side effect of that itchy, uncomfortable sunburn. Yep, we’re talking about peeling skin. Here we’ll explain why it happens and how you can help prevent your sunburn from peeling. We’ll also share ways to avoid sunburn from happening in the first place. 

What causes sunburn and peeling? 

Sunburn happens when your skin is exposed to too much ultraviolet light, which damages its cells.¹ It can occur from both the sun and artificial sources of UV light, including tanning beds (that’s why no tan is a safe tan unless it’s sunless!). UVA light penetrates the deeper layers of the skin, while UVB light penetrates the skin’s superficial layers—UVB light is the main contributor to sunburn (although UVA does play a role).² 

If you think you only need SPF on sunny days, think again. Skin can burn even on overcast days, as the sun reflects off water, snow, and sand. 

Boy reddened itchy back - Got sunburn? Here’s how to help prevent peeling

What are the symptoms of sunburn?

Chances are you already know that any part of your body exposed to the sun can burn, including your ears, scalp, lips, and even your eyes. Clothing typically offers adequate sun protection, but many items with a loose weave can still allow UV rays to penetrate, which means you may also burn through your clothes. 

Sunburn symptoms typically appear within a few hours of unprotected sun exposure and can include: 

  • Inflamed skin that often appears red or pink 

  • Warm or hot skin 

  • Swelling 

  • Pain and tenderness

  • Itching 

  • Blistering 

  • Nausea, headache, fever, and fatigue, in severe cases³

If you develop symptoms like large blisters, severe swelling, worsening pain, and signs of infection, it’s best to seek help from your healthcare provider. If you experience a high fever, confusion, cold skin, dizziness, or dehydration, seek immediate medical care.⁴ 

How to help prevent your sunburn from peeling 

Peeling skin after sunburn is a telltale sign of UV damage to the upper layers of your skin. In other words, your body is shedding its damaged skin to reveal the healthy skin underneath. How long peeling lasts after a sunburn depends on many factors, including the severity of the burn and how well you care for your skin as it heals. Wondering how to heal peeling skin? The best way is by preventing sunburn in the first place. Once a sunburn has started to peel, you may not be able to stop the process entirely. But there are a few ways to make yourself more comfortable and help prevent your burn from getting worse. Step one? Avoid picking at your skin as it peels, no matter how tempting it may be. 

Here are ways to help keep your sunburn from peeling: 

  • Apply moisturizer (or aloe vera): Apply a gentle moisturizer, such as aloe vera, to help reduce your sunburn’s inflammation and soothe your skin. Moisturizing immediately after a bath or shower helps lock in hydration.    

  • Stay hydrated: Get enough water during the day to help keep your body hydrated as your skin recovers. 

  • Take a cool shower or bath: A cool or lukewarm shower or bath may help reduce peeling. But hold off on showering if your sunburn is blistered, and skip the soap, as it can dry out your skin and worsen the peeling. 

  • Use a topical anti-inflammatory cream:⁷ Apply a topical anti-inflammatory cream, like low-strength hydrocortisone cream, taking care not to exceed the recommended dosage. 

  • Be gentle: Avoid scratching or vigorously rubbing your sunburn. When toweling off after bathing, don’t rub. Pat yourself dry instead.

  • Take an over-the-counter (OTC) pain reliever: Medications like ibuprofen help reduce inflammation, redness, and pain and may help lessen peeling. 

Tips to prevent sunburn 

The easiest way to avoid sunburn, which increases your risk of skin cancer, is to limit unprotected sun exposure, but that’s sometimes easier said than done. To make the most of your time outdoors while staying safe, here are a few helpful tips: 

Stay indoors between 10 am and 4 pm

Between 10 am and 4 pm, the sun’s UV rays are at their strongest,⁸ and you’re more likely to become burned. If you have to be outside in the late morning and the afternoon, try to stay in the shade. If possible, try to schedule outdoor activities for earlier in the morning and later in the afternoon. 

Apply SPF frequently

Don’t skimp on sunscreen if you want to avoid getting sunburned. Use a broad-spectrum, sweat and water-resistant formula with SPF 30 or more to block UVA and UVB rays, and apply it at least 30 minutes before you head outside. Don’t forget to reapply every 2 hours for the remainder of your time outdoors or after swimming or excessive sweating.

When applying sunscreen, our experts recommend using at least two tablespoons to cover all of your exposed skin. Remember, you’ll need to reapply more often if you’re going in and out of the water, and consider products like SPF lip balm and SPF face powder for easy, additional coverage. 

Curology’s broad-spectrum SPF 30 sunscreen is a non-clogging, grease-free lotion that absorbs quickly and gives skin a fresh finish. Its mineral formula with zinc oxide 9.4% melts into all skin tones. Designed by dermatologists, it helps defend your skin against sun damage without causing breakouts (a win-win!)

PSA for your future skin: No sunscreen can prevent all harm from UV rays, but we highly recommend using it daily, because it’s still one of the most effective ways to minimize signs of aging and risks of skin cancer.

Dress for the occasion

Covering up whenever you’re outside is another easy and effective way to reduce your risk of sunburn. Choose dark clothing with a tight weave; some garments even specify their Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF). You can also reach for a hat, sunglasses with UVA and UVB protection, and an umbrella. 

Consider your skincare products and medications

Some skincare products, like retinoids and some alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), can increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun. Other medications, like some classes of antibiotics, thiazide diuretics (often taken for high blood pressure), and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, can also increase your risk of burning. Be sure to read the fine print, and always follow your medical provider’s indications.

Camping woman applying sunscreen - Got sunburn? Here’s how to help prevent peeling

Other reasons your skin may be peeling

While skin peeling is usually caused by sunburn, there are several other reasons why it may occur. These include certain immune system disorders, dry skin caused by friction or frequent hand washing, irritant contact dermatitis, and allergic contact dermatitis. We recommend speaking to your dermatology or medical provider if you think your peeling may be caused by something other than sunburn.

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FAQs

What causes sunburn?

Sunburn happens when your skin is exposed to too much ultraviolet light, which damages its cells. UVB light is the main contributor to sunburn (although UVA does play a role). 

If you think you only need SPF on sunny days, think again. Skin can burn even on overcast days, as the sun reflects off water, snow, and sand. 

How to help prevent your sunburn from peeling?

Wondering how to heal peeling skin? The best way is by preventing sunburn in the first place. Once a sunburn has started to peel, you may not be able to stop the process entirely. But there are a few ways to make yourself more comfortable and help prevent your burn from getting worse:

  • Apply moisturizer (or aloe vera)

  • Stay hydrated

  • Take a cool shower or bath

  • Use a topical anti-inflammatory cream

  • Avoid scratching or vigorously rubbing your sunburn.

  • Take an over-the-counter (OTC) pain reliever

How to prevent sunburn?

The easiest way to avoid sunburn, which increases your risk of skin cancer, is to limit unprotected sun exposure. To make the most of your time outdoors while staying safe, here are a few helpful tips:

  • Stay indoors between 10 am and 4 pm (the sun’s UV rays are at their strongest).

  • Apply SPF 30 minutes before you head outside and reapply every 2 hours.

  • Cover up whenever you’re outside.

  • Avoid skincare products, like retinoids and AHAs as they can increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun.

• • •

P.S. We did the homework so you don’t have to:

  1. Guerra, KC., Crane, JS., Sunburn. [Updated 2022 Aug 28]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. 

  2.  Guerra, KC., Crane, JS., Sunburn. Ibid. 

  3.  Guerra, KC., Crane, JS. Sunburn. Ibid. 

  4.  Skin Cancer Foundation. Sunburn & Your Skin. (2021).

  5.  Guerra, KC., Crane, JS. Sunburn. Ibid.

  6.  American Academy of Dermatology. How to Treat a Sunburn. (n.d.)

  7.  Guerra, KC., Crane, JS. Sunburn. Ibid.

  8.  Guerra, KC., Crane, JS. Sunburn. Ibid.

* Subject to consultation. Subscription is required. Results may vary. Trial is 30 days.

Nicole Hangsterfer is a licensed physician assistant at Curology. She obtained her masters in physician assistant studies at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern in Chicago, IL.

• • •
Our medical review process:We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Nicole Hangsterfer Avatar

Nicole Hangsterfer, PA-C

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