So you fell asleep reading a book on the patio on a sunny day, or you underestimated the strength of the ultraviolet (UV) rays while out on the slopes. The result? Sore, burnt skin that looks red, feels uncomfortable, and starts to peel a few days later. It's a misstep that can happen to anyone—even the most conscious of sunscreen devotees.

But why does this happen, and how can you stop skin peeling after sunburn? Here's a look at what to do, and what to avoid, after too much time in the sun.

Understanding Sunburn

The reason we protect our skin with broad-spectrum sunscreen is due to the harm posed by both UVA and UVB rays. While UVA rays cause aging and wrinkling, UVB rays are responsible for tanning and burning the skin when it's exposed to the sun for too long. Your skin is most at risk of burning in the midday hours of the summer months when UVB is at its strongest.

Mayo Clinic describes a sunburn as red, painful skin that feels hot to the touch and usually appears within a few hours after too much exposure to UV light. Unfortunately, it can take days to fade and may start to blister, peel, and itch. Harvard Medical School explains that skin peeling after sunburn is due to a loss of water: the outer layer of healthy skin should be made up of between 20 percent and 30 percent water, but when it becomes burnt, these levels drop, the cells die, and the outer layer of the skin starts to shed.

How to Care for Sunburned Skin

Once you've realized your skin is burnt, you should cover up and go inside immediately. You can bring instant relief to the skin by taking a cool shower or bath; this will soothe the inflammation caused by the sunburn and remove any excess heat. Be sure to gently pat (rather than rub) the skin dry with a towel to avoid causing any further irritation. Finally, apply a moisturizing lotion or cream to restore much-needed hydration to the affected area. There are even numbing creams available to help manage the pain of a severe burn.

When choosing the right moisturizer for soothing a sunburn, look for formulas that contain hydrating ingredients, such as glycerin, hyaluronic acid, shea butter, and aloe vera to bring coolness and relief while creating a protective emollient barrier. It's also best to avoid products that contain harsh ingredients like alcohol that may cause further irritation. A therapeutic moisturizer that's gentle and fragrance-free such as EltaMD Moisturizer will help to retain skin moisture by restoring the protective barrier and relieving chronic dryness. Apply regularly throughout the day and whenever you feel the need to scratch.

What to Avoid

Skin peeling is a sign that the body is trying to heal itself after suffering a surface burn. The peeling process rids itself of any damaged skin so that new healthy skin can grow beneath. First off, get out of the sun and stay out until you're healed. If you need to be outside, cover up with clothing. Next, resist the temptation to touch or pick at it, as this can introduce infection and slow down the healing process. Your body will release the dead skin when it's ready to. You should also avoid body washes or cleansing tools that exfoliate the top layer of the skin until the skin has stopped peeling.

Preventing Future Sunburn

Although everyone can get caught out every now and then, it's important that sunburn isn't a regular occurrence. Excessive sun exposure, even without sunburn, damages the DNA of your skin cells, leading to an increased risk of cancers such as melanoma.

The most effective way of preventing sunburn is by applying a generous amount of broad-spectrum SPF 30 sunscreen to any exposed skin approximately 15 minutes before venturing outside. Sunscreen should be re-applied regularly throughout the day, especially after excessive perspiring, swimming or exercising. Here's a great tip: On days where you're mostly outside, set an alarm on your phone to remind you to top up every couple of hours. It might seem obvious, but it's easy to forget to reapply when you're out and about enjoying your time in the sun.

Finally, don't forget to seek shade when the sun is at its strongest, which is between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., according to the American Cancer Society, and to wear sunscreen even on cloudy, gray days. Yes, UV rays can still reach you and your skin when the sun is hidden—so if the sun's up, get your SPF on. At the very least, this will reinforce the habit of daily use so you'll be protected when you need it most.


  • Catherine Hufton

    Catherine Hufton is a UK-based freelance journalist and writer who has worked for some of fashion's most iconic companies and written for the world's best known magazines and newspapers. Beginning her career at Net-a-Porter and Matches Fashion over 12 years ago, she has created content for L'Oréal, Elle, Harper's Bazaar, The Telegraph and more.