Never Pick Your Skin When It Peels After A Sunburn. Here's Why

It happened again. A little too much time in the sun and now you're red, hot, and your flaky shoulders are starting their reptilian-style molt. What can you do? Should you leave your skin alone and let it do its thing undisturbed, or will you give in to temptation and speed things along by picking at all those flaky edges?

As tempting as it is to pick at those white flakes, dermatologists are united in their message: don't do it.

Peeling after a sunburn is an obvious sign of skin damage from ultraviolet (UV) radiation (via Prevention). A sunburn, with its redness and sensitivity, is the skin's way of repairing the damage, and peeling works to get rid of the dead and dying skin cells. Dr. Erin Boh, a professor of dermatology at Tulane University, explains, "Those sunburnt [skin] cells are basically going to die, then that causes the [skin's] barrier to get disrupted. The cells normally would be 'glued' together, but these dead or dying cells start losing their 'glue,' so to speak" (via SELF). The 'ungluing' of these dead skin cells is what leads to peeling.

The best sunburn protection is prevention

As tempting as it might be to pick at your itchy, peeling skin, don't do it. Doing so could scrape away healthy skin in the process, and the new skin that is growing underneath is extra sensitive and prone to infection. Joshua Zeichner, M.D., board-certified dermatologist and director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, says, "Peeling the skin can be gratifying as you see the flakes disappear — very much like the satisfaction people get from picking pimples. But it can further disrupt the skin barrier, leading to open, raw skin and increasing your risk of an infection" (via Prevention).

Instead, take care of your skin by getting out of the sun and immediately cooling the sunburn off with a cool compress or shower. This will contain the damage and prevent further burning. Next, apply a water-based moisturizer while the skin is still damp to lock in moisture and promote healing. Peeling usually lasts anywhere from two days to a couple of weeks, depending on the severity of the burn (via Derm Collective).

While there's nothing you can do to stop peeling once you're burnt, you can soothe your skin and promote healing by practicing good after-sun care. Of course, the best option is to use plenty of sun protection and not get burnt in the first place.