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How Do I Treat Skin Peel after a Sunburn?

By Judith Smith Sullivan
Updated May 21, 2024
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Treating skin peel after a sunburn means paying attention to the full healing process and immune system response. Removing heat and controlling inflammation and pain with over-the-counter medications are the first steps. From there, a person can use moisturizing creams or lotions, with plant-based products being among the best options. Once the redness and irritation have gone down and peeling has started, exfoliation can speed up the process of getting rid of the dead cells. From start to finish, wearing breathable, loose clothes is a must, because tight garments can rub against the body and cause additional discomfort.

What Happens After Sunburn

Treating these types of burns the right way requires understanding how the skin heals and where it is in this process. Turnover—how quickly cells die and are replaced—is always going on, but when a person stays in the sun too long, a very high number of cells get damaged and need to be replaced. The body’s response is to kick the immune system into overdrive.

The immune system responds to skin damage not only by signaling growth, but also by allowing the inflammatory response, a complex sequence that brings leukocytes, or white blood cells, to injured areas. These fight off infection, keeping the body protected. Even though this is beneficial, the inflammation causes redness and sensitivity, which eventually goes away. Peeling usually starts not long after the response slows and indicates that some healing already has happened.

Removing Heat

People sometimes treat this problem as being not very serious because it’s so common, but the reality is, it is a burn, and as such, one of the first steps to take care of it is to try to take some of the heat from the skin to prevent further damage. A clean, damp cloth placed on the hurt area is a no-fuss method for doing this, as the moisture will have a cooling effect as it evaporates. Simple compresses of ice wrapped in a towel are another way to go, but putting ice directly on the skin can cause additional damage. A cool bath or shower works for some people.


Taking an over-the-counter medication such as ibuprofen is a good idea for skin peel after a sunburn, because it will relieve the pain and inflammation of the injury. Although this works, aspirin shouldn’t be used with very young children due to the fact the drug has been linked to a potentially fatal disease called Reye’s Syndrome. No matter how bad the injury is, dosing instructions should be followed.

Moisturizing Botanical Lotions and Creams

Many plants have anti-bacterial or anti-fungal properties, or they contain substances like Vitamin E that help skin heal. Companies therefore use them as a base for lotions and creams, which people apply topically. In some cases, people make their own tinctures and pastes from them, which they use in the same way they would a manufactured product.

One of the best options for addressing skin peel after a sunburn is aloe vera gel, which is very good for keeping the skin moisturized and soothing pain. Sometimes mixed with a cucumber paste, it has been used for centuries and is so effective that burn units in hospitals even turn to it to help patients. Other good products might include calendula, green tea, dandelion, menthol or camphor. When looking for something that might work, experts recommend staying away from anything with petroleum, with can lock heat in and make the injury worse. Perfumes, dyes and anesthetics such as benzocaine usually also are out, because they can further irritate the skin.

In general, most plant-based lotions and creams are perfectly fine to apply as often as needed. That’s good news, because the heat of the injury causes the skin to lose moisture very quickly. It is always important to read the directions on the bottle for recommended use, however, and because even “natural” products can cause reactions in some people, it’s best to test out the product on a small area first. Although how often a person uses one might vary, the purpose of these types of creams is always to reduce inflammation and get the level of pain down.


Once the skin begins to peel, it’s still appropriate to use moisturizing creams and lotions. It’s also time to move on to very gentle exfoliation. An easy way to do this is to soak in a comfortable bath and then go over the burned area lightly with a loofah, soft cloth or body brush. It’s important not to rub too hard, because it can cause more irritation and pain. Some people also like to exfoliate using natural products such as oatmeal and green tea scrubs.

If the damage is bad enough, blisters and scabs might form. These should be left alone, because popped or open ones invite infection. A person can go ahead with exfoliating once these are healed. When they aren’t present, it’s sometimes possible to simply peel away the dead layer of skin, but this never should be forced because the new growth underneath is very sensitive to the environment.

Appropriate Clothing

When the skin is still red and inflamed, wearing loose clothing is best because it doesn’t press against the body and cause more irritation. Cotton material works well because it breathes and doesn’t hold in heat. It also is easy to wash if lotion or cream soaks into it, or if a lot of dead skin rubs off.

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Discussion Comments

By abowaaled — On Jul 11, 2014

Ideally, use an antibiotic topital like fucidin-H two times daily and if the burn is severe take take a systemic antibiotic like Augmentin.

Also, keep the skin wet and avoid the sun or heat as much as possible and use sunblock cream.

By hannatellez — On Aug 21, 2012

I recently got a really bad sunburn from having a garage sale on my front yard. I had applied a little tanning oil because I didn't think it would be that hot outside, but it ended up being about 103 degrees outside, and I was so busy rushing and helping people that I didn't think to put sunscreen on.

I had blisters but they went away, and the skin started to peel so I tore some off thinking it would help the problem, but it didn't. Instead, the skin that is revealed is red and appears juicy. Any suggestions? School starts in two days!

By amypollick — On Aug 13, 2012

@TommyRambo99: Sunburns can take a week or ten days to heal, depending on their severity. In my opinion, one of the best things to do to help them heal is to put aloe vera gel on the burn. That will help it. Also, no, you should not get into that hot tub. I guarantee it will burn like crazy.

However, taking a couple of ibuprofen will help ease the inflammation in the skin, as well as the pain.

Stay out of the sun and when you go back out, use a good sunscreen with at least 40 SPF. Sunburns now can lead to skin cancer later on.

By TommyRambo99 — On Aug 13, 2012

I got burnt all over my back on Thursday. It's Monday today, and it only just started peeling this afternoon, and in some areas where I peeled, the new skin feels rough, a tiny bit tight and sore. What does this mean? Also, on some parts of my back, when I pulled skin off, it felt slightly wet and hot. What does this mean? Will taking a cold or hot bath/shower when I wake up help? And will it all come off and heal by tomorrow? Like, will it heal and feel fine when I wake up? I'm staying at a friend's house tomorrow, and I want to go in the hot tub. Will it hurt my skin or soothe it? Sorry for asking a lot of questions, but I'm new to this. Also, I'm only thirteen, and this is my first sunburn, and it has been extremely painful!

By Sara007 — On Aug 10, 2011

I love summer but I never fail to get a good sunburn, no matter how many precautions I take. Even with sunscreen on I usually find that I end up getting a nasty burn. I usually lose track of time when I am outside so it is no surprise to me that I end up with peeling skin later on.

I have found that peeling skin is best taken care of with a light massage oil after a nice bath. For some reason the massage oil seems to refresh the skin and the rubbing motion actually removes any dead skin that is hanging on post bath.

For myself I use an oil that is a mix of sea buckthorn and coconut ointment. The oil has healing properties and can even help prevent sun blisters.

By manykitties2 — On Aug 09, 2011

A really good for skin that peels after getting a sunburn is to use a natural sea sponge on your skin with a gentle body wash that is moisturizing.

Straight soap is a bad idea because it can irritate your skin instead of helping it feel better.

If you don't have any body wash, avoid that soap and just use an oil on your body after you've had your bath.

Another good idea for your cool bath is to put a bit of baking soda and apple cider vinegar into the water. This combination will provide your skin with a bit of healing help and I find a bit of baking soda on your body sponge makes a good exfoliant that is free of harsh chemicals.

By Saraq90 — On Aug 09, 2011

The part of sunburn that was surprising to me was that you also swell! So in addition to the aloe or other method you use to relieve the burn I would also suggest ice or a cold compress at the swelling portion of your burn.

The last sunburn I had was on my legs and the end of the week of utter sunburn misery was topped off with cankles secondary to the swollen-ness (cankles are where your ankles are as big as your calf)!

By SnowyWinter — On Aug 09, 2011

The first time you get "the" sunburn, you never forget it. Mine was when I was 16 years old. We went boating for the day and of course, you don't feel like you're getting sunburned with the wonderful breeze is blowing through your hair.

Well, after three hours, I realized the damage I had done. I was so blistered that I could not stand for anything to touch me. I missed a whole week of school because I couldn't wear clothes. I had sun poisoning and when the skin started peeling, it also started bleeding.

When I went to the doctor, he told my mom to keep the burns open during the daytime and keep antibiotic ointment on it. But, unfortunately, there is no sure-fire sunburn cures out there.

I learned a valuable lesson that day and have had much respect for the sun ever since. Just because you don't feel the heat doesn't mean you aren't getting dangerously sunburned.

By bagley79 — On Aug 08, 2011

@LisaLou - I have also used vinegar for sunburns and have had good results. I will pour some in a spray bottle and spray anywhere I have skin that has burned. This is the easiest way I have found to use the vinegar.

Not only does it help relieve the pain, but it also works great for sunburn itch relief. As soon as I spray this on my skin it stops itching. As soon as my skin feels itchy again, I just spray more vinegar on it.

You may have to do this several times, but it really does help, and is also very economical.

By LisaLou — On Aug 07, 2011

I usually try to prevent a sunburn from even happening, but there have been a few times when I was out in the sun longer than I anticipated, and got a sunburn.

One of the best sunburn home remedies I have tried is to use vinegar. Just a bottle of plain vinegar - it doesn't matter if it is white or apple cider vinegar.

When I get a sunburn I will pour some of this anywhere my skin is red and burned. After several applications I will still have red skin, but it will not hurt anymore. I think it also helps your skin from blistering. Anytime I have used this remedy, I have not got blisters.

It might not smell the best at first, but it really does help with the pain and tenderness.

By myharley — On Aug 07, 2011

I am very familiar with skin that has been sunburned. My sister and I spent most of our summers outside and always had a least one big sunburn each year.

I know it sounds kind of gross, but we loved peeling off the skin from each others backs where you could not reach it yourself. After this first sunburn, we looked forward to a summer tan and were oblivious to the need for sunscreen.

Now that I am older, and hopefully a little wiser, I use sunscreen on a regular basis, but still might get a sunburn occasionally.

The best sunburn remedy that has worked for me is to add some mint extract to the aloe vera gel. There is something about the coolness of the mint, mixed in with the gel that is very soothing to my tender skin.

By wavy58 — On Aug 06, 2011

@shell4life - I have felt the pain of peeling off skin that wasn’t totally ready to go. I used to use tweezers to grip it, and I would rip it off quickly like a bandaid. I figured out that this was not a good method. Areas that were not ready to be exposed stung and appeared juicy.

I developed a new method for removing my dead skin. First, I would get into a tub of warm water and soak. Then, I would take a big bowl of oatmeal and apply it to my skin like a mask. After letting it set for about ten minutes, I would take a washcloth and rub it gently in a circular motion, dabbing it with water. Then, I would rinse off in the shower.

By seag47 — On Aug 05, 2011

To me, the best sunburn relief by far is aloe vera gel. This green goo comes in a dispenser like lotion, and its cooling properties are invaluable.

Sunburned skin is often hot before it starts to itch. Once you have itching, you know that peeling is soon to follow. So, before I develop an itch, I treat the heat with soothing aloe gel. I slather it all over my red skin after I shower, and I reapply it in the morning.

Usually, if I apply aloe vera gel twice a day for several days, I won’t peel. The redness usually goes away in two or three days. If I don’t use aloe, then I am sure to peel.

By shell4life — On Aug 05, 2011

I have never had a sunburn so bad that it made blisters, but I have peeled from a sunburn on more than one occasion. You have to be sure that the skin is ready to come off, or it will hurt when you tug at it.

Sometimes, pieces of dead skin that jut up appear ready to be removed. You start to peel them, and they seem to be coming off so easily that you gain confidence and yank the whole piece, only to experience pain at the base of the skin. Part of it was ready, but the area where it attached to your live skin was not.

I like to use a loofah with shower gel to remove the dead skin. That way, I have no harsh exfoliants like beads or grains that could irritate the newly revealed skin.

By StarJo — On Aug 04, 2011

My dermatologist had warned me that the medication I was on to relieve acne would make me more sensitive to the sun. I thought that as long as I wore sunscreen, I would be okay to spend the day at the lake on a hot June day. I was wrong.

I had been applying a topical treatment to my upper arms to relieve the tiny bumps there. Well, one spot on my arm burned so badly that I developed a mass of tiny scabs. They turned nearly black.

My dermatologist gave me a steroid cream to help the area heal. I did not peel off the scabs. The red skin that eventually emerged was sensitive for some time, but the steroid cream sped up the healing process.

By angelBraids — On Aug 03, 2011

@Penzance356 - I think you're spot on to recommend we avoid applying greasy things to relieve sunburn.

I will say though that my grandmother's solution - basically strong iced black tea dabbed on to non blistering areas - did give me a lot of relief from childhood sunburns.

I shudder to think how much damage I've done to my skin during that period, but we just didn't think about it. Burning was just a hazard of playing outside in the summer.

By Penzance356 — On Aug 03, 2011

I've heard of many home remedies for sunburn, including using yogurt, vinegar and butter. personally I'm wary of them, instead I prefer to use aloe to soothe my skin.

If your sunburn blisters I would seek medical advice. I only had this happen once and it became infected. The doctor said if I'd used any oily liquids on this area of skin it would have been much more serious than it was.

By Acracadabra — On Aug 02, 2011

Thanks for this useful article. I accidentally fell asleep in the yard yesterday and was desperate for some ideas on how to relieve my sunburn.

My first reaction was to reach for traditional ointments, but I tried the oatmeal suggestion and it is helping a lot.

My family are never going to let me live this down, as it's always me who is nagging about the effects of damaged skin. I have even been known to set a timer to avoid sunburn over tanning.

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