What is peeling skin?

Peeling skin can occur as a reaction to several inflammatory processes of the skin or damage to the skin. Sunburn is a classic example, but other conditions that can cause peeling skin include various forms of dermatitis, eczema, and certain infections. Burns of any degree of severity can result in peeling skin. Some types of medications, such as topical retinoids used for acne, can cause peeling skin. Adverse reactions to medications such as cancer chemotherapeutic agents can also lead to peeling skin. Any condition that results in the formation of a blister can result in peeling skin at the area of the blister. Although peeling skin is not typically associated with a rash, some skin rashes may be associated with peeling skin. Treatment is dependent upon the underlying cause.

Types of Peeling Skin Syndrome:

Type of the PSS
Differential diagnosis
Generalized PSS type A Impetigo
Subcorneal pustular dermatosis
Staphylococcal scalded skin syndrome
Generalized PSS type B Congenital ichthyosiform erythroderma
(Peeling skin diseases) Netherton syndrome
Pemphigus foliaceus
Acral PSS
  • Erythrokeratolysis hiemalis (Oudtshoom disease)
  • Epidermolysis bullosa simplex
  • Superficialis
    Keratolysis exfoliativa


    Many different diseases, disorders, and conditions can lead to peeling skin. Peeling skin can be a sign of allergies, inflammation, infection, or skin damage. More serious causes include severe allergic reactions, drug reactions, and infections.

    Allergic causes of peeling skin:

    Drug, animal, food, and other environmental allergens can lead to peeling skin including:

    • Atopic dermatitis (eczema)
    • Contact dermatitis (contact with allergens, such as perfumes, poison ivy, and soaps)
    • Drug reactions

    Autoimmune or inflammatory causes of peeling skin:

    Autoimmune and inflammatory causes of peeling skin include:

    • Kawasaki disease (inflammatory disease primarily affecting young children and infants)
    • Psoriasis

    Infectious causes of peeling skin:

    Peeling skin may arise from infectious diseases, such as:

    • Scarlet fever
    • Staphylococcal scalded skin syndrome
    • Tinea infections (Athlete’s foot, jock itch, ringworm)
    • Toxic-shock syndrome (late)

    Other causes of peeling skin:

    • Certain acne treatments, such as those containing retinol or benzoyl peroxide
    • Chemical peels or use of facial creams containing retinol to reduce aging
    • Harsh soaps and detergents can cause drying of the skin
    • Peeling skin syndrome (a rare genetic disorder)
    • Side effects of some drugs and vitamins
    • Skin irritation or damage
    • Some types of cancer treatments
    • Sunburn
    • Vitamin deficiencies or toxicities

    Serious or life-threatening causes of peeling skin:

    In some cases, peeling skin may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. These include:

    • Cutaneous T-cell lymphoma (a type of blood cancer that affects the skin)
    • Skin cancer
    • Stevens-Johnson syndrome (erythema multiforme major, a skin disorder caused by a serious infection or an allergic reaction)
    • Toxic epidermal necrolysis (severe reaction likely caused by a drug reaction)
    • Toxic shock syndrome


    When you initially recognize scaling skin, you may simply apply lotion and not give it much thought. After all, it’s very common for skin to sometimes scale during periods of cold, dry weather or after prolonged sun exposure. However, if your scaling skin doesn’t improve, spreads, or worsens, you may want to see your healthcare provider.
    Your healthcare provider will ask about your medical history and your symptoms. If you can pinpoint when the symptoms first appeared, it may help your healthcare provider determine a cause. Whether or not your skin itches or if anything provides relief could also help in diagnosing the problem.
    The diagnosis is made based on the appearance of your skin, your history of exposure to any irritating or allergenic substances, and any accompanying symptoms.

    Treatment and Home Remedies:

    Take a pain reliever:

    Take an over-the-counter (OTC) pain reliever such as ibuprofen (Advil) or aspirin (Bayer). These medications work to reduce the inflammation and redness surrounding your sunburn. They can also reduce the pain associated with having a sunburn.

    Use a soothing anti-inflammatory cream:

    • Apply a topical anti-inflammatory cream to your sunburns, such as aloe vera or cortisone cream.
    • Or — as long as you aren’t allergic to aspirin — crush up a few aspirin tablets into a fine powder and add just enough water until it forms a goopy paste. Apply this to the areas of your body affected by sunburn.
    • Avoid petroleum-based or other oil-based creams as these may trap heat and make your sunburn and peeling even worse.
    • Try to moisturize right after you bathe, when your skin is still damp, to help seal in moisture.

    Take a cool bath:

    • Take a cool (just below lukewarm) bath. This can help ease the pain of your sunburn and stop your skin from peeling further.
    • Avoid showering if your skin is blistered in addition to peeling, as showering may pop your blisters and trigger more peeling.
    • Do not use soaps or bath oils when you bathe. These can make your peeling worse.

    Be gentle with your skin:

    Avoid rubbing your skin with a towel after you bathe. This can make peeling worse. Instead, pat your skin dry with a towel.

    Make a cool compress:

    • Place a cool, wet compress on your skin for 20 to 30 minutes to soothe irritation and stop peeling.
    • Be sure not to apply ice directly to your skin as that may cause further irritation.

    Stay hydrated:

    Make sure you keep your skin hydrated by consuming at least eight 8-ounce glasses of clear liquids a day while you recover from your sunburn. This will help reduce peeling.

    Keep it covered:

    Protect your peeling skin from further damage by keeping it covered with clothing or a very thin layer of sunscreen with an SPF of 45 or higher.

    Aloe vera and moisturizer:

    • Many people find that aloe vera is an effective moisturizer that helps to soothe irritated skin. It is particularly helpful after a sunburn when the skin is feeling hot and painful. Aloe vera gels or lotions can:
      1. cool the skin
      2. reduce inflammation
      3. slow or reduce the skin’s peeling process
    • Gently apply the lotion with the fingertips. Leave the lotion on top of the sunburn instead of rubbing it into the skin. This will maximize moisturizing effects and minimize irritation.
    • Sunburn can dry the skin, and drier skin makes the peeling more intense. Anyone who wishes to stop their skin from peeling after a sunburn should apply moisturizer.
    • A study published in the International Journal of Research in Pharmacy and Chemistry recommends using an unscented moisturizer and applying it as often as needed to protect the skin following a sunburn.
    • Some moisturizers may contain ingredients that are not suitable for sunburn. Unsure people should check with a pharmacist or doctor.
    • Creams and lotions that contain aloe vera provide the benefits of both aloe vera and moisturizer.

    Try these home remedies:

    There is not a great deal of scientific evidence to back up any home or natural remedies for sunburn. But most home or natural remedies are safe to try unless someone misuses them or is allergic. Try:

    • applying menthol shaving cream to the skin
    • adding baking soda to a cool bath
    • putting honey on the skin

    When to visit a Doctor?

    Peeling skin caused by dry skin or mild sunburn is likely to improve with over-the-counter lotions and usually doesn't require medical care. If you have any doubt about the cause of peeling skin or if the condition is severe, call your doctor before trying over-the-counter lotions or home remedies.

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