When you think of uncomfortable and unsightly peeling skin on your face, it's usually the result of a few too many hours in the sun. But sunburn isn't the only reason the skin on your face may peel. "It can be the result of several different factors ranging from damage to the skin to inflammatory processes," says Jody Levine, M.D., assistant clinical instructor of dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. Read on to discover some of the most common culprits of peeling skin so you can smooth it over and prevent future flakiness.
The number one reason the skin on your face may peel is sunburn. The reason: "Ultraviolet rays from the sun actually kill off skin cells," says Joshua Zeichner, M.D., director of cosmetic and clinical research at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City. "When this happens, the dead cells are sloughed off (in the form of peeling) so that new, baby skin cells can replace them." The best way to avoid sunburn? You guessed it—slather on sunscreen every day. Look for one with at least SPF 30, which blocks 97 percent of UVB rays, the shortwave rays that cause sunburn and redness.
Burns can also be the result of chemical peels, in which a dermatologist uses chemicals to literally peel away layers of skin. "The damaged skin will peel and flake, and in more severe cases, may blister before peeling," says Levine. The result is usually smoother, brighter skin. Talk to your doctor to find out if this treatment is right for you.
Certain medications, such as retinoid products to treat acne and wrinkles, can cause peeling skin. "You might notice flaking around the nose and mouth area," says Levine. "If this happens, ask your doctor if you should decrease your application schedule to every other day or every two days until your skin becomes more tolerant to the medication." When applying retinoid creams or gels, be sure to avoid sensitive areas around the nose and eyes.
Other topical medications like benzoyl peroxide (which fights acne-causing bacteria), sulfa (a type of antibiotic) and salicylic acid may lead to dry skin and cause peeling and flaking, especially if skin is sensitive, says Levine. If you have easily agitated skin, skip products that contain these ingredients and go for gentle cleansers and lightweight, oil-free moisturizers instead.
3. Dry Skin
When the skin is dry, skin cells do not stick together as smoothly and they start to flake or peel off, says Zeichner. While cold temperatures are often the cause of dry skin, there are other factors that could cause a flaky, peeling complexion. "Living in an area with low humidity and using harsh soaps can also cause moisture loss that leads to dry skin," says Levine.
To avoid dry, peeling skin, it's important to keep your face properly hydrated. Look for moisturizers targeted to your skin type—oily, dry, normal, or combination. "It's also crucial to use gentle cleansers that don't strip your skin of its natural oils, which keep moisture levels stable thus minimizing peeling and flaking," says Levine. And drinking lots of water can also help ensure proper skin hydration.
4. Skin conditions
Certain skin conditions like seborrheic dermatitis and eczema may cause the skin on the face to peel, says Levine. Both are chronic inflammatory skin conditions that don't have a known cure. However, the symptoms can be controlled through proper moisturization. "Keeping your face hydrated will help minimize peeling and flaking," says Levine.
It's also important to avoid washing your face with hot water, which can irritate the skin. Instead, use lukewarm water and a gentle cleanser that is free of fragrances and harsh chemicals to help maintain your skin's natural moisture barrier. After cleansing, gently pat your face dry with a towel (rather than rubbing harshly) and apply a moisturizer targeted to your skin type.
"Peeling on the face may also be the result of an allergic reaction to ingredients in cosmetics, skin-care products, hair products, or nail polish," says Levine. For example, an allergic reaction to nail polish may cause the skin around your eyes to peel. Although you could react to any number of ingredients in a product, the most common triggers are preservatives such as parabens, says Levine.
Allergic reactions are often accompanied by other symptoms, such as redness and itching. To determine which ingredients are to blame, consult with a board certified dermatologist or allergist who can properly test for potential allergies. "If it's determined that your peeling skin is in fact caused by an allergic reaction, you will need to be very diligent about reading ingredient labels to avoid contact with these irritants," says Levine.
- Levine, Jody, M.D. Personal correspondence.
- Zeichner, Joshua, M.D. Personal correspondence.