Dry, peeling skin is never any fun but it's especially unpleasant when it occurs on your face. As every woman knows, a flaky complexion can make it nearly impossible to apply makeup—and keep it on. And because the skin on your face is more sensitive than other parts of your body, a peeling complexion can sometimes even be painful. Read on to learn what causes your skin to peel—and how you can smooth it over fast.
What Causes Your Skin to Peel
"The skin peels when the top layers die and slough off," says Jessica Wu, M.D., a Los Angeles-based dermatologist and author of Feed Your Face. This can happen for many reasons, the number one being sunburn. "Ultraviolet rays from the sun actually kill off skin cells," says Joshua Zeichner, MD, 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." If you've ever popped a blister prematurely and seen the delicate skin underneath, you've seen this process in action.
But sunburn isn't the only cause of flaky skin. Dryness could also be to blame. "When the skin isn't well-hydrated, skin cells do not stick together as smoothly and they start to flake off," says Zeichner. Other culprits of peeling include topical skin medications (like retinoid creams and gels, which can treat everything from acne to wrinkles) and certain kinds of rashes. For example, people suffering from eczema (a chronic condition that results in dry, red skin) may also suffer from peeling and dryness. If you get a chemical or laser peel, you could also end up dealing with residual flaking.
How to Prevent Skin from Peeling
Since sunburn is the most common cause of skin peeling, it's crucial to wear sunscreen when you head outdoors. "It's not enough to only use sunscreen when you're at the beach," says Zeichner. "When it comes to your face, you should apply sunscreen every day." He recommends using a daily moisturizer with at least SPF 30, which blocks 97 percent of UVB rays.
A few other key steps for prevention include staying well-hydrated by drinking water throughout the day and moisturizing your skin twice daily. If you have dry skin, Zeichner recommends taking short, luke-warm showers and using nonsoap cleansers since the alkaline pH of soap can be damaging to your skin. When you step out of the shower, gently pat yourself dry (rather than rubbing harshly with a towel) and moisturize with a targeted dry skin lotion within five minutes.
How to Treat Peeling Skin
"If you are already peeling, moisturize, moisturize, moisturize," says Zeichner. This is especially true if dry skin is to blame or if you're peeling after a chemical or laser treatment. However, if the peeling is the result of sunburn, stay away from heavy moisturizers, which can retain heat, says Wu. Instead, apply cooling, water-based lotions or aloe.
Another great way to soothe sunburned skin is using a milk compress, says Zeichner. Making one at home is a cinch: Simply put chilled whole milk in a bowl with ice cubes. Soak a washcloth in the milk and then apply it to the skin for approximately 10 minutes. "Proteins in the milk soothe the skin while the lactic acid is anti-inflammatory," says Zeichner. If all else fails, an over-the-counter hydrocortisone 1% cream can help reduce inflammation and an aspirin by mouth can cool things down from the inside out.
If the peeling persists, it may be caused by an allergic reaction, infection, or immune system disorder. Consult your doctor if the symptoms continue.