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Ew! Beauty: Itchy, Peeling Sunburn

How to care for shedding snake syndrome

Let’s face it: Along with summer’s heat, humidity, and other sweat-inducing qualities comes a ton of gross beauty problems. From dry, cracked feet to ingrown hairs and chafing, there’s a lot that can hold you back from living the confident poolside life you’re destined to lead. But don’t worry—we’re talking to experts about how to fix them. Welcome to Ew! Beauty.

We’ve all been there—you have that one magical day at the beach where you eat, you drink, you swim, and you forget to reapply your sunscreen. Next thing you know, you’re back home showering off all that sand when suddenly you look in the mirror, only to find that your boiling hot skin is a vibrant shade of red. But while your skin might momentarily look like one of a lobster, you know that the inevitable stage of peeling is just around the corner. 

First things first: What does it even mean when your skin starts peeling off in sheets after a bad sunburn? It turns out, the proper term for this condition is “desquamation,” and it’s the body’s response to repairing the surface of the skin. Desquamation occurs once the swollen, burned skin starts to cool down and contract.

While not all sunburns peel, the ones that do are usually thanks to a rapid (as opposed to gradual) burn, which can occur in as little as 15 to 20 minutes of intense sun exposure—which is pretty scary, knowing that it can happen in a matter of running to the café on your lunch break. 

While sun protection is the only way to avoid a burn, let's face it, sometimes we forget to layer on the SPF. We turned to the experts to give us—and you—a little guidance the next time we find ourselves in an itchy, peel-y situation. Here are their tips for damage control:

Light exfoliation

Since your skin is simply trying to rid itself of damaged cells, the best way to clear up peeling once it starts is to help expedite the process. Dr. Jessica Weiser of New York Dermatology Group stresses that it’s important to choose gentle manual and chemical means of exfoliation, and avoid anything abrasive, which can end up irritating the skin and worsening any inflammation.

Moisturize, moisturize, moisturize!

You’ll need to keep your skin soothed and moisturized in order to promote the healing process.

Dr. Harold Lancer, Beverly Hills dermatologist, suggests a tepid bath incorporating soothing oils like chamomile or lavender. “Soak yourself from head to toe for about 10 to 15 minutes,” he says. “This helps to ease the dry, dead skin cells so that they dissipate faster and more invisibly. Following the oil bath, use coconut oil to help soothe and restore the skin’s barrier. This will also allow the peel to sort of slide off, as opposed to flake.”

Dr. Weiser suggests applying a liberal amount of oils, creams, and ointments. Her favorites? Sisley Black Rose Oil and Colbert MD Soothe Night Cream.

Drink a lot (of water, that is)

Hydrate from the inside out. Dr. Weiser stresses that drinking plenty of water is important for keeping your skin healthy, thus helping it repair at a quicker rate.

Thorough sun protection

Dr. Weiser explains that you need to make sure you thoroughly protect yourself from the sun while nursing your burn (SPF? Check. Big-ass hat? Check.), but she also suggests complete sun avoidance. Think of it as the perfect excuse to binge-watch all of your favorite shows on Netflix. 

In the end, there is now way to stress just how important sun protection is. The only way to prevent desquamation is to make sure you’re always properly protected from the sun’s harmful rays. “By avoiding skin damage, there’s no acute need for the skin to repair itself,” says Dr. Weiser.

In addition to desquamation, sunburn can cause premature aging (think wrinkles and discoloration) and cancer. And it can happen even if you only get burned once. Dr. Lancer says there is enough medical evidence to show that even a single, isolated sunburn is enough to trigger skin cancer down the road. “There’s a misconception where people think it’s only chronic sun exposure that triggers skin cancer and premature aging, but it’s not,” he says. “One sunburn can cause significant damage down the line, if not immediately.”

So please, make SPF an integral part of your daily routine. The best way to avoid having to say the word "desquamation" is by never getting burned in the first place.