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No one likes looking in the mirror and seeing skin peel off. Sometimes, you can predict when you’re about to have a shed session (frigid weather, a new retinol routine, or an overly dry complexion are all major culprits), but other times, there’s no rhyme or reason behind the dryness. After all, the average person loses over a hundred pounds of skin during their lifetime, which is perfectly normal—albeit gross-sounding.
“Almost any skin condition that causes inflammation will result in peeling,” explains Rita Linkner MD, a dermatologist at Spring Street Dermatology in New York City. “If you ever have a reaction or rash, it is normal for skin to remain sand paper-y in feel for thirty days as it takes the skin's barrier a full month to repair itself.”
While it’s easy to panic and load up on moisturizer the next time you feel flaky, try to identify what’s causing the peeling first, because the most effective course of treatment depends on it. Sometimes the best plan of attack is as easy as a lifestyle tweak while other times you could be dealing with a more serious medical or dermatological condition that requires a doctor’s input. Simply put: There could be a lot of different explanations for your snake-like molting.
Below, check out some of the most common causes for peeling skin along with advice on how to stay flake-free:
If you’ve ever found yourself looking like a lobster after a long day outside, you know that peeling skin is sure to follow. This is due to your body’s repair mechanism that’s designed to shed the dead cells that were fried in its effort to rejuvenate your epidermis’s top layer. Before you reach for the first bottle of aloe vera you can find, be aware that it may trigger an allergic reaction. This is why Dr. Linkner prefers treating a peeling burn with a calamine-based product instead. “Something like Rodan + Fields Soothe Rescue Mask are a great way to turn off the inflammatory response that causes tenderness and also has a plenty of organically derived glycerides to accelerate the repair the skin barrier post exfoliation,” she explains.
2. Dry Skin
Dehydrated complexion? You’re not alone. Whether it’s due to your body’s natural tendency towards dryness, your skin getting stripped of its natural oils, the weather, or low-humidity environments, there are a few things you can do. The first, is to make sure your beauty regimen includes regular exfoliation and moisturizing.
Beyond giving you brighter skin, regular exfoliation also fights off flakes in a major way. “Physical exfoliators, such as gentle scrubs, can help rid the skin of dead cells that can cause flakes and block moisture from getting through," says Sonia Batra, MD, board-certified dermatologist and co-host of The Doctors TV show. "Chemical exfoliators, such as alpha or beta hydroxy acids, help promote cell turnover and decrease peeling.” Limit yourself to exfoliating one to two times a week since overdoing it can increase irritation (read: even more peeling). And whatever you do, don’t pick flakes off with your fingers or tweezers: This causes cracks in the skin that become doorways for infection.
After you exfoliate, it’s all about hydration. “Once you’ve removed the top layer of dead skin cells, apply moisturizer to create a barrier between your newly exposed skin and the elements,” explains Dr. Batra. She recommends using a product that’s infused with ceramides—fats that help your skin form a protective barrier and aids in retaining moisture. “Petroleum jelly and coconut oil are also good options for treating flaky skin,” she adds. “Coconut oil’s emollient properties help fill the spaces between skin cells, creating a smooth surface, while petroleum jelly creates a protective layer on top of the skin to help trap moisture and heal dry skin.” If your skin feels extra arid, stash a travel size hydrating facial spray in your bag to spritz on throughout the day.
Other ways to stop scaly skin include avoiding steaming hot showers since they dry skin out and investing in a humidifier. Humidifiers aren’t just for dry, winter air either: They’re actually a secret weapon you can use year-round to combat peeling. Similar to heaters, air conditioners also deplete the air of moisture, so Dr. Batra recommends using a humidifier whenever you’re feeling a little on the dry side as a preventative measure. P.S. Check out this list of the best humidifiers to see which ones are worth buying.
When peeling comes along with red, itchy skin, you might be dealing with eczema. “Eczema is due to a genetic predisposition to skin that doesn't repair itself properly because it is unable to manufacture ceramides, or the glue that holds skin cells together,” says Dr. Linkner. Your best bet? Treat it is by applying a petrolatum-based product that really weather-proofs the skin from the elements. “Cetaphil moisturizing cream is a great, thick moisturizer that comes at an affordable price point for a product that needs to coat the entire body, everyday twice a day,” Dr. Linkner adds. For more eczema-fighting lotions, click here.
Another skin condition that can lead to shedding is psoriasis. “It affects three percent of the population and the characteristic is silvery plaques that affect elbows and knees and are notoriously itchy and peel-y,” explains Dr. Linkner. While it can be a challenge to determine if you’re dealing with it or just extra dry skin, any lasting rashes that don’t improve with regular moisturizing should be checked out by your derm since you may need prescription topicals or light therapy.
5. The Wrong Skincare Products
For persistent peeling, consider a medicine cabinet makeover. According to Dr. Batra, scents and colors added to products, like cleansers and moisturizers or even laundry detergent, can irritate the skin. “Using gentle, hypoallergenic products can decrease inflammation and flaking,” she says. Another safe option is a DIY yogurt treatment since it’s a natural source of lactic acid, which aids in cell-turnover. Just apply cold, plain yogurt to dry skin for ten minutes before rinsing off with warm water. This will soften and nourish skin while also sloughing away any roughness.
6. Contact Dermatitis
“Contact dermatitis can cause inflammation in the skin that oftentimes results in peeling when someone encounters an allergen in their environment,” says Dr. Linkner. Since the rash looks the same whether it was caused by stumbling into poison ivy on a hike or spritzing on a new perfume, it can be tricky to determine whether or not your shedding is due to contact dermatitis. Before touching it with anything else, see your dermatologist. “More often than not, this will warrant a prescription strength topical steroid to remedy as well as avoidance of the culprit allergen,” furthers Dr. Linkner. “A board-certified dermatologist is the best person to help you Sherlock Holmes this to figure out the problem at hand.”
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