What is peeling skin?
Peeling skin, or desquamation, is a common condition in which the outer layer of skin (epidermis) is shed. It is associated with healing from damage to the skin from either internal or external causes, such as burns or exposure to environmental irritants such as the sun or wind. Peeling skin may also accompany internal disorders or diseases such as the healing stage of a rash.
Superficial loss of skin cells is a normal ongoing process, as the body continuously produces new skin cells and eliminates aging cells from the outer layer. This loss of skin cells is typically neither noticeable nor unusual. Noticeable peeling may occur on a small section of skin or all over the body, depending on the cause of skin injury.
Deep skin injury may cause blisters, be painful, or leave ulcers and raw skin behind. This pattern of skin injury can also be caused by external events such as a burn or internal causes such as a medication reaction or autoimmune disease. Painful skin diseases are typically serious or life-threatening unless treated promptly.
What are the symptoms of peeling skin?
Symptoms of peeling skin can vary, depending on the underlying condition or disorder responsible for skin loss.
Symptoms may include:
- Skin dryness
- Thin scaling
What causes peeling skin?
Many conditions, disorders or diseases can cause the skin to peel during the healing phase of the injury. Immediately after exposure to any of the following or if you suspect any of the listed disorders you should be evaluated by a physician. Examples of skin injuries may include:
Healing from direct damage to skin
- Thermal burns when skin damage may occur after exposure to a hot liquid or surface, or contact with fire
- Chemical burns when skin damage may occur after a chemical comes into direct contact with the skin. Household cleaners and beauty products or chemicals used in the workplace may cause burns.
- Skin irritation due to abrasion or friction from shoes or clothing
- Sunburn is the most common type of burn. It is caused by prolonged exposure to UV radiation from the sun or artificial sources (such as tanning beds).
Cosmetic procedures or treatments
- Acne treatments containing retinol/retinoids or benzoyl peroxide
- Chemical peels or use of face creams containing retinol, typically those used to treat scarring or wrinkles
Medical conditions or treatment side effects (require evaluation and diagnosis by your doctor)
- Atopic dermatitis (eczema) may cause the skin to become red and peel
- Edema (swelling of the skin) typically occurs as a result of a serious medical condition (such as heart failure or a blood clot) but the skin will peel as the swelling decreases
- Radiation as a treatment for cancer may cause skin peeling but should still be evaluated
- Chemotherapy reactions should be evaluated by your doctor
- Contact dermatitis may be caused from exposure to an allergen (such as a perfume) or irritants such as prolonged water exposure
- Any cause of prolonged skin redness such as an adverse reaction to a medication can cause the skin to peel and requires treatment
Many viral or bacterial infections may cause the skin to peel. The examples below are always serious and require treatment:
- Scarlet fever (scarlatina) is caused by an infection of streptococcus bacteria
- Staphylococcal scalded skin syndrome is an infectious disease caused by certain strains of staphylococcus aureus bacteria
- Toxic shock syndrome may be caused by staphylococcal or streptococcal infections
Genetic or inflammatory diseases also requiring evaluation
- Kawasaki disease is a rare and serious inflammatory disease that normally occurs in children. It is a type of vasculitis, in which the blood vessels become inflamed throughout the body. Other symptoms include fever, involvement of the eyes and mouth, and swollen lymph nodes.
- Peeling skin syndrome is a rare genetic disorder that can be present on the entire body or just the hands and feet. The condition is usually present at birth, but it may start later in childhood.
Care and Treatment
How is peeling skin diagnosed?
Your physician or other healthcare professional will conduct a physical examination. He or she will ask questions about:
- Your medical history, including any illnesses and medical treatments, and the medications or dietary supplements you take
- How long your skin has been peeling, how extensive the peeling is and whether it occurs in a specific area or all over the body
- If you have been exposed to any new substances, foods or potential allergens
Other tests may be required if the doctor suspects that you have an infection or another underlying condition.
How is peeling skin treated?
The treatment will depend on the underlying condition. Peeling that follows skin damage is a natural process. It is important to allow the skin to heal and never attempt to remove or peel the skin. First, your doctor will determine if the cause is an infection or underlying medical condition and treat that accordingly. Prescription or over-the-counter topical medications such as thick creams and ointments like petroleum jelly (Vaseline®) are better than lotions and may provide relief from symptoms such as dryness, itching or redness.
You may be able to care for minor (first-degree) skin burns at home if you:
- Cool the burned area by immersing it in cool water or applying a cold compress for up to 10 minutes.
- Apply petroleum jelly (not antibiotics) to the burn 2 or 3 times each day.
- Cover the burn with a nonstick sterile bandage.
- Avoid exposure to sunlight, even after the skin heals, by wearing protective clothing if going outdoors and a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen.
What are the complications of peeling skin?
Complications may vary according to the underlying cause or condition. Some of the major problems may include:
- Bacterial infections
- Dehydration if a significant amount of skin is involved
When to Call the Doctor
When should you seek medical attention for peeling skin?
In some cases, the cause of skin peeling may be serious or even life threatening. Seek medical treatment quickly if you are experiencing:
- Fever or chills
- Skin pain or swelling
- Confusion, disorientation or a loss of consciousness
- Shortness of breath, wheezing or difficulty with breathing
- Joint pain
- Hives, rash, or blisters including blisters in the mouth, eyes or genitals
- Nausea, diarrhea, or vomiting
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Flu-like symptoms
- Changes in vision or dryness of the eyes
- Any large burn especially if the person is a child, elderly or otherwise sick