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Peeling Skin What You Should Know

What Causes Skin Peeling

Peeling Skin What You Should Know

Peeling skin is unintended damage to and loss of the upper layer of your skin (epidermis). Peeling skin may occur because of direct damage to the skin, such as from sunburn or infection. It may also be a sign of an immune system disorder or other disease.

Rash, itching, dryness and other irritating skin problems may accompany peeling skin.

Your skin is regularly exposed to environmental elements that can irritate and damage it. These include sun, wind, heat, dryness and excessive humidity. Repeated irritation can lead to skin peeling. In babies born past their due date, it’s not unusual for them to experience some painless skin peeling.

Peeling skin can occur as a reaction to a number of inflammatory processes of the skin or damage to the skin. Sunburn is a classic example, but other conditions that can cause peeling skin include various forms of dermatitis, eczema, and certain infections. Burns of any degree of severity can result in peeling skin. Some types of medications, such as topical retinoids used for acne, can cause peeling skin.

Adverse reactions to medications such as cancer chemotherapeutic agents can also lead to peeling skin. Any condition that results in the formation of a blister can result in peeling skin at the area of the blister. Although peeling skin is not typically associated with a rash, some skin rashes may be associated with peeling skin. Treatment is dependent upon the underlying cause.

The seasons can also play a role in roughing up your feet, with summer typically leading to peeling and blistering and winter to dryness, cracked heels, and, (again) peeling. So when your dogs start barking over the scaly skin situation going on down there, it can be super tempting to take matters into your own hands by, say, picking. Don’t, per Jennifer Tauber, DPM, a podiatrist in New Canaan, Connecticut.

“The biggest mistake that people make is trying to remove the peeling skin on their own, either by using some type of instrument, which can lead to bleeding and infection, or an over the counter remedy that may be too harsh for the skin and cause more irritation than good.”

What Is Peeling Skin?

Peeling skin (desquamation) is the loss or shedding of the outer layer of your skin (epidermis). Peeling skin can be caused by direct damage to the skin or by a wide variety of mild to serious diseases, disorders and conditions. Peeling skin can affect a small area of the skin or the full body and can occur in all age groups and populations. Depending on the cause of peeling skin, it may go away with over-the-counter (OTC) creams or lotions, or it may require treatment of an underlying disease, disorder or condition.

Because of the range of possible causes of peeling skin, a correct diagnosis of the underlying disease, disorder or condition is very important. The goal of the clinical evaluation is to identify the root cause for peeling skin. Contact your health care provider for a physical exam.

Peeling skin that is associated with confusion, change in consciousness, blisters or sores, fever, diarrhea, vomiting, skin pain, or facial swelling can indicate a serious, life-threatening condition, such as toxic shock syndrome or Stevens-Johnson syndrome.

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
  • Itching
  • Irritation
  • Redness
  • Thin scaling

Causes Of Peeling Skin

Sunburn

Anyone who’s come home from the beach with fiery red shoulders knows that a period of peeling isn’t far behind. After the initial stages of a sunburn, in which the skin is red, tender, and sometimes hot to the touch, peeling will occur because the skin is trying to repair its topmost layer, Erin Boh, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of dermatology at Tulane University, tells SELF.

“Those sunburnt [skin] cells are basically going to die, then that causes the barrier to get disrupted,” she explains. “The cells normally would be ‘glued’ together, but these dead or dying cells start losing their ‘glue,’ so to speak.” And it’s when these damaged skin cells come “unglued” that you’ll start to notice some peeling.

For milder cases, cool compresses, gentle and soothing skin protectants like aloe vera, and pain relievers can help reduce the discomfort of a sunburn, Dr. Tiernan says.

But if your sunburn is more severe, meaning it’s a deeper shade of red and much more painful, it’s likely that the lower levels of your skin are also affected and inflamed. In these cases your skin will probably blister before it sloughs off, Dr. Boh says, adding that your first step toward treating a severe sunburn should be taking an anti-inflammatory pain reliever, like ibuprofen, within 24 hours of getting burned.

Your dermatologist can also prescribe a topical steroid to help mitigate the inflammation in the first few days. Whether your sunburn is moderate or intense, do not pick at it.

Climate

Heat, wind, and high or low humidity can affect the skin on your hands.

For example, the dry air in certain regions can cause the exposed skin on your hands to dry, crack, and peel.

In dry climates or in areas with cold weather, you can prevent dry skin and peeling by:

  • using cool or lukewarm water (not hot) when bathing or washing your hands
  • moisturizing after bathing
  • using a humidifier when heating your home

Allergic Causes Of Peeling Skin

Drug, animal, food, and other environmental allergens can lead to peeling skin including:

  • Atopic dermatitis (eczema)
  • Contact dermatitis (contact with allergens, such as perfumes, poison ivy, and soaps)
  • Drug reactions

Fungal Infections

The most common reason patients have peeling feet is a fungal infection (like athlete’s foot)—although they might not always realize it. “A lot of times it just presents itself as peeling skin and patients don’t have the itchiness, so they don’t know it’s a fungal infection,” Pruthi says.

So if your skin starts mysteriously peeling all of a sudden, get it checked out sooner rather than later. Once you have a fungal infection on your skin, it can easily infect your toenail, which Pruthi warns can be very difficult to get rid of.

“What I find that happens is that the skin infects the nails, the nails re-infect the skin, back and forth, back and forth,” she says. “So whatever presents itself first, you want to knock it away.”

Chemicals

Exposing your skin to strong, harmful cleaning products without gloves can leave your hands dry and sensitive and if exposed for a long period of time can cause your peeling skin on hands due to corrosive substances present in the product.

Dry Skin

Some people’s skin naturally tends toward dryness. But the reality is that “dry skin can happen to anyone,” Dr. Tiernan says, cautioning against low-humidity environments (like an apartment heated by forced air), harsh soaps, and scalding-hot showers. Whether or not you naturally have drier skin, these factors can easily strip the skin of its natural moisture, which, Dr. Boh explains, leads to a damaged skin barrier.

“When the skin is not intact, that barrier that keeps everything bad out and allows things like water and other nutrients in is disrupted,” Dr. Boh says. “As a consequence of the disruption, the body then will lose water to the environment and then get more dry.” That causes symptoms like a feeling of tightness in the skin, itchiness, cracks in the skin, and a propensity for the skin to start to flake and peel off.

So treating dry skin boils down to trying to repair the skin’s barrier and replenish its moisture. First, Dr. Tiernan recommends using a thick cream-based moisturizer for wherever your skin is dry (like your hands or face)—and to use it after every time you wash that part of your body. “Otherwise, you’re just stripping your hands of its natural oils, which leads to irritation, little breaks in the skin, and inflammation,” she says.

Overwashing

Washing your hands is a good practice, but overwashing them can result in irritated and peeling skin. Overwashing includes:

  • washing too frequently
  • using water that is too hot
  • using harsh soaps
  • drying with rough paper towels
  • forgetting to moisturize after washing

To avoid the irritation of overwashing, avoid these practices. Moisturize after washing with a fragrance-free moisturizing cream or even plain petroleum jelly.

Sweaty Exercise Routines

Excess perspiration and moist environments often cause these foot infections, which lead to peeling. That might mean that your gym regimen, especially if there’s some hot yoga thrown in, can contribute to your peeling feet. Pruthi warns that “anything you’re doing barefoot, or if you’re sharing mats, or if you’re doing hot yoga in a moist environment” can lead to this bacterial or fungal infection. See a doc if you think you have it.

Eczema

When a patch of peeling skin is itchy, extremely dry, red, and inflamed, it could very well be due to eczema, a chronic condition in which the skin’s barrier doesn’t sufficiently protect against bacteria and irritants. Eczema can easily be mistaken for regular old dry skin because it gives the skin a similar appearance and tends to occur more frequently in the winter. But eczema usually has specific triggers (like allergens) and will likely require further treatment.

As with dry skin, moisturizing is a very important preventive step when you have eczema, Dr. Tiernan says. But she adds that eczema patients should also make extra sure to keep their skin clean, avoid irritants (like harsh cleansers and fragrances), and steer clear of any known allergens.

They should also get in touch with their dermatologist when they notice a flare. “Once the eczema happens, it’s really important to try to see a provider as soon as possible, because we can prescribe steroid creams or ointments that can help calm down the inflammation,” she says.

Strappy Heels

Many women, including Pruthi, love to wear strappy shoes in the summer. But as anyone who hasn’t properly broken in her new heels knows, snug footwear can cause some serious friction. “Anything that causes friction can cause blisters, which can also result in scaling or peeling of the skin,” Pruthi says. “Don’t wear shoes for too long, wear natural materials that kind of mold to your feet, and as soon as you start to feel friction, change your shoes. Don’t allow too much of that to dig into your skin.” And you shouldn’t only focus on the impact of your heels. Flip flops are also a culprit of foot discomfort and peeling.

Contact Dermatitis

Contact dermatitis occurs when the skin has a negative reaction to something in the environment. And, according to the Mayo Clinic, there are two types of contact dermatitis you should be aware of. Allergic contact dermatitis is triggered when you come into contact with something you’re allergic to (like poison ivy, nickel, or certain ingredients in your skin-care products) and your skin breaks out in a rash as an immune response.

Irritant contact dermatitis, on the other hand, isn’t due to contact with an allergen but to something that damages your skin’s protective barrier to the point that it causes a rash. Dr. Tiernan says rubbing alcohol, fertilizers, or drying hand washes can often set off a case of irritant contact dermatitis.

It can be tricky to differentiate between contact dermatitis and eczema, as they both cause similar symptoms and those with eczema are prone to developing contact dermatitis. “Anytime the skin is dry and prone to inflammation, you’re more likely to develop contact dermatitis,” Dr. Tiernan says.

The key difference is that contact dermatitis usually won’t get better with the usual first-line eczema treatments, like moisturizing. “Typically, I’ll think about contact dermatitis when a patient has something that looks like regular eczema but it’s not seeming to get better with our current treatments,” Dr. Tiernan says. “It makes me think that something they’re coming into contact with is making it worse.”

With that in mind, the best way to prevent contact dermatitis is to identify and avoid your specific set of triggers (which can include things like weather, irritants, and allergens). That may take some trial and error, but talking to your dermatologist will help.

If you’re in the middle of a flare, your dermatologist can prescribe a topical steroid to help mitigate the inflammation that comes with contact dermatitis. In the meantime, Dr. Tiernan says it’s important to keep your skin hydrated and use hypoallergenic products as often as possible.

Dehydration

Dehydration can make you tired, decrease your metabolism, contribute to break outs, and… that’s right, cause your feet to peel, too! “If you’re not hydrated enough, your skin starts to flake off everywhere on our bodies,” Pruthi says. Remember: Water is your friend. (Just try not to go overboard.)

Psoriasis

Psoriasis is a chronic skin disease that can cause red flaking patches of skin, which can sometimes affect your feet, says Dr. Katta. This type is known as palmoplantar psoriasis. Some people might develop cracks in the skin, while others may develop blisters.

“With this subtype of psoriasis, the affected patches of skin can get thick and raised and sometimes can even be painful,” she explains. “They are usually red in those with fair skin tones, and may be red or darker in those with more deeply pigmented skin.”

A Serious Underlying Condition

Finally, there are some (very rare) situations in which peeling skin is a symptom of a much more severe condition—one that may require immediate medical care. In particular, Dr. Boh points to Steven Johnson syndrome, a severe reaction to a new medication whereby the skin breaks out into a painful, red rash and blisters before shedding. And Dr. Tiernan notes that toxic shock syndrome often comes with peeling skin as well as fever, vomiting, diarrhea, body aches, and confusion.

Again, it’s unlikely that one of these conditions will sneak up on you, but if your skin is peeling off in large sheets or if the peeling skin is accompanied by extremely tender skin or a fever, see a doctor right away.

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.

Treat Your Peeling Skin

  • Exfoliate: If you have peeling skin you should use a pumice stone if you have peeling skin on feet as the skin here is much tougher than the rest of the body and it will be most effective. If you have peeling skin on hands or your body try using an exfoliating glove or an exfoliating wash while in the shower as this gently removes dead skin.
  • When Handling Chemicals: It’s recommended that you use gloves to prevent your skin from becoming exposed to the substances present and this also helps to protect against peeling skin.
  • During Sun Exposure: We recommend that you use high SPF sun cream to protect your skin from UVA and UVB radiation that can penetrate the layers of your skin, causing premature ageing and damage. Try the NIVEA Protect & Moisture Lotion SPF 50+, or the NIVEA UV Face Q10 Anti-Age & Anti-Pigment SPF 50 for the best protection against the sun. It’s best to avoid the sun when it’s at its strongest from 11am to 3pm, so try your best to stay in the shade during this time. If it’s unavoidable, invest in a wide brim hat to cover your face and wear suitable clothing that provides you with an external shield against the sun’s rays. To soothe your skin after sun exposure, using after sun is effective in replenishing water loss in your skin and with our formulas enhanced by Aloe Vera, your skin is instantly cooled and hydrated.
  • If Over-Washing: Try to cut back and only wash when necessary and make sure to moisturise your face, hands and body after washing and to use lukewarm water rather than hot water to wash as hot water can dry out your skin. Perhaps switching to a more moisturising hand or body wash can also help to alleviate any symptoms of dry skin; try our NIVEA Rich Moisture Soft Hand Wash.
  • In Dry Climates: moisturising your skin regularly is extremely important as it combats the dry air to create a protective barrier for your skin while hydrating it for long periods of time. This is particularly effective if you moisturise directly after showering to lock in moisture.
  • For Skin Reactions: Avoid contact with strong substances or body washes or soaps that are fragranced as this could be the cause of your peeling skin. Preservatives can also do this. If you have symptoms you think could be related to an allergy you should seek medical advice.
  • For Skin Conditions: Keeping your skin moisturised is especially important and we recommend using moisturisers that are non-fragranced with soothing properties such as Aloe Vera. It’s best to check with your doctor before using any kind of new product on your skin if this is the case.

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