What to Know About Peeling Skin (Desquamation)

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on November 23, 2021
3 min read

What is peeling skin? Peeling skin, desquamation, desquamating skin, or desquamation of skin are all ways of describing a condition where the outer layer of the skin starts to replace itself. Often, this happens when your skin is damaged, either by diseases or injuries. Usually, peeling skin is not noticeable or a cause for concern.

There are many different conditions, diseases, or injuries that cause peeling skin, or desquamation.

Typically, direct damage to the skin can cause the skin to peel. For example: 

  • Burns. Desquamation can happen when your skin is exposed to hot liquids, surfaces, objects, or direct flame.
  • Chemical burnsIf your skin comes into direct contact with certain chemicals, it will start to peel. Typically, this happens when you are exposed to specific household cleaners, beauty products, or industrial chemicals. 
  • Fabrics. Certain fabrics or clothing pieces can irritate the skin. 
  • Sunburns. This is the most common burn. It happens when you spend too much time in the sun or under artificial UV ray machines. 
  • Acne treatments or cosmetic peelsSpecific therapies that contain retinol can often lead to peeling of the skin. Usually, these sorts of peels are done to reduce the appearance of fine lines or pimples. This sort of peeling will go away naturally as your skin gets used to retinol. 

Some of the medical conditions or treatments for medication conditions that cause peeling of the skin are: 

  • EczemaOver 31 million people in the U.S. have this condition. A common symptom is peeling of the skin. Eczema doesn’t have a cure, but it can be managed. 
  • Edema. This is swelling caused by excess fluids trapped in specific areas of your body, such as your hands, arms, and feet. It can be caused by medication, pregnancy, heart issues, kidney disease, or liver disease. As the swelling from your edema goes down, your skin will peel.
  • Radiation. In some instances, radiation treatment for diseases like cancer can cause the area that receives the radiation to turn dark, dry, peel, and start to itch. 
  • Allergies. Peeling can be a sign of having skin-to-skin contact with something you are allergic to. Common allergens that cause this include perfumes. 
  • Scarlet fever. This is a mild infection that you get from another person. Scarlet fever can cause rashes in your underarm, elbow, and groin. As this rash fades, your skin will peel. This peeling can last for several weeks.
  • Staphylococcal scalded skin syndrome (SSS). SSS usually occurs in children under age 5. Typically, it creates large blisters and rashes, and the top layer of the skin peels off in large quantities. 
  • Toxic shock syndrome. A rare but serious condition, you can get toxic shock syndrome if certain bacteria get into your body. It is usually associated with women and tampon use, but anyone can get it. One of the symptoms is desquamation. 
  • Kawasaki disease. This occurs typically in children and is quite rare. It happens when blood vessels throughout your body get inflamed. Symptoms include fever, swollen lymph nodes, eye issues, and skin peeling. 
  • Peeling skin syndrome. This is a rare genetic disorder that affects either the hands and feet or the whole body. Usually, it is seen at birth or in childhood. 
  • Hand-Foot-Mouth Syndrome. This is a childhood virus that can cause peeling of the fingers and toes.

If your skin is peeling because of an underlying condition, your doctor will treat that condition. Do not peel the skin off with your hands. Whether diseases cause it or not, peeling is natural for your body to heal, and it is best to let it happen. Go to your doctor and try to get it diagnosed or treated.

If you have a minor burn, you can treat it yourself by:

  • Immediately cooling the burn down with cold water or a cold compress 
  • Applying petroleum jelly on it two to three times a day
  • Applying a sterile bandage to the burn or blisters on the burn
  • Taking pain medications if you need to
  • Keeping your burn hidden from the sun

While peeling skin is not typically cause for concern, its complications include bacterial infections and dehydration. Some of the signs that your peeling skin may require medical attention are:

  • Fever
  • Skin pain 
  • Swelling
  • Confusion 
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath 
  • Joint pain 
  • Hives
  • Headache 
  • Nausea
  • A flu-like sensation 
  • Vision issues
  • Large burns