Definition of peeling skin
Peeling skin is 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 sunburn or infection. However, peeling skin 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.
Because a number of conditions — varying significantly in severity — can cause peeling skin, it’s important to get a prompt diagnosis.
Causes of peeling skin
Your skin is exposed constantly to environmental elements, such as sun, wind, heat, dryness or excessive humidity, that can irritate and damage it. Repeated irritation can lead to skin peeling.
Less frequently, skin peeling — often accompanied by itching — results from a disease or condition, which may start someplace other than your skin. Sometimes, reaction to a medication can cause skin peeling. Conditions that may cause skin peeling include:
- Allergic reactions. You can develop a rash on your skin and eventually peel from repeated contact with something to which you’re allergic, such as certain fabrics, latex, detergents or cosmetics. Less commonly, a food to which you’re allergic may lead to skin peeling.
- Infections. Some types of staph and other infections plus fungal infections, including ringworm, athlete’s foot and jock itch, can cause the skin to peel.
- Immune system disorders. Certain conditions — such as a group of rare skin disorders (pemphigus) and toxic shock syndrome — can cause skin to peel.
- Certain types of cancer. Some types of cancer, such as adult non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, can cause a skin rash that can eventually lead to peeling skin. Some cancer treatments also can affect the skin in ways that lead to peeling.
Specific diseases and conditions that can cause peeling skin include:
- Athlete’s foot
- Atopic dermatitis (eczema)
- Contact dermatitis
- Cutaneous T-cell lymphoma
- Dry skin
- Jock itch
- Kawasaki disease
- Ringworm (body)
- Ringworm (scalp)
- Scarlet fever
- Seborrheic dermatitis
- Side effect of medications
- Staph infections
- Stevens-Johnson syndrome
- Sunburn: Soothing solutions
- Toxic shock syndrome
When to see a doctor
Call your doctor
Peeling skin caused by dry skin or mild sunburn is likely to improve with over-the-counter lotions and usually doesn’t require medical care. If you have any doubt about the cause of peeling skin or if the condition is severe, call your doctor before trying over-the-counter lotions or home remedies.