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. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have peeling skin with any of these symptoms.
Seek prompt medical care if your peeling skin is unexplained, persistent, or causes you concern.
What other symptoms might occur with peeling skin?
Peeling skin may be accompanied by other symptoms, which vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Other symptoms may affect the digestive tract, respiratory system, nervous system, reproductive system, cardiovascular system, immune system, or integumentary system (skin and associated tissues).
Skin symptoms that may occur along with peeling skin
Peeling skin may accompany other symptoms affecting the skin including:
Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition
In some cases, peeling skin may occur with other symptoms that might indicate a serious or life-threatening condition, such as toxic shock syndrome or Stevens-Johnson syndrome that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have peeling skin associated with any of these symptoms:
Confusion or change in alertness or consciousness, such as lethargy or passing out
High fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit)
Hives or swelling of the mouth, lips, tongue or throat
Joint pain, skin pain, or itching
Shedding or sloughing of large sheets of skin
What causes peeling skin?
Many different diseases, disorders and conditions can lead to peeling skin. Peeling skin can be a sign of allergies, inflammation, infection, or skin damage. More serious causes include severe allergic reactions, drug reactions, and infections.
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)
Autoimmune or inflammatory causes of peeling skin
Autoimmune and inflammatory causes of peeling skin include:
Infectious causes of peeling skin
Peeling skin may arise from infectious diseases, such as:
Staphylococcal scalded skin syndrome
Toxic-shock syndrome (late)
Other causes of peeling skin
Various other causes of peeling skin include:
Certain acne treatments, such as those containing retinol or benzoyl peroxide
Chemical peels or use of facial creams containing retinol to reduce aging
Harsh soaps and detergents that can cause drying of the skin
Peeling skin syndrome (rare genetic disorder)
Side effects of some drugs and vitamins
Skin irritation or damage
Some types of cancer treatments
Vitamin deficiencies or toxicities
Serious or life-threatening causes of peeling skin
In some cases, peeling skin may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. These include:
Cutaneous T-cell lymphoma (type of blood cancer that affects the skin)
Stevens-Johnson syndrome (erythema multiforme major, a skin disorder caused by serious infection or allergic reaction)
Toxic epidermal necrolysis (severe reaction likely caused by a drug reaction)
Toxic shock syndrome
Questions for diagnosing the cause of peeling skin
To diagnose the underlying cause of peeling skin, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your symptoms. You can best help your health care practitioner in diagnosing the underlying cause of your peeling skin by providing complete answers to these questions:
Are the palms of your hands or the soles of your feet peeling?
Did you have any type of illness before the peeling started?
Does the peeling involve mucous membranes in your eyes, nose, mouth, genitals or anus?
Has your skin been exposed to sun or heat for long periods of time? Have you recently been sunburned?
Have you been in recent contact with any unusual or new substances or environments, such as poison ivy, new medications, or food?
How long has your skin been peeling?
How severe is the peeling? Are small or large pieces of skin peeling off?
Provide your full medical history, including all medical conditions, surgeries and treatments, family history, and a complete list of the medications and dietary supplements that you take.
What other symptoms are you having?
Where is your skin peeling? All over? Or in a specific area?
Complications of peeling skin depend on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Identifying and treating the underlying cause of peeling skin is important to minimize any potential complications. In some cases, peeling skin itself can also lead to complications, especially if it leads to a breakdown of the skin. Complications include: