Peeling skin in your mouth may catch you off guard because it usually isn’t itchy or uncomfortable.By: Joyce Kahng, DDS •November 15, 2023
You’ve probably experienced skin peeling at some point in your life. Maybe you had a sunburn, dry skin, or even poison ivy. But what about peeling skin inside of your mouth? Aka “sloughing” oral tissue.
Peeling skin in your mouth may catch you off guard because it usually isn’t itchy or uncomfortable. Most of the time, it just seems to happen out of nowhere.
Understanding how your skin—including your oral tissues—reacts to things can help you nail down the causes of sloughing. And the quicker you are at your detective work, the sooner you’ll identify the best way to treat it.
Oral sloughing is usually the most noticeable just inside your lips or across the inside of your cheeks. Typically, the skin tends to peel here and there or even roll up on itself. You might find that it wipes right off if you rub your finger against it or that it causes more skin to peel if you pull on it. Be careful because you don’t want to hurt yourself or cause unnecessary raw areas.
There are several reasons behind peeling oral mucosa:
One of the most common is an allergic reaction to a specific ingredient found in toothpaste known as sodium lauryl sulfate or “SLS.” SLS is an active ingredient that, over the years, dentists have discovered some people develop oral irritation when they use it regularly.
What is SLS used for? You know how some toothpastes are a bit foamier whenever you start to brush your teeth? That’s the SLS working. It gives you the feeling that your mouth is getting clean, even though you don’t technically need bubbles and foamy toothpaste to do that.
Even though most people do typically fine with SLS in their toothpaste, some don’t. Especially individuals who have sensitive skin or react to skincare ingredients more frequently than their friends or family members.
If you try an SLS-free toothpaste for a couple of weeks and see symptoms improve, your peeling skin is probably an SLS allergy.
In addition to a reaction to SLS, some people experience symptoms of food allergies inside their mouths. This can lead to a rash, raw skin on the roof of their mouth, ulcers, or even peeling skin. Some people are allergic to things like shellfish, certain types of nuts, and even prescription medications.
Severe food allergies can cause anaphylaxis (where your airway swells shut), so be sure to take them seriously. Difficulty breathing, swallowing, or your lips turning blue warrants an immediate 9-1-1 call or trip to the emergency room
Have you recently started wearing braces or orthodontic aligners? Sometimes rough edges on your trays or brackets will irritate the inside of your mouth. Normally your lips and cheeks start to “toughen up” within a couple of weeks, forming thicker keratinized skin in those areas, similar to a callous. But for the first several days of wearing a new oral appliance, it isn’t uncommon to see skin peeling where your mouth meets the metal (or plastic.)
If you’re patient, the skin irritation will improve within a couple of weeks. In the meantime, use your orthodontic wax to cover specific areas. Be sure to see a dentist if there are sharp edges or wires poking out since they’ll need to be adjusted.
“Bruxism” is the term we use to describe someone who clenches and grinds their teeth a lot. Common symptoms include worn, flat-looking teeth, broken dental work, and—you guessed it—peeling skin inside their mouth. There is typically a white, raised line along the inside of their cheeks where their teeth occlude (bite together.) Since people tend to sometimes bite their cheek when they clench and grind, this area can be easy to see.
Normally you want to treat the cause of the bruxism instead of the peeling mouth skin. Teeth clenching is commonly linked to stress, anxiety, and even sleep apnea.
People who are immunocompromised are more likely to develop oral thrush than those who are not, such as elderly individuals, infants, or someone who is being treated for cancer. Since their immune system is “knocked out” or not built up enough, they are more prone to developing yeast infections. Yes, thrush is a type of oral yeast infection. It’s caused by certain bacteria sort of taking over and proliferating and is highly common in denture wearers.
Oral thrush can sometimes look like peeling skin, a white film across oral tissues that wipes away, or even a cottage cheese-like buildup.
The good news is that improved oral hygiene and prescription steroids are available to help “heal” the infection within a couple of weeks.
How can you treat peeling skin or stop oral sloughing? Here are some effective steps to try at home:
As a general rule, always remember to schedule an extra dental exam between your six-month checkups if you have any mouth sore that doesn’t heal within two weeks. If your oral sloughing doesn’t improve within a couple of weeks or leaves a raw, itchy, irritated area behind, a dentist is the best healthcare professional to see about it.
Serious infections or sores—like those linked to oral cancer—need to be treated promptly. In a worst-case scenario, your dentist might even order a biopsy. But more often than not, they’ll be able to identify what’s causing your peeling skin and show you how to keep it from coming back.
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