8 Common Signs of Summer Skin Damage—and How to Reverse Them
Now that summer has come and gone, let’s do some damage control.
Higher temperatures and later sunsets can mean long days enjoying the beach and other outdoor activities. Unfortunately, heightened humidity and increased sun exposure can also mean a greater risk of surface damage and, when not monitored closely, cause for more serious conditions. From sunburn to heat rash (and bouts of dryness and oiliness along the way), read on as dermatologists help us break down some of the most common summer skin concerns and offer up their best solutions for restoring and safeguarding the human body’s largest organ as we head into the new season.
First, let's tackle the biggest summer skincare concern for most people: sun damage, either as a result of a bad burn or more subtle exposure that builds up over time.
“In general, the intensity of the UV radiation is much higher during the summer months. In addition to burning or spotting the skin, that radiation produces free radicals that damage collagen molecules and lipids of the cell membrane," warns Julie Russak, MD, FAAD, founder of the Russak Dermatology Clinic in New York. "Even worse, it creates breaks in the DNA that can lead to an accumulation of DNA mismatch mistakes, potentially resulting in DNA not being replicated properly. This can cause skin cancer.”
The solution: If you’re looking to turn back the sundial, Dr. Russak says antioxidants are your best bet. “Antioxidants (such as vitamins C and E) absorb and neutralize free radicals and can help rebuild DNA, therefore restoring the skin and helping to reverse the cell damage resulting from the accumulation of free radicals."
While Dr. Russak warns it should never be applied to sunburned skin, retinol (a derivative of vitamin A) is another one of her favorite antioxidants for skin cell renewal. “It helps stimulate cellular regeneration and increase collagen production, improving the appearance of skin texture and assisting with skin regeneration," she says. "I tell most of my patients that they can see improved skin smoothness literally within two to three days of using a retinoid." (She recommends consulting with a derm regarding the best retinoid and routine for your skin type and concerns.)
AHAs and BHAs can also help pave the way for new cells to prosper once a burn has passed. “Alpha-hydroxy-acids and beta-hydroxy-acids are mild acids that dissolve the dead top layers of the skin and allow healthier new cells from the bottom to surface and repopulate the skin,” she says.
In terms of regular maintenance, Dr. Russak stresses that sunscreen should be worn at all times (in summer months and beyond). “I recommend an SPF of 30+, ideally containing physical blockers like zinc or titanium dioxide that can protect you from all UV radiation and reapplied every three hours.”
And don't forget to see your dermatologist! “Schedule annual appointments with your dermatologist, and familiarize yourself with your body,” says Dr. Russak. “That also goes for the ABCDEs of melanoma. If you notice any of these changes in your moles, please visit your dermatologist.”
According to Amelia Hausauer, MD, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist in California, melasma is a complicated pigment disorder that often presents itself as a net of tan patches. These markings blend together to form larger blotches on the face (as opposed to the more discreet sun spots that can occur as a result of sun exposure and aging).
“Ultraviolet radiation, heat, and even visible light are known triggers that can make this skin condition worse, resulting in additional flares during the hot and sunny summer,” she explains, adding that there seems to be a connection between melasma and estrogen, with more prevalence in women.
The solution: According to Dr. Hausauer, there is currently no cure for melasma, but there are things you can do to minimize its effects.
“Our patients love in-office-applied mask peels containing a variety of lightening agents," says Dr. Hausauer. "We often combine this with Clear and Brilliant Permea laser, which helps target pigment without using too much harsh energy that can actually make the condition worse (IPL is notorious for this rebound effect).”
She also recommends Alastin Regenerative Nectar ($195; alastin.com) and Soothe + Protect Recovery Balm ($40; alastin.com) to her patients post-procedure. “They not only speed their recovery, but also work to build collagen and elastic fibers, giving the skin more bounce and luster,” she says. “I also have my patients stop birth control pills and take an alternative form of contraception that won’t worsen their skin."
To help manage the darkening and spread of pigment-producing cells (also called melanocytes) moving forward, Dr. Hausauer suggests a good broad-spectrum sunscreen. “I prefer a tinted one (such as Alastin Skincare HydraTint) because the iron oxide in the tint blocks visible light, as well as a combination of pigment-fighting antioxidants, and lightening topicals like hydroquinone,” says Dr. Hausauer.
Excessive heat leads to excessive sweating (our body’s cooling defense), which results in more water being lost through the stratum corneum, says Jenny Liu, MD, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist in Minnesota.
“In the summertime, the sun is stronger, and long-time exposure to UVR will dehydrated skin," she says. "The hotter and drier weather pulls water from our skin to the environment."
The solution: Look to water-based moisturizers and products containing ingredients like hyaluronic acid and glycerin to help retain water, says Dr. Liu. “In the wintertime, you can change to more hydrating moisturizing creams with ceramides and niacinamide to help restore the skin barrier.”
Like all dermatologists, Dr. Liu also reinforces using a physical sunscreen to block rays, reapplying regularly and steering clear of peak sun periods if possible (especially from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.). “When bathing, avoid using hot water or excessive soap, both of which can be drying."
With additional sweating comes added risk of irritation. “When sweat glands are blocked, it can cause tiny blisters to form over the sweat glands, creating a rash,” says Dr. Russak.
Excessive shaving and less clothing (meaning more skin-to-skin contact and rubbing) can lead to additional discomfort, leaving skin with an itching or burning sensation and appearing red or, in more severe cases, raw.
The solution: According to Dr. Russak, sweat reduction is key. “Try to wear loose clothing, ideally made of breathable, sweat-wicking fabrics, and avoid skin-to-skin contact if possible," she advises. "You can also take cool showers to keep skin clean and combat overheating."
If problems persist, Dr. Russak recommends consulting with your dermatologist regarding antipersperant or rash-specific products (such as soothing powders or lotions) that can help.
According to Dr. Russak, risk of rash in the summer can also increase due to increased consumption and handling of plants and fruits containing furanocoumarins (like limes from margaritas and guacamole, parsley, celery, and carrots).
“It starts as a red rash that can blister and, when combined with UV exposure, turn into brown skin discoloration," she says. "The eruption occurs directly at the site of contact once skin is exposed to the sun. For example, if you’re slicing limes and don’t wash your hands before they’re then exposed to the sun."
The solution: At the initial stage, Dr. Russak says applying anti-inflammatory steroids can help minimize the appearance of hyperpigmentation.
“Consult with a dermatologist about the best option, and make sure to protect skin with sunscreen to prevent further pigmentation from darkening,” she advises.
Another side effect of increased sweat and oil production (not to mention additional dirt and pollution from more time typically spent in the great outdoors) is good ol' acne.
“If your pores become blocked from the outside, oil can build up within the follicles, creating an environment that allows for overgrowth of acne-causing bacteria. This in turn leads to inflammation and pimples,” says Joshua Zeichner, MD, FAAD, director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, who notes that heavy foundation makeup and wearing face masks can make skin matters worse.
The solution: According to Dr. Zeichner, a regular cleansing routine can go a long way when it comes to banishing and avoiding future breakouts.
“Look for cleansers that contain hydroxy acids, which help remove excess oil and dead cells from the surface of the skin. Salicylic acid is your go-to, but alpha and polyhydroxy acids are helpful as well,” he advises.
As a general rule of thumb, you’ll want to lather skin with cleanser while singing the alphabet, rinsing once you’ve gone all the way through. “This ensures enough contact time for the cleanser to do its job. If you have red, angry pimples, consider a product with benzoyl peroxide, which helps lower levels of acne-causing bacteria and dry out the pimples. Just be careful because it can bleach darkly-colored fabrics,” Dr. Zeichner cautions. (He likes Neutrogena Rapid Clear Stubborn Acne Spot Gel for real-time trouble-shooting.)
As Dr. Russak points out, UV rays not only affect the skin on your face and body, but also your head. “Salt and chlorine can serve to further dry out the scalp. People also like to use dry shampoos during the summer to absorb humidity, which builds up and clogs scalp pores. When the scalp is inflamed, the hair follicles become less active metabolically, leading to thinner hair production and hair loss,” she warns.
The solution: According to Dr. Russak, the skin on the scalp is similar to that of the face, and can therefore be treated with similar ingredients.
“Using mild acids, such as salicylic acid and glycolic acid, to exfoliate makes the skin on the scalp healthier so that hair will grow better,” she explains.
Dr. Russak also suggests looking for cleansing and treatment products that contain nourishing ingredients (such as squalene, hyaluronic acid, and proteins) to help moisturize and protect the hair cuticle and shaft.
One condition Deanne Mraz Robinson, MD, FAAD, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Yale New Haven Hospital in Connecticut, sees flare up in her patients come summer months is folliculitis, which she describes as inflammation or infection within the hair follice itself.
“This tends to occur when moisture from sweat and swimming becomes trapped close to the skin. That, combined with friction from clothing or skin-on-skin contact, is a recipe for a reaction,” she explains.
“Because of these variables, it’s typical to see folliculitis on the thighs, buttocks, neck, and armpits—places where friction is common.”
The solution: According to Dr. Robinson, folliculitis often clears on its own, and can typically be managed by applying light exfoliation, wearing loose-fitting, moisture-wicking clothing, and keeping skin dry.
For those with chronic cases, she says hair removal can provide long-term relief, as less hair follicles mean less opportunities for folliculitis to thrive. “Fall is the perfect time to start laser hair removal since sun avoidance is necessary following treatment," she says. "With a series of six to eight treatments spaced four to six weeks apart, you will see an estimated 80 percent reduction in hair follicles in the treated area."