12 Ways to Wreck Your Skin

Skip these skincare no-nos and say “yes” to beautiful, youthful skin.

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on November 09, 2012
From the WebMD Archives

Your skin is the largest organ in your body, so it gets a lot of abuse. You put your skin at risk when you leave it unprotected outdoors or in settings that are environmentally risky. You also put it at risk when you skimp on your at-home skincare routines.

Here's what not to do if you want to preserve your skin.

1. Get Overexposed

There was a time when people thought it was perfectly fine to slather their bodies in baby oil and spend the entire day baking in the sun. Dermatologists have since let us know that such sun worshipping will only put us on the path to premature aging -- and skin cancer.

Dermatologist Norman Levine, MD, author of Skin Healthy: Everyone's Guide to Great Skin, says, "If there's one thing that someone can do to avoid severe injury to the skin, it's avoid the sun. The sun," he says, "has effects on the cells that renew the skin. And when those cells are injured irreparably, you get skin aging and become more prone to skin cancer."

You can tell right away when someone's been spending a lot of time in the sun, Jennifer Stein, MD, PhD, assistant professor of dermatology at NYU Langone Medical Center, says. "Their skin looks very wrinkly and is covered in lots of brown spots. That's from years and years of sun damage."

2. Skimp on Sunscreen

Your sunscreen probably isn't shielding you from sun damage because most of us don't apply the recommended shot-glass-sized amount (1 ounce) of SPF 30 or higher sunscreen. That's the minimum experts say you need to protect yourself.

"Most people under-apply by one-fourth. Whatever you're putting on is probably too little. So at least double it," Jeffrey Dover, MD, FRCPC, associate clinical professor of dermatology at Yale University School of Medicine, says. Many people also don't apply sunscreen every two hours as dermatologists recommend.

If you’re going to be outside, always wear protective clothing and a wide-brimmed hat, seek the shade, wear sunscreen, and reapply at least every 2 hours, more if swimming or sweating.

3. Head to the Tanning Bed

Think a tanning bed is safer than being outside in the sun? Think again.

Tanning beds give you a concentrated burst of ultraviolet A and ultraviolet B light. These rays cause skin aging and could triple your risk for melanoma skin cancer. "Never go into a tanning parlor," Levine says. "There couldn't be a worse thing to do to your skin."

4. Smoke

You know about the health risks of smoking, including lung cancer, emphysema, heart disease, and stroke. But did you know that smoking can also lead to wrinkles? Study after study shows how extensively smoking ages the skin. "It does a lot of what the sun does. It just does it inside [the body] instead of outside," Dover says. "It makes the skin weak, tired, and listless looking."

Smoking also yellows the skin, interferes with its blood supply, and slows wound healing. "So if you injure your skin, it may not heal as well if you're a smoker," Levine says.

5. Use the Wrong Cleanser

A big mistake people make when they wash their face is using a harsh soap that's meant for their body. Keep the bar soap in the shower. Use only a mild cleanser for your face, especially if you have sensitive skin, Stein says.

If your skin is acne-prone, make sure the cleanser you use is oil-free and non-comedogenic. People whose skin is on the dry side should follow up each wash by applying a layer of lotion (preferably one that contains sunscreen) to seal in the skin's moisture.

6. Scrub Your Skin

Washing your face is a good idea. Scrubbing it isn't.

"Scrubbing can be very irritating to the skin," Stein says. "A lot of times, people who have acne will feel like they have to scrub the skin to make it better, but that can actually worsen the acne."

Be gentle to your skin. Wash your face using a soft, circular motion.

7. Pop Your Pimples

Control any sudden urge to pop a pimple. "Picking can actually make the acne worse and lead to permanent scarring," Stein says. "Better to leave it alone."

Instead of popping pimples, try an over-the-counter pimple remedy containing benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid. Call your dermatologist if your skin doesn’t clear.

8. Stress Out

It's not your imagination. Stress really does show in your skin.

"It's not well understood, but it's clear that stress makes many skin conditions worse," Dover says.

Stress can cause flare ups of psoriasis and rosacea as well as acne. It may also lower the skin's ability to keep out harmful irritants and infections. Plus, people who are wrapped up in their stress have less time to care for their skin properly.

9. Overdo It

Looking young and vibrant is highly prized. But the quest for it can have a price, especially if you trust your chemical peel to someone without an MD after his or her name.

"I think they should be done under the guidance of a doctor because they certainly can be very irritating, particularly to sensitive skin or people who have skin conditions," Stein says. In the wrong hands, a chemical peel could leave you with an infection or permanent scars.

You also don't want to overdo home microdermabrasion and peels. Instead of making you look younger, they'll leave your skin red and irritated. Let your dermatologist guide you if you are going to try at-home skin procedures.

10. Overeat

When you gain a lot of weight, your skin has to stretch to accommodate your new girth. Lose the weight and you'll be left with flabby, saggy skin. If your skin isn't elastic enough to bounce back, it can be incredibly difficult to tighten it up.

11. Fall Short on Sleep

More than a quarter of Americans aren't getting the seven to nine hours of sleep we need nightly, and our skin (and bags under our eyes) show it.

"Your skin rejuvenates while you're sleeping," Dover says. He warns that a lack of sleep makes your face look "dull and listless" and can exaggerate the appearance of dark circles.

12. Ignore Warning Signs

A changing mole is one of the clearest signs of skin cancer. Spotting it early gives your doctor a chance to treat it before it has time to spread. But how will you ever know a mole is changing if you never look at your skin?

Check your skin from top to bottom, front to back in a full-length mirror once a month. "You're looking for changes in the size, shape, and color of moles or for new moles," Dover says. If you spot anything, or if you've got a personal or family history of skin cancer, ask your dermatologist to do a full exam as well.

Show Sources


Nemours Foundation: "Your Skin."

Green, A. Dermatology, January 2011.

The Skin Cancer Foundation: "Skin Cancer Facts."

Norman Levine, MD, dermatologist, Tucson, Ariz.; author, Skin Healthy: Everyone's Guide to Great Skin.

Jennifer Stein, MD, PhD, assistant professor of dermatology, NYU Langone Medical Center.

Jeffrey Dover, MD, FRCPC, associate clinical professor of dermatology, Yale University School of Medicine.

American Academy of Dermatology: "Facts About Sunscreens."

Lazovich, D. Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention, June 2010.

Martires, K. Archives of Dermatology, December 2009.

Helfrich, Y. Archives of Dermatology, March 2007.

American Academy of Dermatology: "Saving Face 101: How to customize your skin care routine with your skin type."

American Academy of Dermatology: "Stress and Skin."

American Society of Plastic Surgeons: "Chemical Peel."

CDC: "Health Behaviors of Adults: United States, 2005-2007."

Columbia University: "Go Ask Alice! Weight Loss and Excess Skin."

National Sleep Foundation: "How Much Sleep Do We Really Need?"

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