A Primer on Summer Skin Repair

If a season of summer fun has left your skin looking less than lustrous, don't despair. Experts say it's easy to look fabulous fast. This is the second of a two-part series.

Reviewed by Cynthia Dennison Haines, MD on August 01, 2005
From the WebMD Archives

As the sun begins to set on summer and we gear up for a fashionable fall, one beauty problem can take center stage: Dry, abused, parched, and sometimes even sunburned, skin.

From overexposure to natural elements -- like high temperatures, the sun, and salty ocean water and air -- to the manmade signs of summer, like air conditioning, insect repellents, and chlorine in pools, it's clear that by the end of the season, your face and body can show signs of wear and tear.

"There's a lot of damage that can be done to skin in summertime, including not only free radical damage from the sun, which increases our risk of skin cancer, but also damage to the natural balance of oil and moisture that is essential for skin to look and feel healthy," says Karen Asquith, director of aesthetic training for G.M. Collin skin care products in Paris.

When that balance goes off, says Asquith, skin becomes dry, flaky, sometimes even irritated and inflamed, and frequently takes on a rough look and feel.

If this sounds familiar, don't despair. Experts say your skin is simply dehydrated and crying out for moisture. What's that you say, you've already been slathering it on and you've still got alligator skin? Not to worry. When this is the case, experts say a little exfoliation is all you need.

"You can't get the moisture deep enough into the skin unless you exfoliate it first, meaning you've got to rid your skin of the dead cells on the top layer, so whatever product you are using to re-hydrate can penetrate deep enough into the cells to combat the dehydration that has occurred," says Asquith.

And while this may seem like a simple enough process, experts also say it's also where some of us go wrong.

"Many people seem to think that if their skin feels and looks leathery or tough that it needs a harsh exfoliation treatment, like an aggressive scrub, but that's not true," says Barbara Shumann- Ortega, skin care expert, educator, and VP of Wilma Schumann Skin Care in Coral Gables, Fla.

Indeed, says Ortega, tough skin is damaged skin, so a gentle treatment is needed to remove the old cells. To do the job right, Ortega suggests a soft "sugar scrub," which gently removes old cells without harming new ones getting ready to surface from underneath.

What you should definitely avoid: "Any harsh treatment, like a body salt rub, or a scrub made from walnuts or apricot pits, or even some herbal rubs, can all be traumatizing to skin that is already damaged," Ortega tells WebMD.

If you feel your skin may be too irritated for even the softest exfoliating scrub, experts say try a gentle alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA), a product that can chemically lift away dead skin cells over the course of several treatments.

"Your goal should always be to eliminate cell buildup without further injuring the skin," Asquith says.

Rebalance, Replenish, Renew Your Skin

Regardless of the method you use to remove the old cells, once that's accomplished, Asquith says we not only need to bathe our skin in moisturizers, but also to choose products that will regenerate, replenish, and rebalance it. Among the best, she says, are those which contain soothing, nourishing botanicals including borage, lupin, olive, and wheat germ oils, as well as essential fatty acids.

"When we think of these oils, we think of nourishing cells, and that's exactly what the skin's cells need -- and that's exactly what these kinds of ingredients will provide," says Asquith.

What can also help: A new skin moisturizing technology known as lamellar liquid crystals.

"This mimics the lamellar structure of the stratum corneum (a layer of skin), so it reinforces the natural hydrating system and strengthens the lipid barrier, protecting the skin from any further water loss," Asquith tells WebMD.

But as you may already know, skin damaged from sun and sea is not your only summer beauty woe. Experts say a very specific type of seasonal skin irritation can occur if you spent your summer doused in insect repellent, particularly one with high concentrations of the active ingredient DEET.

"These products can really aggravate the skin, and if you put these preparations on areas that are already inflamed from exposure to the elements, it can cause a kind of dermatitis that can be quite irritating and even painful," says Jerome Shupack, MD, a professor of dermatology at NYU School of Medicine.

To combat the problem, he says, moisturizers may help, but more often than not you may need a 1% cortisone cream to calm the inflammation.

If you must continue to use a repellent into the later days of summer or even early fall, Shupack tells WebMD a heavy duty unscented moisturizer should be applied first, to coat the skin and form a barrier between you and the repellant. In addition, Shupack says wear insect repellent only as long as you have to, showering it off as soon as you are back indoors, and putting on clean clothes that haven't been in contact with the offending chemicals.

In a similar scenario, Shupack tells WebMD that skin can also become irritated, red, and inflamed by chemicals found in sunscreen. When this is the case, he says, stop using the sunscreen immediately, but don't stop protecting your skin.

"People seem to forget that clothing is one of the best sunscreens you can have, so just make sure to cover up when you go outdoors, particularly if your skin it's already irritated or inflamed, and use plenty of unscented moisturizer," says Shupack.

Facing Fall With Great Skin

While for many of us repairing our overstressed body complexion is the biggest seasonal challenge, for others it's the skin on our face that's in need of the most help. Indeed, doctors say that by summer's end they see an increase in not only a darkening of freckles, sunspots, and melasma, (a pigmentation "mask" across cheeks and nose) but also more acne breakouts.

"Generally the sun is good for acne, but if you get too much it can exacerbate breakouts," says dermatologist Vicki Rapaport, MD, a dermatologist and medical director of the skin care boutique Kelologie in Beverly Hills. When acne is caused by too much sun exposure, she says simply staying out of direct sunlight should help skin clear up.

"What you don't want to do is use any harsh acne treatments, or harsh peels, particularly if your skin is also inflamed or dry from the summer elements," says Rapaport.

To cope with very dark freckles and age spots, Rapaport tells WebMD prescription skin lighteners like TriLuma work best. Otherwise, she says, simply staying out of the sun and using a sunscreen every time you go outdoors will do the trick.

"Often, this will help sun-induced freckles and some discolorations to fade on their own," says Rapaport.

Like the body, the skin on your face can also quickly dehydrate in summer, leaving your skin looking not just dry, but also more wrinkled and older. While experts say this causes many women to turn to face peels at summer's end, this could be a big mistake.

"After summer, many women they think they can just strip their skin and start fresh. But after all the environmental assaults of the summer season, a face peel is much too harsh and can open you up for many more problems," says Ortega.

The best course of treatment, she says, is to steam the skin lightly, then use a gentle exfoliating product (like a mild alpha- or beta-hydroxy acid or a sugar scrub) followed by a hydrating. As a final step, she says skip the creams and lotions and slather on a skin serum designed to rehydrate cells.

"Serums generally absorb faster and penetrate deeper than a cream or lotion, so they're best if your skin is really in need of moisture," says Ortega.

If your face or body has sustained any serious sun damage, particularly a sunburn, Asquith says products containing vitamin C, particularly serums, can help overcome some of the damage to your cells. Studies show that this, in turn, may also help reduce your risk of skin cancer later in life.

In addition, if your skin has suffered a sunburn, research shows that properties found in green tea may also help neutralize some of the damage as well as help your damaged skin heal more quickly.

Colette Bouchez is the author of Your Perfectly Pampered Pregnancy: Health, Beauty and Lifestyle Advice for the Modern Mother-to-Be.

Show Sources

SOURCES: Karen Asquith, director of aesthetic training, G.M. Collin, Paris. Barbara Shumann-Ortega, skin care expert, educator; vice-president, Wilma Schumann Skin Care, Coral Gables, Fla. Jerome Shupack, MD, professor of dermatology, NYU School of Medicine, New York. Vicki Rapaport, MD, dermatologist, medical director of Kelologie, Beverly Hills, Calif.

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