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How to get a handle on your summer skin problems

Family members applying bug spray to protect their skin from bug bites

Warm weather can pose unique risks for people who struggle with chronic skin conditions. Here’s how to help protect your skin and still have fun in the sun.

Summer is the season of exposed skin. Out go the sweaters and long pants, and in come the shorts and swimsuits. But the warmer months may spell trouble for your skin.

“I see more patients in summer for bug bites, poison ivy, sunburn and acne,” says Laurie J. Levine, MD. She’s an Optum dermatologist in Rhinebeck and Lake Success, New York.

Any of these issues can be bad for your skin for a short period of time. But people with long-term (chronic) skin conditions may have a harder time soothing their skin in the summer.

So, it’s important to keep your skin protected and healthy. Here are 10 ways to care for your sensitive skin while still enjoying the summer.

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1. Go easy on the hot showers

While a hot shower at night may feel relaxing after a sticky day outside, it could irritate your skin.1 “If your shower is too hot and too long, it can dry your skin out,” says Dr. Levine.

Try shooting for warm showers that last no longer than 10 minutes, she advises.

Recommended reading: Summer bummers: 4 ways the season is hard on your skin

2. Moisturize your skin while it’s damp

The best time to lock in moisture in your skin is immediately after you shower or bathe, notes Dr. Levine. When you shower or bathe, you wash off some of your skin’s protective barrier. Applying lotion to your skin can give it added protection and seal in moisture.2

“Towel dry a bit, and let the moisturizer work for you by sealing it in.”

Do you have dry skin? Dr. Levine recommends using an unscented, oil-based moisturizer. Oil should be higher on the ingredient list than water, she says. “Oil has been shown to be most helpful for itchy and dry skin. Sunflower seed oil is my favorite pick.”

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3. Choose fragrance-free skin products

Products with fragrances can trigger issues, such as rashes or allergies, in people with sensitive skin.2 For example, if you have eczema, you may be allergic to scented products, says Dr. Levine. Eczema is an inflammatory skin condition that causes symptoms such as scaly patches, rashes and dry, itchy skin.

But these types of products can be hard to avoid. Products that often come scented include:

  • Detergents and fabric softeners
  • Hand soap
  • Lotion
  • Shampoo and conditioner
  • Sunscreen

Instead, look for products with the words “unscented” or “fragrance-free” on the label, or ones made for sensitive skin.

4. Choose the right sunscreen

It’s key to protect your skin when you’re outside in the hot sun. That’s where sunscreen comes into play. It’s important for all skin types and colors.

Dr. Levine suggests wearing a broad-spectrum sunscreen that helps block both UVA and UVB rays, which cause sunburn and skin cancer. Certain types of eczema may flare up in the warmer months, when the sun’s UV rays are strongest.

Look for a bottle that has an SPF of at least 30, recommends the American Academy of Dermatology.3 Dr. Levine also notes that chemical sunscreens may irritate your skin more than physical sunscreens. This is especially true if you have eczema or rosacea (a skin condition that causes redness on the face). That’s because chemical sunscreen gets absorbed into your skin, while physical sunscreens sit on the surface of your skin to protect it from the sun’s harmful rays.3 Physical sunscreens usually contain titanium dioxide or zinc oxide.

Other smart sun safety steps:

  • Seek out shade whenever possible, especially between 10am and 4pm when the sun’s rays are strongest.
  • Wear long sleeves and pants (preferably made from breathable fabrics).
  • Wear sunglasses that provide UV protection.
  • Wear wide-brimmed hats.
  • Sunscreen is not recommended for babies under 6 months old. Keep them out of the sun as much as possible and cover them with protective clothing.

5. Manage itchy skin before it becomes worse

Hydrocortisone cream (a steroid cream) is a useful summer staple. It works by helping to reduce inflammation of the skin.4 That can soothe the itch caused by bug bites, poison ivy and other rashes.

It’s a helpful medicine, but you’ll want to use it sparingly, says Dr. Levine. Hydrocortisone can cause issues if you use it long term. Issues can include skin color changes, bumps on the skin and unwanted hair growth.

You could also try calamine lotion. It’s made from powdered calamine, a mineral, and it can help relieve itchiness from bug bites and other mild skin problems.

Creams aren’t the only ways to ease an itch. Others include:

  • Icing the itchy area (don’t apply ice directly to the skin, and avoid use of ice if you have impaired circulation or impaired sensation)
  • Oral antihistamine5
  • A warm bath with oatmeal or magnesium salts (also called Epsom salt)

“Magnesium is an important vitamin and mineral that gets into skin really well,” says Dr. Levine.

For people with darker skin tones, it’s especially important to soothe itchy skin. If you scratch too much, it can lead to hyperpigmentation. That’s when some areas of the skin appear darker than others.

You can buy sunscreen and other summer essentials at the Optum Store — all from the comfort of home. Start exploring.

6. Reach for loose cotton clothing

Do you have eczema or psoriasis? How your skin feels this summer may come down to your clothing choices. Wearing breathable fabrics may help reduce skin flareups.6

“Synthetic fabrics that are very tight on your skin can promote more sweating,” says Dr. Levine. These include fabrics like nylon and polyester. And when sweat is stuck between clothing and your skin, it has nowhere to evaporate, she adds. That makes it even more irritating.

Besides cotton, some other natural, skin-safe clothing fabrics include:6

  • Bamboo
  • Lyocell/Tencel
  • Silk

If you do work up a sweat this summer, it’s important to rinse off as soon as you can. Sweat can trigger an eczema flare-up.

7. Shower or bathe after you swim

A great way to cool off in the summer is taking a dip in a pool or lake. But doing so can also irritate your skin.

For example, the chemicals in pools, such as chlorine, can be bad for your skin.9 “Chlorine is naturally an irritant,” says Dr. Levine. While it kills germs in the water, it can also dry your skin out.9

Giving your skin a good rinse off after swimming in a pool washes away chlorine before it has a chance to irritate your skin.

The same rule applies if you’re swimming in a lake, says Dr. Levine. That’s because these bodies of water contain bacteria. So, step into that outdoor (or indoor) shower and let it work its magic.

Recommended reading: 15 summer health tips to feel amazing all season long

8. Read your medication labels carefully

If you’re taking prescription drugs, they may have side effects that bother sensitive skin.

In fact, certain medications can make your skin more sensitive to the sun, says Dr. Levine. These include certain diuretics (which help your body get rid of excess water and salt) and antibiotics (which help your body fight infections). You may get sunburned more easily while taking these medications.8,9

Your doctor can help you figure out the best way to protect your skin.

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9. Use the right bug spray

Going camping or hiking this summer? You may be swatting away a lot of bugs. And a great way to prevent them from biting you is by using the right bug spray.

However, if you use bug spray with DEET in it, it can irritate your skin.10 DEET is a common ingredient that makes it harder for insects to smell you.11

“DEET is a necessary evil and is something you need to wash off. Don’t leave it on your skin,” says Dr. Levine. So, you’ll want to rinse off in a camp shower or elsewhere before going to bed.

Use it sparingly and only when you need it.10 Dr. Levine suggests spraying repellent with DEET in it onto your clothes instead of your skin. You can also wear clothing with insect repellent built into the fabric.

10. Treat poison ivy the proper way

Let’s say you went camping or hiking. You wore shorts the entire weekend. And maybe you wound up with a bad rash that turned out to be poison ivy. Poison ivy is a plant that grows in clusters of three leaves. Touching it can cause an itchy, burning rash.12 The best way to prevent poison ivy? You guessed it: Wear protective clothing, says Dr. Levine. This includes socks and shoes that protect your feel and ankles.

But if you do touch poison ivy, it’s important to know what to do afterward. “The oil from poison ivy is what gives people the rash,” says Dr. Levine.

You’ll want to wash off any area on your skin or clothing that touched the plant. That might even be your pet, says Dr. Levine. Once you’ve rinsed, soothe your skin. Some products to try:

“Poison ivy takes a long time to clear — typically 3 weeks,” says Dr. Levine. And it’s probably going to itch. So, soothing your skin is key to keep you from scratching, which could further irritate your skin.

Bottom line: Knowing how to take care of your skin in the summer is important. These smart habits will let you have an even more fun (and healthy) time.

Sources

  1. Journal of Clinical Medicine. Impact of water exposure and temperature changes on skin barrier function. Published January 7, 2022. Accessed May 10, 2023.
  2. American Academy of Dermatology. How to pick the right moisturizer for your skin. Last updated January 25, 2022. Accessed May 10, 2023.
  3. American Academy of Dermatology. Sunscreen FAQs. Last updated February 17, 2023. Accessed May 10, 2023.
  4. National Institutes of Health. Hydrocortisone topical. Last updated January 15, 2018. Accessed May 10, 2023.
  5. American Academy of Dermatology. Bugs and bite stings. N.d. Accessed June 15, 2023.
  6. National Eczema Society. About clothing and eczema. Accessed May 10, 2023.
  7. American College of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology. Chlorine “allergy”. Accessed May 10, 2023.
  8. National Library of Medicine. Hydrochlorothiazide. Last updated February 15, 2021. Accessed June 6, 2023.
  9. National Library of Medicine. Levofloxacin. Last revised July 15, 2019. Accessed June 6, 2023.
  10. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fight the bite for protection from malaria. Guidelines for DEET insect repellent use. Accessed May 10, 2023.
  11. United States Environmental Protection Agency. DEET. Last updated September 7, 2022. Accessed May 10, 2023.
  12. American Academy of Dermatology. Poison ivy, oak, and sumac: what does the rash look like? Accessed May 10, 2023.

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