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Why is it important to keep my skin and hair healthy?

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The benefits of good grooming are more than just skin-deep. We dive into the health benefits of taking care of your hair and skin. 

You may not have a complicated skin care routine or spend extra time on your hair. It’s just part of what you do to get ready for the day. But your daily grooming habits can have a big payoff. And the benefits aren’t only cosmetic. Some are important for good health.

And you don’t have to do a ton of work to keep your hair and skin healthy either. Learn why taking care of both can boost your overall wellness.

What is healthy skin?

Many people may describe healthy skin as smooth, glowing or hydrated. But these traits also let your skin perform important tasks that protect your overall health.

“Your skin is your body’s largest organ,” says Daniel Rosenthal, MD. “And it’s very versatile.” He’s a dermatologist at ProHEALTH, part of Optum, in North Merrick, New York. “For example, it shields you from dangers such as germs and exposure to chemicals, provides cushioning and helps the body retain and release heat.”

One of the best ways to get healthy skin is to use a moisturizer. (Yes, even if you have oily skin.) Moisture is very important for maintaining the skin barrier. (That’s the outermost layer of skin.) Dryness weakens the skin barrier and can lead to cracking. This gives germs, viruses and fungi easy entry into your body. It can also lead to early signs of aging, such as lines and wrinkles.

Protecting your skin from sunlight is also essential. Rays from the sun and tanning beds can cause many forms of damage to the skin. They can also cause changes to the DNA of your skin cells, which can lead to skin cancer. The key parts of your healthy-skin toolkit are:

  • Putting on SPF 30 sunscreen every day
  • Wearing a broad-brimmed hat
  • Limiting time in the sun

Maintaining healthy skin also includes treating it gently. If you don’t, you could end up with irritation, redness and infection. (An infection is a sickness you get from germs.) Here are some simple tips: 

  • Stay away from harsh skin care products
  • Don’t scrub the skin too hard
  • Don’t pick at acne

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What can damage your skin?

Signs of skin damage include dryness, wrinkles, sagging and uneven skin tone. There are several causes of skin damage. Some of them are partly out of your control.

For one thing, your skin undergoes natural changes as part of the aging process.1 Your body produces less collagen and elastin. These are proteins in the skin that help give it its structure. Collagen is what makes skin look plump and youthful. Elastin gives skin the ability to stretch and snap back into place when you move. With less collagen and elastin, skin looks droopy and creased. It also becomes thinner over time.

(Curious about collagen supplements? Get the facts.)

Your skin also naturally loses moisture as you get older. That’s because the glands in your skin that produce oil (the sebaceous glands) are less active. This makes it more challenging to keep skin hydrated.

Certain skin problems can also damage your skin. Two examples of these are eczema and psoriasis (a scaly skin rash). And exposure to air pollution can also harm your skin.

But you can control certain choices that lead to skin damage. Below, we share some of the biggest culprits.

Not wearing sunscreen. When you don’t wear sunscreen or sun-blocking clothing, your unprotected skin can get burned. Learn more about common sunscreen mistakes

Sun damage can cause:

  • Dryness, wrinkles and sagging
     
  • Age spots (also called sunspots or liver spots). These brown spots range from freckle-size to half an inch across.
     
  • Reddish, growths called actinic keratoses (AKs). Without the right care, they can turn into a form of skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma.
     
  • Skin cancer

Smoking: Stay away from cigarettes, cigars and pipes. They have nicotine and other chemicals that can destroy collagen and elastin. They can cause dark spots and lead to squamous cell carcinoma (cancer), especially on the lips. Squinting and pursing your lips as you smoke can also cause wrinkles around your mouth and eyes.

Drinking too much: Alcohol use harms skin by drying it out and decreasing elasticity.

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How can you slow or reverse skin damage?

You can take plenty of steps to keep your skin healthy and fend off damage.

Wear sunscreen every day. Whether it’s sunny or cloudy, use a sunscreen. Make sure it’s a broad-spectrum, water-resistant type with an SPF of at least 30. Sunscreens come in chemical and mineral forms. Both protect you from the sun, but in different ways. The best type of sunscreen for you is the one you use regularly. 

Use retinoids or retinols. Both retinoids and retinols are excellent antiaging products. They can improve uneven skin tone and rough skin. They can also help with hyperpigmentation (rough brown patches on the skin). Retinoids are more powerful than retinols. They help with fine lines and boost collagen production. Retinoids can also fight acne and prevent acne scarring.

“Put on a retinoid at night and wear sunscreen every day,” says Joel Spitz, MD. He’s a dermatologist at ProHEALTH, part of Optum, in Bethpage and New Hyde Park, New York. “And do it religiously. It’s going to make a huge difference when you’re in your 60s through 80s.”

Stay away from harsh skin care products. Using grainy scrubs (such as apricot scrubs) can cause tiny tears in the skin. Using astringents can strip your skin of its natural oils.

Keep your skin moisturized. Almost everyone needs to use a moisturizer to protect the skin. Even people with oily skin. Have dry skin? Look for moisturizers with glycerin and petrolatum. Have oily or acne-prone skin? You’ll do better with lighter ingredients like hyaluronic acid.

Drink plenty of water. “When you’re dehydrated, your skin looks more drawn and sallow,” says Dr. Spitz. How much water should you drink? It can vary from person to person.3 Plain water and other drinks and foods with high water content (such as fruits and vegetables) are all good options.

Use vitamin C serum. It’s good for the skin in many ways. It can reduce redness and dark spots. It can help your skin make collagen. It may even protect against sun damage.4

Get enough sleep. Even one bad night’s rest can make skin appear paler and wrinkled. Aim for seven to nine hours of sleep every night.

Limit dairy and unhealthy carbs. Both dairy and refined carbs (white bread, white rice, etc.) have been linked to acne, says Dr. Spitz.

Take time to relax. Stress can lead to skin problems such as acne breakouts. It can also make other skin problems worse.

See a dermatologist regularly. Everyone should get a baseline full-body skin exam to check for signs of skin cancer. Your dermatologist will let you know how often to get exams. It will be based on your risk factors for skin cancer.

Consider in-office procedures. Dermatologists offer many different types of skin care. They include chemical peels, light and laser therapy, microdermabrasion, injections and fillers.

Stock up on all your healthy-skin essentials at the Optum Store. Shop now. 

What are some common skin conditions?

It’s a good bet you’ve dealt with at least one of these conditions at some point in your life.

Dry skin. Many people have dry skin. It can be caused by aging and bathing in hot water. Skin care products with alcohol can also cause dry skin.

Acne. Various forms of acne, such as pimples and blackheads, are common in teenagers. They can also affect adults well into their 30s, 40s and 50s. What’s the cause? It could be pollution or changing hormone levels. (Hormones are chemicals the body makes to help it carry out important functions.) Or it could be genetics. If your parents had skin problems as adults, you could, too.

Dandruff. There are several causes of this flaky, itchy scalp problem. Irritated and oily skin can cause it. So can dry skin, fungal infections. And skin problems like eczema and psoriasis can cause flaking.

Eczema. Signs of eczema include itching, dry skin, rashes, scaling and blisters. Ten percent of Americans have it.5 The main risk factors for eczema include having a personal or family history of eczema, hay fever, allergies or asthma.

Rosacea. This health problem causes redness that first appears on the nose and cheeks. It may slowly grow to include the forehead and chin. Some types of rosacea cause visible blood vessels, acne-like breakouts or a bumpy skin texture.

Psoriasis. This skin problem is a type of autoimmune disease. The body attacks healthy tissue by mistake. When you have psoriasis, your body produces new skin cells more rapidly than usual. The result: Cells pile up on the skin in thick, scaly patches.

What is healthy hair?

You’re likely familiar with the traits of healthy hair from shampoo ads: shine, strength and fullness. But these qualities are not just cosmetic. They can provide a window into the state of your overall health.

Say your hair is weak, dry, brittle or falling out. These may be symptoms of a medical problem. Dr. Rosenthal uses the “pull test” to help determine why hair is unhealthy. This involves gently tugging on a strand of hair.

“If the hair breaks, it suggests the problem is external damage to the hair, such as from bleaching it,” he explains. “But if it comes out at the root, it’s more likely that a health problem is to blame, such as a thyroid disorder or low iron.”

Treating hair with care is also important for the health of your hair follicles, he adds. Damaged follicles can let germs enter the skin. They can cause painful issues like infections, folliculitis and boils.

“Hair gives you some protection from sun damage to the scalp,” Dr. Rosenthal says. “Men are more likely to have skin cancer on the scalp and the tops of the ears. That’s because they lose more hair due to age compared to women and tend to have short haircuts that don’t cover the ears.”

Have unhealthy hair, even though you take good care of it? Think about seeing a dermatologist to find the cause.

What damages your hair?

One of the most common culprits of damaged hair? Regular use of hot tools such as a blow dryer, curling iron or straightening iron.6 Dyeing your hair can also make it dry and damaged, though bleaching your hair is harsher than dyeing it darker.

Certain hairstyles can also be hard on your hair and lead to hair loss. These include wearing tight ponytails, hair extensions, weaves and cornrows. All these pull on the hair follicles and can lead to a type of hair loss called traction alopecia. Getting your hair chemically relaxed can also cause damage.

Daily habits can also lead to unhealthy hair. Those include:

  • Washing it too often
  • Brushing it too much
  • Brushing it when it’s wet
  • Rubbing it dry with a towel

How can you protect your hair?

Good hair habits help. Try these dermatologist-approved ways to keep your hair shiny and strong.

Don’t shampoo every day. Washing every other day or every two to three days is enough.

Use a gentle touch. When you shampoo, gently massage the shampoo into your scalp, rather than rubbing it into the length of your hair. And don’t rub your hair to dry it. Instead, wrap it in a towel. Try not to pull or tug on your hair as you comb it out.

Use heat styling tools wisely. Can’t part with your blow dryer, straightening iron or curling iron? Use the lowest heat setting and limit the amount of time they touch your hair.

Work with your hair stylist. If you like wearing weaves or extensions, ask about ones that are lighter weight so they pull less. Going for braids, dreads or cornrows? See if the stylist can try a looser version. Also be sure to ask how long to keep each style. And if you tend to toss your hair up in a tight ponytail or bun, try to remember to give your scalp a break now and then.

Worried that your hair is damaged or that you are losing your hair? Check in with your doctor or dermatologist for more guidance. If you need to find a provider, we can help. 

Wear a swim cap when you swim. Both the ocean and the chemicals in pools can dry and damage your hair.

Keep your head covered in the sun. Wearing a hat when you’re out in the sun is especially important if you have thinning hair or are bald.

Limit damage from processing treatments. If you like to perm, relax or dye your hair, try to wait a little longer between touch-ups.

What can you do about hair loss?

Both men and women tend to experience hair thinning as they age. This is known as male-pattern hair loss and female-pattern hair loss. Genetics and changing hormone levels both play a role.

Both conditions can be treated with minoxidil (Rogaine®). You can get it without a prescription. It’s sold as a liquid and a foam that you put on the scalp. If you're male, your doctor may also have you take finasteride (Propecia®) to slow hair loss and help grow more hair. Learn how to get prescription hair loss treatments delivered right to your door. 

Are there other health problems that can affect your skin and hair?

Sometimes hair and skin problems are signs of other health problems. These signs include:

  • Extremely dry skin or scalp. Kidney disease can cause skin to become scaly, cracked and itchy from too much dryness.7 
     
  • Blue-tinted toes. Skin that’s not getting enough oxygen because of a blocked blood vessel can turn blue or purple. This may be caused by heart disease.8
     
  • Yellow skin and eyes. This symptom is also known as jaundice.9 It can be a sign of liver disease in adults.
     
  • Numb fingertips. Raynaud’s disease causes the fingers to feel numb because of low blood flow.10 This mostly happens when you’re cold or stressed.
     
  • Velvety skin. Sometimes, the first sign of early-stage diabetes is dark and velvet-like patches of skin.11
     
  • Burning, red rash. Shingles causes a painful rash that’s usually on just one side of the face or body.12 Getting this illness may mean your body is having trouble protecting you from germs.

If you have any of these symptoms, don’t panic. Talk with your doctor to find out the reason.

Sources

  1. American Academy of Dermatology. 11 ways to reduce premature skin aging. Last updated February 2021. Accessed August 9, 2022.
  2. Skin Cancer Foundation. Sunburn and your skin. Last updated May 2021. Accessed August 8, 2022.
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Water and healthier drinks. Last reviewed June 6, 2022. Accessed September 7, 2022.
  4. Nutrients. The roles of vitamin C in skin health. Published August 12, 2017. Accessed September 1, 2022.
  5. Medline Plus. Eczema. Last updated August 15, 2016. Accessed August 8, 2022.
  6. American Academy of Dermatology. 10 hair care habits that can damage your hair. Accessed August 8, 2022.
  7. American Academy of Dermatology. Kidney disease: 11 ways it can protect your skin. Accessed September 1, 2022.
  8. American Academy of Dermatology. Heart disease: 12 warning signs that appear on your skin. Accessed September 1, 2022.
  9. National Health Service. Jaundice. Last reviewed March 12, 2021. Accessed September 1, 2022.
  10. American College of Rheumatology. Raynaud’s phenomenon. Updated December 2021. Accessed September 1, 2022.
  11. American Academy of Dermatology. Diabetes: 12 warning signs that appear on your skin. Accessed September 1, 2022.
  12. National Institute on Aging. Shingles. Last reviewed 2021. Accessed September 8, 2022.

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