A Primer on Summer Skin Repair

If a season of summer fun has left your skin looking less than lustrous, don't despair

By Colette Bouchez
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario, MD

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, Asquith says try a gentle alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA), a cream that can chemically lift away dead skin cells over the course of several treatments. AHAs containing 4% or less acid content are considered mild.

"Your goal should always be to eliminate cell buildup without further injuring the skin, and a mild AHA product can do that, particularly if you don't try to undo all the damage in a single treatment," says Asquith.

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 lanolin structure of the stratis 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.

"Skin can become irritated, red, and inflamed by chemicals found in sunscreen."