Your skin is your body’s armor, and it’s important to take measures to keep it healthy. There are plenty of simple things you can do to protect your skin from the onslaught of the sun’s rays, the effects of aging, or any number of influences that can cause damage. So whether you’re heading out for a day at Rye Playland or planning to spend some time gardening in your backyard, here are 15 things you can do at home to protect your skin today and help avoid large dermatological bills tomorrow.
1. Know your skin type
Different skin types call for different protective measures, so it’s important to learn what is recommended specifically for you. Dermatologists have identified six different skin types, based upon how easily a person’s skin will tan or burn. “These are descriptive terms that are useful clinical guides when dermatologists see people and give them advice,” explains Stuart Zweibel, MD, director of the Dermatology Division of Westchester Health Associates. “Type I burns easily with minimal exposure and type VI is people of color, essentially black skin. Very difficult to burn.”
Knowing your skin type will give you a better idea of how much sun you can handle before damage occurs, and how much protection your skin needs to remain healthy. To identify your own skin type, check out one of the online guides available from The Skin Cancer Foundation (skincancer.org/skin-types-and-at-risk-groups.html) and SunAware.org (sunaware.org/2010/04/16/skin-type-and-your-skin-cancer-risk-factor).
2. Know your family’s skin history
Do you have family members who have battled skin cancer? “On average, a person with a family history of melanoma has an eight times higher chance of developing melanoma than a person with no family history of melanoma,” says Philip Blank, Jr., MD, a board-certified dermatologist with practices in Yorktown Heights and Pleasantville. Knowing if you had a parent, grandparent, sibling, or even cousin who has had skin cancer is important because research is showing a hereditary aspect to the disease.
“People should be aware if there’s a history of basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma in their family,” says Dr. Zweibel. “Understanding that is important, but not as important as understanding if there’s a history of melanoma in the family, because melanoma has a definite genetic component.”
3. Be aware of the time of day
A great way to keep your skin healthy is by keeping one eye on the clock, says Dr. Zweibel. “Understanding the hours when sun protection is most needed is important. Generally between ten in the morning and four in the afternoon.”
As the sun reaches its zenith during the day, its ultraviolet rays take a more direct route through the atmosphere, and fewer of the rays are deflected back into space. “The midday sun is the most dangerous and can be the most intense,” says Julie Cantatore-Francis, MD, a dermatologist with Dermatology Consultants of Westchester in Scarsdale.
This is not to say that you need to stay off the beach for six hours in the middle of the day. But you should take extra care to protect yourself from the sun—with sunscreen, sunglasses, protective clothing—during these peak sun exposure times. Dr. Zweibel and his family do when they visit the beach during the long, hot summer. “We put on sunscreen, we bring umbrellas, and we usually go after three.”
4. Tanning is as bad as burning
If you want healthy skin, it’s important to keep the tanning to a minimum, and to use plenty of sunscreen when you’re out among the sun’s rays. “People who tan excessively are at similar risk to people who might have gotten a couple of bad sunburns,” Dr. Zweibel says. “The number-one thing to do is to avoid excessive sun exposure—sun exposure that leads to sunburn or even tan skin. You will see similar damage in tanned skin as in sunburned skin, but not to the same degree.”
Just because you didn’t peel doesn’t mean your skin got away scot-free. Still, lying out in the sun isn’t half as dangerous as crawling inside a tanning booth, according to John F. Farella, MD, a plastic surgeon with offices in White Plains and Mount Kisco. “Doing the tanning booths can be as bad, if not worse than laying out in the sun.”
5. Sunscreen, sunscreen, sunscreen
The first thing every doctor and dermatologist mentioned when we asked for his or her advice on protecting the skin was wear sunscreen. “You want to apply sunscreen, even during the winter, at least two times a day,” Dr. Farella says. “Any time you are outside, the sun is damaging your skin—even when it’s not shining. In some cases, you can’t even escape the negative effects by running indoors.”
“Sunlight does pass through glass,” says David E. Bank, MD, director for the Center for Dermatology, Cosmetic and Laser Surgery in Mount Kisco. “Some people mistakenly think that as long as they are indoors, they don’t need to wear sunscreen. But if you’re in a room with the sun shining on you through the window, you are getting ultraviolet rays.”
For the best results, it’s important to apply sunscreen long before you’re actually out in the sun. If you wait until you’re already at the beach, you’re putting your skin at risk. “Put on sunscreen a half an hour to an hour before you go out,” stresses Dr. Zweibel. “It needs time to absorb to be an effective blocker to the skin. It takes roughly an hour for it to be completely absorbed.”
And sunscreen wears off. “Part of the problem is some people put on sunscreen as habit early in the morning, and they don’t realize that five hours later, they really need to reapply,” Dr. Zweibel says.
6. Know your SPF
It’s important to understand just how much SPF your skin requires to be safeguarded from the sun’s ultraviolet rays. “The way SPF is measured is by comparing how long it would take for a person to develop a sunburn without any sunscreen versus how long sunscreen will delay that time,” Dr. Zweilbel explains. “So, let’s say it takes a fair-skinned person fifteen minutes to burn. If you have sunscreen with a protective factor of fifteen, it means they can be out approximately fifteen times fifteen minutes.”
While that seems like a long time (15 x 15 minutes = 3 hours, 45 minutes), an afternoon in the sun can last much shorter. Plus, there are many other factors that come into play. “It’s important to realize that, for some people, a fifteen or a thirty SPF is not enough,” says Dr. Zweibel. “Especially when you add in sweating, swimming, other activities that will dilute or counteract the protective effect of the sunscreen.”
7. Wear the right protective clothing
The best way to protect your skin from the sun when you’re outside is to prevent the sun from actually reaching your skin. Yet it is important to understand that just because you’ve tossed a shirt over your head, you’re not necessarily safe. “People make the mistake that they have an ordinary T-shirt on and think they’re protected,” says Dr. Blank. “But a lot of the clothing we buy in the local stores are not UV protected, and some people do get burned through their clothing.”
Dr. Blank recommends that you look for clothing that has specific UV protection. “If you go on the American Academy of Dermatology website [aad.org/public/sun/seal/products.html], there are specific guidelines and clothing that are recommended and sold that have specific UVA protection.”
And, when you’re going outdoors, don’t forget about protecting your head! “Probably the most important thing you can wear is a hat,” Dr. Zweibel says. This is especially true for men. “It’s extremely important for men as they’re aging to have protection on their scalp,” says Dr. Cantatore-Francis.
8. Use gentler soaps and shampoos
While it is important to keep your skin clean, you can go too far. “Many strong soaps totally de-fat the skin,” explains Rhoda S. Narins, MD, medical director of The Dermatology, Surgery, and Laser Center in White Plains and Manhattan. “If you replace the lost oils with a moisturizing cream, it isn’t the same thing as your own oil.”
Sometimes, using a soap that is too harsh for your skin can be incredibly damaging. “I’ve seen people who looked like they needed facelifts or peels, and one week off a strong soap and they were fine,” Narins says. The same is true with many shampoos and conditioners that can actually contribute to acne along the jaw line. “You want to use shampoos that are clear in color—not thick and heavy, and conditioners that are, again, clear,” Dr. Farella says. “You want to condition the hair with very small quantities of conditioner. Those conditioners actually block pores, which can cause acne.”
9. Use oil-free skin care products
A skin care regimen is an essential ingredient in healthy skin. However, there are a lot of products on the market, and finding the right ones can be difficult. “You want, number one, to try to look for what would be termed oil-free skin care products because oils in cleansers, morning creams, night creams, etcetera, can block up the pores and theoretically make the acne worse,” Dr. Bank says.
Luckily, oil-free products aren’t that hard to find at your neighborhood pharmacy. “There are a number of different products out there that people can purchase at the pharmacy without spending a gazillion dollars,” Dr. Bank says. “National brands like Oil of Olay and Neutrogena contain really time-tested, time-proven active ingredients. The most famous and time-tested of all would be Retinol or Vitamin A, both of which you can get in slightly milder, over-the-counter strength.”
“It’s very important to keep your skin well moisturized,” Dr. Cantatore-Francis says. “Moisturizing the skin also helps in anti-aging.” For best results, moisturize often and moisturize early. “The best time to moisturize is right after a shower,” Dr. Blank says.
When choosing a moisturizer, it’s a good idea to look for one that contains ceramides as an active ingredient. “Ceramides are an actual fatty substance that is normally in our skin that decreases in some cases as we age,” Dr. Cantatore-Francis explains. “So refilling and replenishing the ceramides with over-the-counter moisturizers is important.”
11. Drink plenty of water
While a moisturizer is an important part of any skin regimen, hydration is equally important in helping to keep the skin from becoming dry—moisturizing it from the inside. “You want to make sure you are well hydrated,” Dr. Farella says. “I’m talking about not just hydration that you’d put on the skin, i.e., moisturizers. I’m talking about drinking enough water. Most people need to drink thirty-two to sixty-four ounces of water a day.”
Signs of dehydration include extreme thirst, very dry mouth, skin and mucous membranes, lack of sweating, little or no urination (any urine that is produced will be dark yellow or amber), shriveled and dry skin that lacks elasticity and doesn’t “bounce back” when pinched into a fold, low blood pressure, and rapid breathing.
Keeping your skin hydrated will go a long way towards not only helping your skin remain healthy, but keeping your body healthy as well. “Hydration is good for everything, from detoxing the body to hydrating the skin to making you feel more alert. Even losing weight, some people feel that the hunger senses are stimulated by dehydration and the brain gets confused between being hungry and being dehydrated,” says Dr. Farella, though he cautions that some people need to be careful. “If somebody has underlying heart problems or underlying kidney problems, he or she should consult a doctor regarding the amount of hydration that’s appropriate for you.”
You can get some of your body’s necessary water from your food, depending on what you’re eating, with fruits and vegetables supplying more water to your body than, say, cereals and carbohydrates. Finally, Dr. Farella cautions that not all liquids are created equal. “There’s certain things that people drink, like caffeine, that works as a diuretic [a drug that increases the rate of urination]. You can drink a lot of something that can actually be counter-productive. People think they’re getting hydrated by drinking tea and coffee and they’re basically dehydrating themselves.”
And know that you can drink too much water, which can result in hyponatremia (the dilution of sodium in the body). However, this is uncommon for most people, typically only occurring in infants under six months (having drunk formula that’s been over-diluted), or in athletes, who sweat heavily losing both water and electrolytes and then drink great amounts of fluids without the accompanying electrolytes.
12. Try a healthier diet
You are what you eat, and that goes for your skin as well. “Eating a healthy, balanced diet is certainly good,” says Dr. Bank. “The skin is the largest organ of the body and as such is going to be reflective of your overall state of health and nutrition.”
“It’s not what you do once in a while that matters, it’s really what you do day in and day out that really plays a large role,” Dr. Bank adds. If you’re looking for more skin-healthy foods, he recommends a Mediterranean-style diet with a lot of vegetables and seafood, rich in Omega 3 and Omega 6 acids.
13. Visit a dermatologist annually
You see your doctor every year; ditto your dentist (or at least you’re supposed to). A dermatologist should be seen just as often. “Your moles can change,” says Dr. Cantatore-Francis. “You should have a full-body check—scalp to toes.”
14. Perform monthly self-checks
Just because you’re between annual dermatologist visits, doesn’t mean you should ignore your skin. “I recommend monthly checks at home,” says Dr. Blank. “If you stand in front of a full-length mirror with a handheld mirror, you can see every part of your body, including between your legs and your back.” Note that most skin cancers can be caught very early or even in the pre-cancer stage. Most people make a mistake and they don’t examine their own body and they don’t know that something’s changing.”
While looking over every inch of your skin, take note of any change in size, shape, or color of your moles. Does it have a jagged edge? Is it not just a circle? Is it red or black? “We used to say, as far as size goes, anything six millimeters—which is the size of the eraser on a pencil—or larger is a concern,” Dr. Blank says. “But you can get early melanomas that are smaller than that. The biggest key is to look for changes in a mole. Moles shouldn’t be changing on you.”
15. Stop smoking!
You know smoking is bad for your lungs, but did you realize how bad it is for your skin? “Because of the carcinogens in smoke, smoking actually can increase wrinkling,” Dr. Cantatore-Francis notes. “It makes the skin have a yellowish tinge. It increases the aging process.”
This negative effect is present even in second-hand smoke. “The problem with smoking is that the nicotine shuts down the small blood vessels in the skin,” Dr. Farella explains. “They’ve actually done twin studies, where one smoked and the other one didn’t. There was a considerable ten year difference in the aging of the face in the smoker.”
As if nicotine weren’t bad enough, even the very act of smoking is bad for your skin, Dr. Cantatore-Francis warns. “Just the motion of smoking, making that kind of pursed lips to smoke, increases all the wrinkles around your lips. A lot of times you can tell smokers because they have very thick, hard-to-treat wrinkling around their mouth.”
David Neilsen is a freelance writer living in Tarrytown who uses SPF 50 sunscreen when he remembers, and whose skin feels it when he forgets.