Soothing Summer Skin
Natural remedies can help ease sunburn,
rashes and other warm-weather hazards.
by Beverly Burmeier
Summer is time for carefree fun but steamy weather, poisonous plants, biting insects and sun sensitivity can be tough on skin—and that’s not fun at all. So it’s important to protect yourself from seasonal hazards that can limit your ability to enjoy the outdoors.
Screen the Sun
Sunscreen is a must every day, even when it’s cloudy. Sun exposure is the primary cause of lines, wrinkles and age spots—not to mention skin cancer—and damage can occur in just 15 minutes.
Keep in mind that incidental exposure, say, at sports events, driving or walking the dog, can result in more sun damage than a day at the beach. Ultraviolet A (UVA), the rays that age skin, can penetrate glass, so sitting by a window for prolonged periods can trigger damage. What’s more, up to 25% additional ultraviolet is reflected off surfaces such as water, sand, grass and cement.
Broad-spectrum sunscreens provide protection from both UVA and ultraviolet B (UVB), the kind that burns. Products containing antioxidants offer additional sun protection.
Sun protection factor (SPF) indicates how effective the product is at blocking UV rays, but most people spread sunscreen so thinly that the stated SPF is not obtained. “That’s why I recommend a minimum SPF 30 for intended sun exposure,” says Barbara Reed, MD, clinical professor of dermatology at University of Colorado School of Medicine in Denver. Be sure to use enough—about one ounce to cover all exposed skin, including ears, hands and feet. If you’re sensitive to chemicals in sunscreens, stick with physical blockers like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.
“Apply sunscreen 20 minutes before you go out and reapply after two hours or whenever you’re in water or sweating it off,” Reed says. Moisturizers, foundations and lip balms that contain sun-protective ingredients add another barrier. But they’re not waterproof, so don’t rely on them alone.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (www.iarc.fr) cautions that sunscreen can’t completely negate the adverse effects of UV light and should not be relied on as sole protection against skin cancer. So, to further protect your skin, you should stay in the shade as much as possible and wear clothing made from a tightly woven fabric or with SPF properties of its own. Top it off with a solid-fabric, wide-brimmed hat rather than a baseball cap or straw hat. To minimize wrinkles and lower risk of cataracts, shield your eyes and the thin skin around them with sunglasses that provide both UVA and UVB protection. Avoid outdoor activities during the hours of 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m., when the sun’s rays are strongest.
Warm temperatures increase oiliness, but don’t be tempted to skip sunscreen. Instead of greasy products, look for dry or oil-free types, and reapply often.
Skin care requires a combination of internal and external processes, says Howard Murad, MD, FAAD, dermatologist and Associate Clinical Professor of Medicine at UCLA. “Using sunscreen on the epidermis (skin surface) protects only 10% to 15% percent of the skin, so we need internal protection as well. Foods containing vitamins A and C such as pomegranates, broccoli, watermelon, pink grapefruit and green tea are helpful for sun protection as well as overall health,” Murad says. “Eating raw fruits and vegetables and snacking on walnuts or grapes will hydrate skin and boost the immune system at the same time.”
Certain foods, such as figs, lemons and limes, may increase photosensitivity, or the tendency to burn (some medications and herbs, such as St. John’s wort, can also have this effect).
If you do burn, soothe skin with a washcloth dipped in cool, full-fat milk—lactic acid stops inflammation and itching. A compress of thin tomato slices, which contain an inflammation fighter called lycopene, can reduce swelling. “A tea compress from 12 bags of brewed black tea, cooled and applied to a cloth also provides relief,” says Reed. Aloe from the plant or in a topical cream or soap is a common remedy for soothing burned areas.
Defy the Dry
Sun exposure can leave skin feeling dry and tight, as can exposure to wind, salt and chlorine. If your skin is dry, take extra care when swimming in a pool or salt water. As a matter of routine, apply moisturizing lotion while skin is still damp for better absorption (do the same after a shower or bath). When heading to the pool, slather a hydrating cream on particularly dry spots to provide a barrier from moisture-stripping chlorine.
Petroleum jelly can be used as an all-purpose moisturizer for feet, elbows, hands and lips. Natural agents that can help keep skin smooth and soft include olive oil—both at the dinner table and in skincare formulations—along with aloe vera and shea butter. Getting enough essential fatty acids, beta-carotene and vitamins B and C is crucial for skin to feel and look its best. (Drinking enough water is also important)
Take Rash Action
Heat rash happens when sweat ducts become blocked and trap perspiration beneath the skin’s surface, resulting in red spots or small, blistery bumps. A similar rash resulting from overgrowth of yeast in skin under the breasts and in the groin area can be treated with an anti-fungal such as tea tree oil. Calamine lotion, oatmeal baths and cold compresses soaked in milk or water can help relieve itching. Prevent rashes by wearing loose-fitting, lightweight, garments made of natural, breathable fibers, and change out of wet clothing as soon as possible.
Hot tubs are another potential source of skin irritation caused by bacteria. To prevent itchy red bumps, take a shower before and after using a public hot tub. Hydrocortisone or menthol cream may provide relief, but you can also try aloe vera, calendula lotion or tea tree oil. Bathe in cool water, not hot, says Reed, with a bit of baking soda or oatmeal for additional soothing. If you have a hot tub at home, clean it thoroughly and regularly according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
Sun rash, a form of skin allergy, consists of itchy red spots called polymorphous light eruption (PMLE) that appear after exposure to the sun. It can appear on neck, chest, arms or thighs, especially in people with fair skin who may not have had much sun exposure during winter. Reduce risk by using sunblock and limiting your time in the sun. Chamomile cream and calendula lotion can help ease the itch, as can cold compresses.
Poison ivy, oak and sumac can all cause a nasty red rash with blisters. The culprit is a toxic oil that comes from leaves of these plants. Learn what the plants look like and avoid them (the CDC offers an identification guide at www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/plants). If contact does occur, wash your skin in cool water immediately; scrubbing under your fingernails can help you avoid spreading the toxin. Don’t forget to wash your clothes.
A cool bath followed by calamine lotion may relieve symptoms caused by poison plant contact; cool cooked oatmeal and diluted vinegar are other options. Aloe and calendula can help dry the lesions, although especially severe cases should be brought to a practitioner’s attention.
Beat the Bugs
Take a walk in the woods, and you might encounter another hazard—bugs. Bites from chiggers and ticks can result in itchy, red welts that last for weeks. When walking in grassy or wooded areas wear long sleeves and pants tucked into socks or shoes, even in warm weather. After ticks have burrowed into skin, they must be pulled off with tweezers. Taking B vitamins or brewer’s yeast appears to lessen susceptibility to insect bites and stings for some people.
Cold compresses, baking soda poultices and ice can relieve swelling caused by tick bites, and calamine lotion can soothe itching. Consult a practitioner if Lyme disease—which can cause flulike symptoms, achy joints and a characteristic “bull’s eye” rash—is suspected. Relieve swelling from bee and wasp stings by placing an ice pack or cool wet cloth on the sting spot and elevating the area. Calamine lotion and aloe vera help soothe lingering pain.
Mosquitoes are problematic in warm, humid climates, so eliminate the standing water where they breed. The Centers for Disease Control recommends repellents containing DEET or picaridin (or oil of lemon eucalyptus, a more natural option) to prevent possible infection with West Nile virus. Essential oils that can help repel these biting pests include citronella (also available in candle form), lemongrass, peppermint and rosemary; they are safer and easier on skin than chemical repellents.
Soybean oil is a natural repellent, particularly when combined with geranium and coconut oils. Be sure to wash skin and treated clothing after coming indoors. If you are bitten, tea tree oil can help ease the itch.
Summer is more enjoyable with skin that isn’t sunburned or covered with rashes and bites. Safe, natural remedies can help keep you comfortable all season long.