WebMD Guide to Summer Skin Care


Lounging poolside or lakeside, playing at the beach or in the park —  let’s face it, whatever you’re doing outside between May and September feels oh-so-good on your skin in the summer sun. But extra daylight and arms-baring temperatures make this time of year a super-stressor on your skin. All that sun and heat “means you have to get your warrior paint on,” says David Colbert, MD, founder of New York Dermatology Group. “People tend to subject their skin to more damage in warm weather.”

So how can you enjoy the outdoor season and still prevent long-term wear and tear on your face and body — all the way to Labor Day and beyond? 

Read on for the lowdown on sunscreens for even the fussiest complexions, products to soothe redness and irritation, tips on fighting heat-induced breakouts, and more.

Six essential tools for summer skin care

The sun’s rays cause about 90% of injury to the skin, which means sagging, wrinkles, uneven pigmentation, thickening, and general signs of aging, Colbert explains. Short of walking around in outfits that even Hester Prynne would find conservative (which works — clothing is a good first line of defense against the sun’s rays), there’s not much you can do to completely protect yourself from the scarlet letter of UV damage. But certain products and ingredients have proven to be reparative and have protective qualities. To get through the summer with healthy, glowing skin, stock your skin care arsenal with these powerful, protective weapons.

1. Daily Sun Protection

If we all did what we’re supposed to do, we’d start working on our taxes in January, change the oil every 3,000 miles, and wear sunscreen 365 days of the year. But human nature means there are long lines at the post office on April 15, our car engines die untimely deaths, and most of us carry a bottle of sunscreen only when we’re at the beach. So hear this: The first rule of beautiful, healthy skin begins and ends with sunscreen. The proven No. 1 way to protect your skin is to wear UV protection every single day, rain or shine, summer or winter, Colbert says. If you’re still one of the nonuser abusers see our “Why we skip sunscreen” below.

Top daily sun protection product picks include:

• Eucerin Everyday Protection Face Lotion SPF 30 ($8.99/4 oz)

• Olay Complete All Day UV Defense Moisture Lotion ($10.99/6 oz)

• Cetaphil Daily Facial Moisturizer SPF 15 ($11.49/4 oz)

 2. Salicylic Acid Cleanser

Your cleanser can actually do more than just clean. When you wash your face with salicylic acid, a gentle exfoliator, you’re treating past, present, and future skin issues. “Salicylic acid loosens dead skin cells so new ones replace them,” Colbert says. “This turnover helps shed damage.” Plus, ditching dead skin cells keeps your complexion clear and dries up excess oil to help prevent breakouts, he adds. One caution: Salicylic acid can make you more sensitive to the sun, so use it only at night.

Oily types can tolerate a salicylic cleanser once a day, but those with drier and more sensitive skin should limit use to once a week to avoid irritation.

Top cleanser product picks include:

• Biore Blemish-Fighting Ice Cleanser ($7.99/6.7 oz) has cooling menthol and 2% salicylic acid to keep you feeling fresh.

• Olay Total Effects Anti-Blemish Daily Cleanser ($7.49/5 oz) battles breakouts and wrinkles in one gentle formula.

• Pond’s Dramatic Results Age-defying Cleansing Towelettes ($6.49/30 wipes) are premoistened, so you can keep them next to your bed for nights when you’re too tired to wash with water.

 3. Daily Antioxidant Serum

Serums are like the Altoids of skin care: Their nutrient-packed drops are curiously potent despite the small dose. “Serums are designed to be condensed and deliver high levels of the active ingredient in a very efficient way,” says Francesca Fusco, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. She advises applying an antioxidant serum every morning, before you put on any other product. “Antioxidants absorb damage-causing free radicals and act like an extra layer of protection when worn under sunscreen,” Fusco says.

“It’s especially crucial that you include an antioxidant in your summer skin care routine since exposure to UV rays creates free radicals and no sunscreen can block all the rays.”

Look for a serum containing one of the following proven skin-protecting ingredients: vitamin C, green or white tea, ferulic acid, or vitamin E.

• Juice Organics Vitamin Antioxidant Serum ($20/1 oz) gives your skin the benefits of a glass of fresh-squeezed OJ with a potent form of vitamin C.

• Kinerase N6-Furfuryladenine Hydrating Antioxidant Mist ($29/6.6 oz) offers another way to absorb antioxidants in this white-tea-loaded skin drink.

• Origins A Perfect World White Tea Skin Guardian ($33.50/1 oz) shields the skin from environmental damage with silver-tip white tea.

 4. Moisturizer

While it makes sense to strip off heavy layers of clothing once the mercury rises, you shouldn’t go naked. The same goes for your skin. “Sweat and humidity might make you feel greasier, but your skin still needs moisture to say healthy,” says dermatologist Amy Weschler, MD, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at SUNY Downstate Medical Center. And the salt in perspiration along with heat can actually cause more dehydration. “Without added moisture, your pores produce more sebum to compensate for drying, which causes a frustrating cycle of breakouts and irritation,” Weschler says.

“Switch to lighter products such as oil-free lotions and milks rather than creams or ointments,” Colbert says. He suggests looking for oil-free formulas and ingredients such as silica that will give your skin more of a matte look, especially if you have an oily complexion. Otherwise, your moisturizer should sink into your skin within 30 minutes and not look shiny.

• Boscia Oil-Free Daily Hydration SPF 15 ($27/1 oz) fights shine with this natural, preservative-free sheer fluid.

• Bliss Best of Skintentions Daily Moisturizer ($35/1.7 oz) combines antioxidants and SPF to multitask while it hydrates.

• Clean & Clear Soft Oil-Free Day Moisturizer SPF 15 ($8.49/4 oz) absorbs quickly without feeling greasy.

 5. Nighttime Retinoid

Consider a vitamin A treatment, or retinoid, the big gun when it comes to battling the consequences of sun exposure. “There is so much documented research on how retinoids treat UV damage, but also great evidence on how these agents can reverse aging,” Colbert says. “Everyone can benefit from a form of retinoid.” Once exposed to sunlight, retinoids are no longer effective and can make your skin more sun-sensitive.

To combat these downsides, Colbert suggests applying a retinoid every night and wearing a sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher during the day. Depending on the sensitivity of your skin, you might have to start off using a retinoid every other day or a few nights a week until you build up tolerance. Over-the-counter options tend to be less irritating — just make sure you find a product containing at least 0.1% retinol. Ask your doctor about prescription formulas such as Renova, which contains added moisturizers for dry skin, and Differin, designed for sensitive skin.

• Neutrogena Ageless Deep Wrinkle Moisture Night ($21.99/1.4 oz) compensates for the drying effects of retinol with the megamoisturizer hyaluronic acid.

• Philosophy Booster Caps Retinol Capsules ($50/60 capsules) can be mixed into a basic moisturizer (one without other retinoids or anti-aging ingredients because they can interact with retinol) to amp up your skin’s health.

• RoC Multi-Correxion Night Treatment ($24.99/1 oz) is spiked with a cocktail of retinol and antioxidants to tackle environmental damage on all fronts.

 6. Weekly Calming Mask

You know how hot dogs plump up when they’re cooked at a Fourth of July picnic? Well, the same thing essentially happens to your skin when it’s overheated. Your skin becomes inflamed in summer heat because your capillaries widen as they send blood to the extremities to help cool down. As they expand, they leak fluid, which causes swelling, Fusco explains.

“Acne, rosacea, sunburn, and allergic rashes are all forms of inflammation,” she says. Soothing anti-inflammatory masks can help the skin fight and recover from such conditions. If your skin is oily and prone to any of these, Fusco recommends weekly masks containing clay or sulfur. Cooling formulas containing aloe and chamomile are better for drier complexions.

• Boots No7 Intensive Moisture Face Mask ($19.99/3.3 oz), a hydrating gel cream packed with soothing nutrients that douse inflamed skin with moisture.

• Yes to Cucumbers Calm Care Soothing Facial Mask ($14.99/1.7 oz) has aloe, cucumber, chamomile, and Dead Sea minerals to put the angriest skin into a zen-like state.

• Peter Thomas Roth Cooling Sulfur Mask ($40/5 oz) fights redness with purified clay and sulfur.

Why we skip sunscreen

We may joke about how tan man George Hamilton treats his skin, but only 30% of adults wear daily sun protection, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. Why aren’t 100% of us using it? Ah, let us count the ways — that is, the excuses. We consulted leading dermatologists for the top excuses their patients give to justify avoiding sun protection —  and asked them to prescribe solutions, so their patients and you no longer have any reason to leave your skin exposed. 

1. “I forget.”

Replace your face and body washes and body lotion with products containing SPF. Rub on Eucerin Everyday Protection SPF 15 body lotion ($9.25/13.5 oz) or Jason Fragrance Free Hand and Body Lotion SPF 15  ($7.99/8 oz) when you get out of the shower. And wash your face with St. Ives Elements Protective Cleanser ($7.99/4 oz) or Freeze 24-7 Ice Shield Facial Cleanser ($48/4.2 oz); both leave an imperceptible layer of SPF behind. You should still wear a sunscreen or moisturizer with SPF of at least 30. 

2. “Sunscreen makes me break out.”

First, seek out an oil-free or gel formula labeled noncomedogenic, meaning the ingredients will not clog pores. And look for options containing acne-fighting ingredients such as salicylic acid. Neutrogena Visibly Even Moisturizer SPF 15 ($11.99/1.7 oz) contains breakout-fighting salicylic acid. The mineral particles in bareMinerals SPF 30 Natural Sunscreen powder ($28/.14 oz) are less likely to seep into your pores, so the powder sits on top of the skin to deflect rays with a smaller risk of breakouts. 

3. “I look better tan.”

Despite Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, and other gorgeous women shunning the sun, the attraction to a golden glow hasn’t shown signs of fading. This is one instance where it’s OK to be fake. Try a self-tanning lotion that contains sun protection, such as L’Oreal Sublime Bronze Self-Tanning Lotion SPF 15 ($8.49/5 oz) or Palmer’s Cocoa Butter Sunless Tanner and Instant Bronzer SPF 15 ($8.99/5.25 oz). 

4. “It feels greasy.”

Fair enough. No one wants to feel like she’s been dunked like a lobster in melted butter. Sunscreen makers realize this, too; that’s why active formulas are usually designed to dry without an oily film. Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry Touch SPF 55 ($10.69/3 oz)  quickly absorbs and won’t run once you start sweating. Also try Shiseido Extra Smooth Sun Protection Lotion SPF 33 ($33/3.3 oz). The lightweight milky consistency feels much more comfortable than a heavy cream going on. 

5. “It takes too long.”

An aerosol formula is ideal for those with a Twitter-length attention span. The mists go on in seconds, dry quickly, and don’t require rubbing. Keep in mind: A mist offers spotty coverage unless you really lay it on thick — think of coating a pan with cooking spray. One of the most appealing formulas is Coppertone Oil-Free Quick Cover Lotion Spray SPF 30 ($9.69/6 oz) because it’s fragrance-free and waterproof as well. Or try Banana Boat UltraMist Continuous Spray Sunscreen Sport Performance SPF 50 ($9.49/6 oz) containing alcohol to speed drying time and panthenol for greaseless hydration. You shouldn’t breathe in the spray, so for your face, mist your hands, then blot your skin.  

6. “It’s too messy.”

Nothing ruins a day at the beach faster than rain or an exploded bottle of lotion in your bag. Purse-friendly wipes or stick options offer a no-mess alternative to liquid sunscreens and make it easy to carry sun protection with you. Try the new Clinique Sun SPF 45 Targeted Protection Stick ($17.50/.21 oz) or Shady Day Daily Sun Protection Wipes SPF 30 ($13.99/15 wipes). 

7. “It irritates my skin.”

Sensitive types have even more incentive to avoid the sun since UV rays sometimes aggravate irritation. You can generally trust formulas labeled “for sensitive skin,” and products containing zinc and titanium dioxide, sun shields that are less likely to irritate skin. 

Vitamin D: To sun or not to sun?

Some sunbathing stalwarts cite our need for vitamin D as their justification for unprotected sun exposure. But they’re charring their skin for no good reason: The idea that the sun is the best source of vitamin D is FALSE.

Yes, it’s true we need vitamin D to help absorb calcium, and emerging research shows a strong link between the nutrient and lower risk of many cancers. But here’s the truth: No good scientific data show that using sunscreen inhibits vitamin D production.

“About 15 minutes of exposing your arms and legs to the sun twice a week will create sufficient vitamin D,” even with sunscreen on, says Jeffrey Dover, MD, associate clinical professor of dermatology at Yale University School of Medicine. He advises taking a daily supplement containing 1,000 IU of vitamin D and eating fortified dairy products and fatty fish such as salmon for the safest and most effective way to produce the nutrient.