Summer is in full swing, and with it, the desire to unearth every skin-smoothing secret in dermatologists’ arsenal. Chafing? Don’t know her. Summer eczema? Calm down. Rough patches from winter dryness still hanging around? Time to go.
In preparation for a season of showing more skin, we asked top dermatologists how to address common skin concerns like summer acne, eczema, keratosis pilaris, and chafing and why many of the steps you take to smooth our skin are also important for the health of your skin barrier. But first, a disclaimer: Skin texture — pores, pimples, rough patches, wrinkles — is a natural and normal part of life. As much ink has been spilled about skin-smoothing routines, we all have texture. It will change as you age, with hormonal fluctuations, and even with the season; the idea that there’s something wrong with your skin if it doesn’t resemble the surface of a rose petal fresh with morning dew is a myth. It’s your skin — you do you.
If you are into buffing and moisturizing your way to smoother skin for summer, have a specific concern like keratosis pilaris you want to target, or want some tips on improving the health of your skin barrier, read on.
Meet the Experts
Margarita Lolis, M.D. is a board-certified dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group in Hackensack, NJ.
Hadley King, M.D. is a board-certified dermatologist.
Two golden rules for smoother skin: exfoliate and hydrate
Exfoliation is an important part of maintaining a healthy skin barrier all year long but is particularly important for smooth skin in the summer when heat and humidity wreak havoc. “The combination of oil glands in overdrive, sweat, sunscreen, makeup, and dirt from being outdoors more creates a cauldron of pore-clogging gunk,” says Margarita Lolis, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group.
Regularly exfoliating with either a chemical or physical exfoliator will not only take care of any rough, dry patches of skin lingering from winter, but it’s also essential for preventing summer breakouts. “As we age, our skin cells do not shed as fast as they did when we were younger, so it’s important to ensure that we are removing all that excess debris off our skin with proper washing and exfoliating,” Dr. Lolis says.
Start slow if you’re not in the habit of regularly exfoliating (or maybe you’ve just been avoiding it so as not to irritate dry winter skin). Dr. Lolis recommends exfoliating between one and two times a week, depending on how sensitive your skin is for a month. “After that, work your way up to three times per week if your skin does not develop any irritation,” she says.
For experienced exfoliators, summer can be a good time to ramp up your routine. During this time of year, skin is less likely to be dry and sensitive, meaning it’s possible it can tolerate stronger exfoliating actives, explains Hadley King, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist.
Dr. Lolis recommends products that combine chemical and physical exfoliators or a leave-on acid-based product that gently exfoliates all day. “One of my faves is the Sunday Riley Good Genes All-In-One Lactic Acid Treatment. Lactic acid is a gentle, effective chemical exfoliator that breaks down dull, dead skin cells, revealing brighter, more even-toned skin underneath,” she says.
Exfoliating will reveal fresh skin cells, so it’s important to follow any exfoliation with a good moisturizer to protect the new (smooth!) surface. Dr. Lolis recommends products with hyaluronic acid. They tend to be lighter formulations — heavy, greasy creams are not what you want in the sticky months — and are especially adept at increasing moisture absorption and retention. The new Sunday Riley C.E.O. Afterglow Brightening Vitamin C Gel Cream is also a super lightweight formulation that instantly absorbs into skin yet keeps it hydrated all day.
Treating other rough skin situations
Hot and humid months can trigger specific skin concerns like chafing. Some may even experience eczema flare-ups. Here’s how to smooth over common summer skin issues:
Most people with eczema experience the worst flare-ups in the winter months since dry conditions can trigger irritation. There’s also evidence that ultraviolet light therapy can improve the inflammation and itching associated with eczema, so if you’re spending more time in the sun, you may notice your eczema improves during this time of year. (This doesn’t mean you should skip sunscreen — phototherapy for eczema is a prescribed treatment, which uses a light therapy device that emits specific wavelengths of UV light, per the National Eczema Association. “UV radiation is a known carcinogen, and I don’t recommend foregoing SPF when there are safer options available for treating eczema,” Dr. King says.)
Summer-specific irritants can also cause eczema to get worse. “This may be due to summer allergies caused by pollen or summer activities like swimming in a chlorinated pool that can dry out the skin,” explains Dr. King. Increased sweating can also cause flare-ups, adds Dr. Lolis. According to the National Eczema Association, sweat contains eczema-irritating elements, like zinc, copper, sodium, and chloride. This can cause rashes, particularly in areas where sweat tends to accumulate in the heat. (Think: elbow creases and the back of the knees.) If you’re prone to flare-ups, keep skin smooth and irritation-free by rinsing sweat with fresh water and changing out of sweaty clothes ASAP.
Regarding sunscreen, Dr. King recommends opting for mineral formulas, which sit on top of the skin instead of being absorbed into it, since chemical sunscreens are more likely to cause irritation and trigger a rash. “The important thing is to read the ingredient labels to ensure that you are choosing a physical mineral-based sunscreen that contains Titanium Dioxide and Zinc Oxide so as not to create a flare-up,” adds Dr. Lolis.
Another skin condition that causes bumpy patches of skin is keratosis pilaris or KP for short. “It is a condition that causes the skin to produce too much keratin in the skin, which blocks hair follicles and causes bumps to develop,” explains Dr. Lolis. “The bumps also referred to as ‘chicken skin’ are most often found on the upper arms, thighs, and buttocks.”
The increased humidity of summer makes KP breakouts better, helping smooth skin naturally. But “people are often more concerned about the appearance of KP during the summer months because the areas involved are more likely to be exposed in summer clothing,” says Dr. King. You might notice the bumps more than you usually do, even if they’ve relatively improved, in other words.
“The best way to treat keratosis pilaris is to exfoliate the areas where you have the bumps,” says Dr. Lolis. Look for exfoliators that combine chemical exfoliators like salicylic acid with physical exfoliating elements like Sunday Riley’s Charcoal Smoothie Jelly Body Scrub. The key to keeping skin affected by KP smooth is consistency. “It will come back when you stop treating it,” says Dr. King.
One of the most common summer skin concerns is chafing. Like skin texture, chafing is normal — there’s nothing wrong with the body parts that experience it. Any place skin rubs against the skin — like your inner thighs, butt, armpits, groin — is susceptible. (Skin rubbing against irritating fabric can also cause chafing.)
Chafing becomes a particular issue in summer, thanks to sweat. All that additional moisture combined with friction can cause irritating rash-like bumps, accompanied by a delightful combination of redness and stinging.
To prevent it, protect any areas of skin that typically rub together with lightweight, sweat-wicking fabrics or a lubricant designed to reduce friction like Megababe’s iconic Thigh Rescue stick.
To treat chafing bumps, ensure skin is clean and dry. Remove sweaty clothes, rinse away sweat, and gently pat the area dry. Applying a soothing moisturizer can help skin heal. Look for fragrance-free, extremely gentle formulas like humble petroleum jelly.
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