Home Health Skin expert reveals the most common summer problems – and how to...

Skin expert reveals the most common summer problems – and how to treat them

Our skin is the frontline of our immune system, the biggest organ in our body and has a huge impact on mental health and wellbeing. But summer can be tough on it, as it comes under attack from the sun, heat and a host of irritants.

Skin problems are also much harder to hide during summer, but there’s a lot you can do to head them off and speed recovery when things go wrong. Here, dermatologist Emma Craythorne, a spokesperson for the British Association of Dermatology, and Nisa Aslam, a GP with a special interest in skincare, give their top tips on summer skin survival.

Burning issues

“Sunburn is becoming less common now, because people are usually pretty good about using an SPF sunscreen,” says Emma, but many of us still make rookie errors with sun protection.

According to research by Which?, the most common mistakes are not applying enough sunscreen, judging sunscreens by price and not reading the small print on claims for once-a-day products and water resistance. Emma advises that adults should use six to eight teaspoons of lotion with an SPF of 30 plus UVA protection, which is shown by a star rating or the letters UVA in a circle. “Not all sunscreens have UVA coverage, which is important if you want to protect against skin ageing,” she explains.

The NHS advice is to “Pick a sunscreen that works for you – if you like the feel and smell, and it’s affordable, you’re more likely to use it”, and to reapply it every couple of hours and after swimming, regardless of claims on water resistance.

Research for Hada Labo Tokyo confirms the biggest consumer turn-offs with sunscreens are that they leave the skin feeling greasy, take too long to rub in and some products are too thick. Emma adds: “Taking oral antioxidants can be helpful and the evidence really sits with lycopene, vitamin D.”

She recommends Heliocare, a supplement with an ingredient derived from the fern Polypodium leucotomos, which has been clinically proven to protect against UV damage.

Ignore claims that sunscreens will increase the risk of vitamin D deficiency. Researchers calculate that from March to September just nine minutes of sunlight, with the forearms and lower legs exposed, is enough to ensure adequate levels. And during autumn and winter, the official advice is to top up with a vitamin D supplement.

Beware of exfoliating your skin on the eve of a sunshine holiday too. “Getting rid of the dead skin cells probably increases your risk of burning, because the stratum corneum, which is the bit that you’re essentially trying to get rid of when you exfoliate, is a protective layer,” Emma explains. “So when people exfoliate, whether it’s by chemical or mechanical means, they are making their skin more vulnerable to UV damage, so they need to be more careful about applying and regularly reapplying sunscreen.”

Red alert

If you have been caught out and got sunburnt, Emma says: “It’s important to get the heat out of the skin, because the longer it stays warmer, the more damage is being done. Take a cool shower, and dab your skin with a towel to make sure it’s completely dry. “Use a light moisturiser, but avoid anything too thick, or occlusive emollients and agents such as Vaseline, as they can trap in the heat. Hyaluronic acid is a good ingredient to look for in a moisturiser because it’s a humectant that draws water into the skin.”

Nisa adds: “I like the Hada Labo Tokyo range, because they specialise in different forms of hyaluronic acid. They’ve done things like hydrolysing the molecule so that it’s small enough to penetrate the skin, and also fermenting it, which helps form a stronger skin barrier. They also include anti-ageing ingredients such as panthenol, collagen and retinol.

“It’s important to use a product that provides good protection against both UVA and UVB radiation. For a long time, suncare messages have focused on UVB radiation, because that’s what causes sunburn, but ultraviolet A, which is around all year and penetrates through clouds, can cause damage to the lower layers of your skin, and that causes premature ageing.”

Light as therapy

“Psoriasis and eczema will often improve in the sunshine, because these conditions are caused by over-activity of the immune system and ultraviolet radiation is an immunosuppressant,” says Emma. But she advises against trying to treat skin conditions with sunlight and warns: “If your skin were to burn and you had psoriasis, it would make it worse.”

Light therapy, which uses very tightly controlled levels of UV radiation and is sometimes combined with oral medicines, is a safer option for psoriasis that is not responding to topical treatments. Some forms of eczema are light sensitive, and will get worse with exposure to sunlight. Nisa adds: “Some people find that sweat exacerbates their eczema or psoriasis. Thick, oily or greasy sunscreens, and products with added fragrances, can also lead to flare-ups.”

Pills can be a pain

Medicines, including the widely used painkiller ibuprofen, and prescription anti-fungal drug voriconazole, can make skin more vulnerable to UV radiation and sunburn. Some antibiotics, diuretics, drugs for high blood pressure and chemotherapy medicines can also increase the skin’s sensitivity to sunlight.

Nisa advises: “Always read the patient leaflet when you are prescribed a new medicine, or ask your GP or pharmacist about any potential reactions.” St John’s Wort, a mood-enhancing herbal remedy, is also known to cause this sort of photosensitivity.

Be drink aware

Some plants can make skin more sensitive to sunlight and UV damage, a phenomenon known as phytophotodermatitis. Emma says: “The thing I see it most commonly with is limes. People are making cocktails in summer and get lime juice on their hands and when this interacts with UV radiation it can lead to a pretty nasty blistering response.”

All citrus fruit can trigger this reaction, but limes are particularly problematic, so it’s also known as margarita burn. It’s caused by a plant chemical called psoralen, which is also found in parsley, celery and carrots.

Similar rashes can be triggered by ragweed, asters, daisies and sunflowers when any sap or plant residue on the skin interacts with sunlight. She says this painful rash can also occur when someone goes out in the sun following a scalp or body massage using essential oils including bergamot, orange and lime.

The simplest way to avoid issues is to wash your hands immediately after handling citrus fruit and to wear gloves and covering clothing when gardening.

Rash actions

Emma believes prickly heat rashes are one of the most common summer skin problems she sees. They occur when the skin can’t sweat freely, with the most typical triggers being tight clothing – particularly close-fitting activewear and children’s UV protection swimwear – or sitting for prolonged periods on a plastic or vinyl-covered chair or seat. Emma explains: “When the sweat glands are blocked, these ducts become inflamed and this creates small, itchy bumps. The best way to treat heat rash is to keep the skin cool, and if it has already become itchy, to apply an over-the-counter hydrocortisone to calm down the inflammation.”

Keeping cool, and wearing loose clothing, made from natural fibres, will reduce the risk of heat rashes.

As many as 15 per cent of the UK population can experience an allergic reaction to sunlight, which is known as polymorphic light eruption. Emma says: “This usually happens in springtime or at the beginning of the summer, when the skin is first exposed to the sun. The sun causes a little bit of damage within the top layer of the skin, which sets off an immune response and you get these little bumps, sometimes several hours later.

“If you have experienced problems in the past, the official advice is to use a sunscreen with an SPF of 50 or more, which also has UVA protection.”


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