Surviving a scorching Arizona summer means mastering the art of keeping cool. For some, that entails lathering on the SPF and flocking to the backyard or community swimming pool, while others beat the heat with a crank of the thermostat, relishing the air-conditioned indoors.
Whether or not you’ve suffered from dry, cracked skin or that dreaded blistering burn, you may feel like these summer months simply aren’t conducive to good skin health. Instead of accepting that as the unavoidable truth, try using this sizzling season as an opportunity to broaden your skin health awareness.
Before we start figuring out how to protect, heal, and nourish it though, let’s first recognize just how incredible the skin is. Did you know that it’s your body’s largest organ, accounting for about 15% of your bodyweight, and that it sheds more than 30,000 dead cells each and every minute? On a day-to-day basis, we may be more in tune with how acceptable it looks in the mirror’s reflection, but the skin functions as our prime sensory and barrier organ, transmitting contact with the outside world and protecting us from our external environments, not to mention the integral role in plays in virtually every one of our body’s complex processes.
Youthful skin is comprised of plump, aqueous cells and it’s the job of the cell membranes to maintain the structure of those cells by keeping the desirable water and nutrients inside, while facilitating the removal of undesirable waste products. The cell membrane itself is primarily composed of fatty acids, so when the body’s topical and dietary supply of healthy fats falls short, the result is an accelerated aging process of the skin.
Unfortunately, our go-to summer pastimes can exacerbate this natural aging process. Here’s a breakdown of the season’s worst environmental culprits and suggested strategies to reduce topical and systemic chemical exposure, fight pre-mature aging, and optimize overall skin health.
- Pool chemicals. The same way that chlorine breaks down the fats in the cell walls of harmful bacteria and microorganisms to denature the enzymes inside, it does a job on our skin cells, stripping them of their natural oils and leaving our skin feeling dry and itchy. According to the EPA, chlorine can even irritate the respiratory system.
Healthy Skin Strategies:
- Maintain proper swimming pool chemistry by checking chlorine levels (aim for 1.0-4.0 ppm) and pH levels (aim for 7.2-7.8) daily. If you need help, request a free pool test kit from the Water Quality and Health Council.
- Consider switching to a salt water system (which won’t be totally free of the chemical, but less harsh than traditional chlorinated pools).
- To help restore lost moisture, rinse off immediately after taking a dip with an oil-based soap like Dr. Bronner’s and apply only natural skin care products or your own “skin food” (see below).
- Air conditioning. As it zaps moisture from the air in your car, home, and workplace, AC also dehydrates your skin.
Healthy Skin Strategies:
- Stay hydrated! You may not be as inclined to chug water in the cooler air, but your cells need it more than ever. Aim to consume a half ounce to one ounce of pure water per pound of your own body weight each day. Carrying a reusable water bottle with you (ideally BPA-free) will help make the habit stick.
- Consider using a humidifier. Humidifiers are devices that emit water vapor or steam to increase moisture levels in the air, which should ideally fall between 30 and 50 percent. To determine if you need one, you can pick up a hygrometer at the hardware store to measure moisture levels.
- Bring the outdoors in. Did you know that plants are natural humidifiers? The top recommended air purifying house plants include the bamboo plant, snake plant, areca palm, spider plant, peace lily, and gerbera daisy.
- Conventional cosmetics. Commercial skin care products can contain emulsifiers, or binding agents that enable oil and water to mix in moisturizers and lotions. The resulting residue left on your skin can easily disrupt skin’s lipid barrier, which dries out the skin by allowing water to evaporate from it more quickly.
What’s even more concerning than their dehydrating properties, though, are all of the other synthetic chemical additives present in these products. Cosmetics (which include all men’s, women’s, and children’s personal care products) are one of the least regulated consumer products on the market. Currently, the regulation of cosmetics is governed by the Safe Cosmetics Act of 1938. This 2.5 page long, 70 + year old piece of legislation does not require cosmetics companies to conduct pre-market safety assessment, which means that virtually any chemical can end up your lotion, shampoo, or aftershave.
Many of these chemicals have been linked to endocrine disruption, certain cancers, neurological toxicity, impaired fertility, and even insulin resistance. Your skin is permeable organ, so it does absorb what goes on it, even if in amounts so minute that they’re considered biologically insignificant. The danger comes from the cumulative effect – years of regular (often, daily) exposure.
Healthy Skin Strategies:
- Become a more conscious consumer. Use the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database to find safety scores for thousands of different products. On their website, EWG.org, they also have a wallet guide that you can print out and bring right to the store with you.
- Avoid the “Dirty Dozen” of cosmetics which include BHA and BHT, coal tar dyes, DEA, cocamide DEA and lauramide DEA, dibutyl phthalate, formaldehyde-releasing preservatives, parabens, parfum (fragrance), PEGs, petrolatum, siloxanes, sodium laureth sulfate (A.K.A. “SLES”), and triclosan To learn more, check out University of Arizona Integrative Health Center’s July Newsletter: The Skin Issue.
- Make your own skin food! Choose organic, unrefined, cold-pressed oils like olive, coconut, almond, jojoba, avocado, or hemp seed and add a few drops of an essential oil like lavender, eucalyptus, or peppermint. Perform a skin patch test before applying to the skin and remember that a little goes a long way! For more recipe ideas, check out The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics DIY Recipes.
- The sun. While conventional wisdom is certainly correct in preaching protection from sun, many conventional sun screens contain the hormone-disrupting compounds. Like all personal care products, not all sunscreens are created equal.
Healthy Skin Strategies:
- Look for shade, wear protective clothing whenever possible and avoid “laying out” in the sun.
- Avoid sunscreen products with oxybenzone (an endocrine disruptor) and vitamin A (or retinyl palmitate) – a common additive, which has been associated with an increased risk of skin cancer.
- Look for products without added fragrances. Synthetic chemical fragrances act as hormone disruptors.
- Choose sunscreens with SPF 30. A higher SPF can not only dissuade you from frequent application, but the extra protection you get from increased SPF is negligible. SPF 50 sunscreen blocks about 98% of sunburn rays when applied properly, and SPF 100 blocks 99%. Higher SPF products also have a much weaker UVA protection (which means that these products may suppress sun burn a little bit more, but not other forms of sun risk like free radical damage). Lastly, higher SPF products are generally more chemically-dense, which means an increased risk of exposure to potential harmful chemicals.
- Find mineral-based products containing zinc oxide or titanium dioxide or 3 percent avobenzone. Ideally, look for products that contain these ingredients in their standard form instead of as nanoparticles, which are more susceptible to skin penetration.
- Check other personal care products (especially cosmetics) that may contain sunscreen.
- Use the Environmental Working Group’s 2013 Guide to Sunscreens for more consumer tips and healthy alternatives.
- Incorporate more antioxidant-rich foods into your diet, which help protect against free-radical damage from the sun. Look for fruits and veggies naturally rich in colors like blue, purple, red, orange, yellow, and green to maximize antioxidant intake. Visit Dr. Andrew Weil’s Anti-Inflammatory Diet to learn more.
Katie Dalton, ACE, is a health coach at the University of Arizona Integrative Health Center.