Like all medical professionals, dermatologists subscribe to the Latin proverb "primum non nocere," or "first, do no harm." But, when it comes to your beauty routine, sometimes derms really, really want to smack you upside the head. "It’s amazing what some people do to their skin," says Doris Day, M.D., dermatologist and clinical associate professor of dermatology at New York University Langone Medical Center.
We're not talking obvious skin sabotage like chain-smoking Pall Malls or sprawling in a tanning bed. Some habits, like enthusiastic exfoliation and loading on anti-agers, are actually good practices gone wrong. However, with the expert tips and fixes below, "it's surprising how much the skin can forgive," says Day. As for those dermatologists? Just don't make them angry. You wouldn't like them when they're angry.
Habit 1: Picking At Your Skin
Hands off! Look, a zit only lasts a few days—a week, max—but residual redness and hyperpigmentation from picking and scratching can remain for months or even years. "Picking isn't just an issue with acne—it can cause scarring whenever and wherever you pick, whether it starts with keratosis pilaris, a bug bite, or for no reason at all," says Heidi Waldorf, M.D., dermatologist and director of laser and cosmetic dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital. "In fact, if you start scratching a spot of normal skin, after a while it will thicken. And it can become an itchy bump, also called a prurigo nodule."
Waldorf's Rx: Toss your magnifying mirror. "If you need one to examine the spot, nobody else can see it in real life," she says. Trash your tweezers, too. Plucking chin hairs is a classic source of hyperpigmentation, especially in African-American women, and tweezing bikini hairs leads to ingrown hairs. "Stick Vaseline and a Band-Aid over anything you feel you just can'tnot pick," says Waldorf, who prescribes Kligman's Formula, a combination of two percent hydroquinone, 0.025 percent tretinoin, and one percent mometasone, to heal the damage. (If you're not seeing a skin doctor, try an OTC retinol and one percent hydrocortisone cream.) "Laser hair removal helps for people picking at hairs," she says. "If that hair's not there, there's nothing to pick. Resurfacing lasers like the Clear + Brilliant or Fraxel Dual can help even out hyperpigmentation."
If these scare tactics and skin tips don't stop your compulsive habit, you may have a condition known as excoriation disorder. The diagnosis was recently recognized by the American Psychiatric Association, and it’s characterized by "constant and recurrent skin picking" resulting in lesions that cause "clinically significant distress or impairment." (To learn more about the disorder, which affects an estimated two to four percent of the population, visit Trich.org.)
Habit 2: Licking Your Lips—A Lot
There's a myth out there that claims people can get addicted to lip balm. We checked—it's not real. "These people just have dry skin and miss the feeling of the balm when it's gone," says Day. You know what's really addictive? Lip licking. But when you moisten your lips that way, you actually wind up making things worse. The water in your saliva evaporates, leaving lips withered and cracked. "Saliva can contain bacteria and irritants, so you can end up with a rash around the lips as well," says Day, who recommends a lip balm with hydrating ingredients such as aloe and shea butter. (She likes FixMySkin Healing Lip Balm, which is spiked with one percent hydrocortisone for speedy healing.)
An aside: You might be tempted to brush your lips since flakes make lip color look particularly craggy and gross. Day says forget what you've read, and put down the toothbrush—a gentle swipe with a damp washcloth will suffice. "In trying to get a smoother look for a lipstick, brushing just makes them rougher and bumpier," she says. "Lips don't have oil glands, so you don't need to exfoliate them like the rest of your skin."
Habit 3: A One-and-Done SPF Style
Nothing—and we mean nothing—bothers a skin doc like a patient who's blasé about their SPF game. "Caucasian patients who come in the color of red walnut tell me they don't understand how it happened when they applied an SPF 100," says Waldorf. "I show them my spotless skin after spending a week outdoors in Thailand and Brazil using only SPF 30+. What people need to understand is that you need to use enough, often enough."
You'd think derms would be on-board with ultra-high SPF sunscreens, but nope. Turns out, these provide only marginally better protection than an SPF 30 lotion, which filters more than 95 percent of UV rays. Worse, they give a false sense of security. "Just as wearing a safety belt doesn't give you permission to drive 90 miles per hour on black ice while texting, applying a high-SPF sunscreen doesn't give you permission to remain outside otherwise unprotected all day," says Waldorf.
Apply enough broad-spectrum sunscreen to fill a shot glass—and apply it a half-hour before you go outside. (It needs time to soak in.) Then, reapply every two to four hours. For extra credit—and extra sun protection—layer on SPF-infused foundations, concealers, bronzers, blushes, and lip colors. Mineral makeup, such as the Bare Escentuals, Jane Iredale, and Pür Minerals lines, provides an extra barrier.
Habit 4: Ignoring Skin Fluctuations
"It’s important to pay attention to your skin and give it what it needs, the way it needs it, when it needs it," says Day. That means using lightweight, mattifying products in the summer; switching to heavier, more emollient ones in the winter; and using acne-fighting products before your period starts. ("If you wait until you're broken out, you're already behind," says Day.)
And don't rely on spot treatments. "Studies show that when you see a pimple, there are more in the surrounding area that haven't come up yet," she says. If your forehead is a problem area, treat the whole forehead. Ditto for the chin. Day likes benzoyl peroxide for its bacteria-crushing antiseptic properties and salicylic acid for flushing out pores. The Glytone Acne Treatment Kit (a cleanser, medicated toner, and treatment gel) contains both.
Habit 5: Exfoliating Your Face Off
Dermatologists understand why people love Clarisonic brushes and the super-clean feeling you get after using them or your favorite exfoliator. But chasing that beauty high has led a lot of patients to overdo it, scrubbing skin into a blotchy, irritated mess. Exfoliating too often breaks down the skin-barrier function, meaning new skin never has a chance to build up. Skin becomes more sensitive to irritation, which leads to inflammation and actually speeds aging.
"I recommend exfoliating twice a week if you have oily or acne-prone skin," says plastic surgeon and injectables expert Fredric Brandt, M.D., who uses in-office LED red-light therapy to reduce inflammation. "For sensitive or normal skin, once a week is fine." In order to seal and maintain the skin barrier, exfoliation should be followed by a gentle moisturizer, says Waldorf.