We wash, we exfoliate, we apply sunscreen and skin-care products -- too bad these habits don't always do right by our skin. And then there are the skin-altering habits that are just plain wrong to begin with: Hands off your face!
Do your face a favor by replacing these common skin-care mistakes with smarter, skin-friendlier practices.
#1: Under-protecting your lips from the sun
Sorry, swiping on a lip balm (like ChapStick) when you're outside won't block the sun's harmful rays. Balms and glosses that contain SPF counts of 15 or 30 are only nominally better. "People think that using a lip product is the same as having lip protection, but it's not," says dermatologist Amy Newburger, senior attending physician at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Medical Center in New York City and author of Looking Good at Any Age. Lip products with relatively low SPF can still lead to freckling of the lips, she says.
Better way: Wear an opaque lipstick. It will give you the equivalent of an SPF-200, Newburger says. "If you can't see your natural skin color, the sun can't see your lips, either," she says. Even a pale pink does the job, so long as it's opaque. Just be careful to reapply if you rub it away when eating, drinking, or talking. (Sorry, guys; you're left with using the highest-SPF balm you can find -- usually 30 to 50. You, too, have to remember to reapply often.)
#2: Underestimating how much SPF protection your makeup provides
You start the day with an SPF-15 moisturizer -- good. You add a liquid makeup base that contains SPF-20 -- fine. Just don't think that you're getting double the sun protection. "You're probably only getting the coverage of SPF-20, and it's probably not going to work as well as if you'd put it directly on the skin," Newburger says.
Better way: Be realistic. Only one of your facial products needs SPF, ideally the one that goes on first. (For many women, this is the moisturizer, but it can also be regular sunscreen.) Find a product with a minimum of SPF-30.
Even so, you'll need to reapply during the day. Women often make the mistake of relying all day long on sun protection applied in their morning makeup routine -- but like sunscreen elsewhere on the skin, it'll only block damaging rays for so long. Mineral makeup powders containing SPF provide an easy way to reapply sun protection throughout the day.
#3: Doubling up on powerful anti-agers
Many adults have discovered that topical retinoid creams improve skin appearance by boosting collagen production and speeding cell turnover, which minimizes lines and superficial wrinkles and produces smoother-looking skin. Prescription-strength retinoids -- which include tretinoin (Avita, Retin-A, Renova), tazarotene (Avage, Tazorac), and adapalene (Differin) -- are also used to treat acne.
All good -- until you try to compound the benefit by another powerful anti-aging ingredient: glycolic acid. Glycolic acid is an alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) that speeds up skin renewal. It's found in many over-the-counter products.
Unfortunately, they cancel each other out.
"One ingredient makes the other inactive," says dermatologist Diane C. Madfes, assistant clinical professor at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York City and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Dermatology.
Better way: Space out the use of retinoids and products with glycolic acid "“ use them on alternating days, for example. Some dermatologists recommend using a retinoid only at night (the recommended time, since retinoids are sun-sensitive) and a glycolic acid only in the morning.
If you want to avoid glycolic acid, check the product ingredient list; it'll be clearly named.
#4: Resting your hands on your chin or cheeks
Some bodies tend to fall into some habitual poses -- like slouching -- that aren't so great for them. Dermatologists put in this category such idle habits as sitting with your chin in your hands as you talk or read, and fiddling with your hair so that your fingers brush against your cheeks all day long. The problem: "Your hands are filthy," Newburger says.
Especially if there's a break in your skin or you're prone to blocked pores, you have the perfect setup for infection or acne inflammation.
Better way: Train yourself to break hand-on-face habits. If it helps, picture your fingers and palms covered with teeming microbes wiggling their way down into your pores by the millions. If you absolutely can't keep your hands off your face, wash them well with soap first (but good luck remembering to do this every time you want to lean in to have a chat or read a long article on your laptop).
More common habits that are harming your skin
#5: Over-washing your face
Clean skin is healthier skin -- but that doesn't mean you need to wash your face all day long, the way you wash your hands. Teens and adults with oily skin, especially, tend to fall into a zealous face-washing habit in an attempt to remove oil and prevent acne from developing. Unfortunately, this backfires: Excessive washing actually makes the skin more vulnerable to breakouts because it strips the skin of natural oil protection.
"The body thinks, 'Oh, the skin is drier,' so it makes even more oil," Madfes says.
Better way: Wash your face just twice a day -- when you wake up in the morning and before you go to bed at night. In the morning, you want to wash off any evening products or allergens (like dust mites or pet dander on your bedsheets) and create a clean surface for a moisturizer and a sunscreen. In the evening, you want to wash off not only any makeup and sunscreen that's been on your skin but also chemicals and other pollutants in the air that your skin has been exposed to all day long.
Plain old soap and water is sufficient, Madfes says. "Soap may be a little too harsh for people with sensitive skin, but there's nothing wrong with washing your skin with plain soap," she says. Just don't do it more than twice a day. Use a mild soap if you do have sensitive skin. Avoid vigorously rubbing the skin, and gently pat dry. If you need help with acne, use an over-the-counter or prescription acne treatment.
#6: Exfoliating too much or using the wrong scrubs if you have acne
The jury's mixed on exfoliants in general. Some skin experts believe they're harmless once or twice a week, or even daily if your skin tolerates them, while others think they're unnecessary. Skin exfoliates naturally and inevitably -- "just like leaves are going to drop off a deciduous tree in the fall," Newburger says. The entire stratum corneum (that's the body's outermost layer of dead skin) is replaced every two weeks when you're in your 20s, and every six to eight weeks as you get older -- except facial skin, which renews every four weeks as you get older.
Exfoliating scrubs speed up the process, reducing the dullish appearance that the slower turnover of older skin can have. But the process also activates sebaceous glands, causing oilier skin, Newburger says, that can also appear rougher as it regenerates. That's especially a problem for acne-prone skin if you use aggressive products such as apricot scrubs, oatmeal scrubs, polymer beads, or woven polyester scrubbing devices. Call it way too much of a good thing. Over-the-counter scrubs can also lessen the effectiveness of prescription acne treatments.
Better way: If you're prone to acne, skip all rough scrubs and look for products designed for acne-prone skin. Astringents, masks, toners, and exfoliators that contain scrubbing particles won't help clear acne unless they contain a special acne-clearing ingredient, like salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.
#7: Taking a pimple into your own hands -- literally
"Out, out, darn spot" is what you may be thinking as your fingers inch toward the offending pimple. "Self-surgery" is what dermatologist Newburger calls it -- and we all know how good we'd be at taking a scalpel to the rest of the body. Unfortunately, if you pick at your skin or squeeze a painful pustule, you're apt to prolong your misery.
Blame filthy hands again, in part. Microbes in your nail risk introducing a secondary infection at the spot. But you'll also risk causing a rupture deep in the skin, which can result in an inflammatory reaction that's bigger than the original pimple, can last as much as twice as long (about two weeks compared to one week if left alone), and is more liable to scar.
Better way: Ideally, keep your hands off your acne, dermatologists agree. Try applying a warm compress to bring it to the surface, Madfes suggests. Another way to dry it up without pinching the skin, she says: Crush aspirin into water. (The main metabolite in aspirin is salicylic acid, a common ingredient in acne products.) For long-term acne, consider ongoing professional or over-the-counter treatments to prevent outbreaks.
Sometimes, of course, the pain or appearance makes self-zapping a zit too irresistible. If you absolutely must, Newburger says, first clean your hands thoroughly with soap and water. Put a tissue over the spot and squeeze through the tissue. You can also try using a tool known as a blemish extractor or loop extractor, which exerts even pressure all around the pustule to bring it directly up, rather than spreading below the surface -- but they're tricky to use and not recommended for deep acne.