7 Common Habits That Are Harming Your Skin

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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.

Paula Spencer Scott

Paula Spencer Scott is the author of Surviving Alzheimer's: Practical Tips and Soul-Saving Wisdom for Caregivers and much of the Alzheimer's and caregiving content on Caring. See full bio

over 3 years, said...

I do these all and I know they can affect my skin but it is one of my bad habits, so i try to stop myself. It may be a good thing to try and stop because if you do it for years, like i have, i know it's hellish for nail-polish remover and simple things if it gets into your cuts! As a result of this definition, many people who use natural skin care products , generally make their own products at home from naturally occurring ingredients. While there are many wife's tales surrounding the beneifts of certain ingredients..

over 3 years, said...

My grandmother, long since gone, never used anything but cold water to wash her skin. I picked up the habit from her and continue to use it in my "grandmotherly" years. Doesn't dry the face, that's for sure. Oh, and I don't wear any makeup, which helps.

over 3 years, said...

Comments on doing "surgery" on zits gave me new insight on how to handle this problem that should have disappeared more than 50 years ago (I'm 72 years old).

over 3 years, said...

My mother in law Paula, is a wise elder. She's at least ninety but looks years younger. Her secret? "Hydrate, hydrate". I am surprised that many people, not just women of a certain age, simply don't drink enough water. Your skin and body organs need it to function well. And it is certainly a beauty aid. I chug water whenever I can - not just in the summer. When I wash my face I use a gentle soap, and leave it a bit damp, also helps the complexion. I learned this when I was in my early twenties, the time when (as I recall) I also stopped smoking - another good idea if you want to have younger looking skin. The old French saying, "After 50, you have the face you deserve.." gosh maybe there's some truth in it.

over 3 years, said...

Doesn't this acute phobia of germs leave up open to attacks by other micro-organisms? I was under the impression that a little exposure helps build up resistance to germs

almost 5 years, said...


about 5 years, said...

Here's an 8th common habit that may be harming your skin: not having your skin professionally examined periodically by a dermatologist, and religiously bring to his/her attention anything that looks different. I've had 5 basal cell carcinomas removed in the last few years, and none of them looked like any of the pictures of typical BCCs. It was I, not the dermatologist, who pointed them out at my regular skin survey appointments, and each was confirmed by biopsy and removed surgically. The first two I wish I'd pointed out earlier, because those two surgical scars are bigger than the following ones which I pointed out promptly. I probably had the first two "bumps" for a couple of years before I pointed them out to the doctor and had them biopsied.

about 5 years, said...

Learning that glycolic acid and retinoid cancel each other out,so use GA in the morn and Ret at night. Thanks.

about 5 years, said...

I´m a little bit confused. My skin is so delicate and now I´m not sure what sun proof I should use.

about 5 years, said...

Thank you Paula for your great advice. I moved from a dry climate to a tropical humidity, and acne became a big problem. After trying many different products without any relief finally solved it with plain soap and water as the caregiver advices. Ivory soap once a week and plain water the rest of the week. I found the Crystal ( Salt Crystal under arm deodorant) as soon as I felt a pimple coming up I would rub the crystal on the spot and it would never come up.

about 5 years, said...

Clear explanations of practices which are damaging to the skin

about 5 years, said...

A dab of toothpase will dry up a zit in a hurry!

over 5 years, said...

Not because of the content, but as a man I don't have sensitive skin problems, really of any kind. Living in a country with dry air some 300 out of the full 365, I suppose the skin and its undergrowth has adapted to so-called harsher conditions. The object of washing should be mandatory no matter who or what. Skin trouble I had as a teenager, with the advice that with maturity, these would resolve themselves, as they did. I do feel that as healthy a diet as you can maintain does much from the inside to maintain a better, perhaps best, outside. Common sense maybe, but like all common sense there are levels of application!

over 5 years, said...

I too would like to know what to do with the crushed aspirin dissolved in water. Re favorite mild soap: I've used Cetaphil lotion for years, and Costco babywipes. I saw a dermatologist a few years ago that said Cetaphil is the "gold standard".( It was another dermatologist who recommended it years ago, because I have a tendency to be sensitive to soaps & cosmetics and had some sort of rash or itch at the time.) She also thought that baby wipes were great.Her recommendation: Find a sunscreen you like and use it, and "if the spirit moves you, get a neck lift some time". Cetaphil also makes a bar soap which I like to use in the shower. I read somewhere that the lotion is better for your face than the bar soap, but I can't say I have an opinion on that. I don't use a washcloth on my face because it is too irritating, but I like Neutrogena's "blackhead eliminating" scrub--I picked it because it has salycilic acid and it doesn't seem to irritate my skin. When I was having regular facials the estheticians didn't like this particular dermatologist because they wanted to sell the fancy stuff, but the last facial I had the esthetician said that she didn't find much of anything to "do" (meaning pore extractions). BTW if anyone wonders, I'm 65 and have some old acne scars from my adolescence, and I think my pores are conspicuous, but people are always telling me my skin looks good. Years ago my esthetician told me that it looks good because I don't smoke or drink. These are killer on your skin. Also good nutrition & exercise help me to look healthy I think.

almost 6 years, said...

Learning that I really must be aware of how effectively my hands " carry " contaminants to my face, and thus becoming more aware of the value of hand washing. Also, it was reassuring to find that my habit of washing my face exactly twice a day ( first thing in the morning, and last thing at night just before bed ) is in fact recommended!

almost 6 years, said...

Thanks for the info.

almost 6 years, said...

it helped me to consider my way of looking for skin habits

almost 6 years, said...

I am a skin care specialist and the information presented will aid me during conversations on taking care of the largest organ GOD has provided us with

almost 6 years, said...

Very helpful:

almost 6 years, said...

Thanks, Chocola for suggesting "Dove and Aveeno." I will substitute one of them for my regular soap (Zest) and see if it causes less facial dryness.

almost 6 years, said...

Some common bad habits that can easily be corrected for my skin's gain.

about 6 years, said...

Personaly,I like Dove and Aveno.

about 6 years, said...

Personally,I like Dove and Aveno.

about 6 years, said...

I would be interesting in hearing which "mild" brands of soap are recommended for people with sensitive skin.

about 6 years, said...

GREAT TIps! I've always believed that the dermatology industry is making products where plan soap 'n water are more effective at cleansing the skin. As Paula suggests wash the face once in the morning and once before going to bed with warm soapy water. What I didn't know is the aspirin technique when getting a pimple. Then again, I'm waaaay beyond my teen years.

about 6 years, said...

Great rules to adhere to when when using a daily skin regime

about 6 years, said...

The article doesn't say what to do with the aspirin after you crush it in water. Do you put it on your skin and leave it, wash it off or drink it?

about 6 years, said...

I didn't know that retinoids and glycolic acids cancel each other out. So the reason Renova didn't work for me was because I was using both at the same time. I'm so glad to learn this.