When it comes to your skin, it’s pretty much inevitable that you’ll be spending some time under the sun, regardless of the time of year. While, of course, it’s important to apply — and reapply, and reapply once again — an SPF before heading off to the beach or pool during the summertime, your skin is subject to damage every day, in every season, even if the sun is hiding behind the clouds. Just because it’s cold or overcast outside doesn’t mean that the UV rays that cause skin damage aren’t reaching your skin.
It takes more than just preventative care during the summer months to keep skin healthy. In fact, studies have shown that people tend to skip sun protection when observing lower temperatures and cloud cover, which then results in more burning on cooler days. The solution, of course, is to wear sunscreen year-round. But applying sunscreen isn’t the only way you should be treating our skin for sun damage. After-sun care is also incredibly important.
To help better understand the best after-sun care regimens, NYLON chatted with a few experts about how to best care for the body’s largest organ after a day of soaking up the sun’s rays — whether those rays blessed you with a slight tan, gnarly case of sunburn, or seemingly nothing at all.
The Effects Of The Sun
First things first, what actually happens after you spend a day under the sun? While you may be thinking you just got a bit more bronze, there’s actually a lot more going down. “The barrier function of the epidermis — or the top layer — of the skin has been compromised and is, in effect, leaking moisture,” says Dr. Francesca Fusco, M.D., of Wexler Dermatology. The more tan (or burned) the skin gets, the more hydration it loses.
When it comes to sunburn, the effects are more severe than you might expect. While Dr. Fusco explains that mild sunburn can result in premature aging — effects that we won’t see until much later — the aftermath of more severe burns is much more serious. Aside from an increased risk of skin cancer, Dr. Melanie Palm, M.D., dermatologist and founder of Art Of Skin MD, explains, “Severe burns can cause dehydration, fever, and systemic symptoms that often require intravenous fluids, pain control, and care of blistering wounds — meaning it may require admittance into the hospital for observation and treatment.”
As long as you properly protect yourself in the sun, you can avoid doing any serious damage. But, as stated earlier, your skin will still require a little bit of TLC afterward, even if you layered on the SPF. Damage can take place hours after exposure, Dominique Caron, founder of Apoterra Skincare, explains: “A little-known fact is that free radicals continue to do damage hours after sun exposure, so applying after-sun products at night is a great idea.”
After-Sun Skin Care
So, where to begin when it comes to giving yourself a little post-sun love? Well, number one, it’s important to stay hydrated. While there are plenty of hydrating products on the market, your best option is to hydrate from within, and Dr. Anthony Rossi, M.D., dermatologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Westchester, recommends to drink up!
The most popular after-sun skin care ingredient would have to be aloe vera. Dr. Rossi highly recommends it, not only for its cooling and moisturizing effects, but also for its anti-inflammatory properties. A 2017 study published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology suggests that high doses of oral vitamin D after a sunburn could reduce inflammation and the effects of the burn. “However, more studies are needed to confirm this, as not everyone may be able to take high doses of vitamin D,” he says. There are plenty of topical products that contain the vitamin in the meantime. When it comes to moisturizing, you’ll want to opt for a thick, creamy formula. “Go for creams as opposed to moisturizers, and look for products containing ceramides, lanolins, and oat,” says Dr. Fusco.
For those who prefer a more natural regimen, Caron recommends vitamin C, chamomile, and green tea. Vitamin C is a potent antioxidant that not only prevents further damage from UVA and UVB rays but also helps promote collagen production — making it a powerful anti-aging ingredient. As for green tea and chamomile? These are also powerful antioxidants with anti-inflammatory properties. When it comes to these herbs, you can choose products such as hydrosols or those that contain heavily diluted essential oils, or you can go the DIY route and create your new beauty routine at home.
If DIY is more your thing, Palm also suggests slathering on a homemade yogurt mask (complete with cucumber slices over your eyes) or taking a colloidal oatmeal bath to both cool down and soothe your skin. Both Caron and dermatologist Dr. Michele Green, M.D., like to use freshly brewed (but, of course, cooled down) tea as either a compress or a spray. “The tannic draws the heat out while soothing the skin,” says Dr. Green.
Things To Avoid
Naturally, when it comes to after-sun skin care, there are a number of products and ingredients you’ll want to avoid. First and foremost, Dr. Alan Dattner, M.D., of Holistic Dermatology, recommends staying away from anything that’s too gritty, as it can be too abrasive for sun-damaged skin. Additionally, anything that’s too strong or drying could irritate the skin after a day in the sun. Dr. Fusco recommends steering clear of ingredients like retinoic acid, AHAs, glycolic acids, benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, and other acne-fighting products that can dry out the skin.
However, some after-sun skin no-nos are less obvious than others. Even though we love them for their natural range of benefits, Dr. Dattner also recommends avoiding pure essential oils (or at least making sure they’re heavily diluted), as they can potentially irritate the skin. And while one may think it would be healing and moisturizing, Dr. Green warns strongly against using petrolatum (aka petroleum jelly), as it has the potential to trap the heat in your skin — which would be extremely uncomfortable for anyone with sunburn.
We know, we know — it’s a lot of information to take in. To make things easier, we rounded up 17 foolproof products that will help soothe, heal, and hydrate your skin after a day in the sun. These products contain one or more expert-recommended ingredients and don’t include any of the bad stuff. Check ‘em out below.
We only include products that have been independently selected by NYLON’s editorial team. However, we may receive a portion of sales if you purchase a product through a link in this article.
Andersen, P. A., Buller, D. B., Walkosz, B. J., Scott, M. D., Maloy, J. A., Cutter, G. R., & Dignan, M. D. (2010). Environmental cues to UV radiation and personal sun protection in outdoor winter recreation. Archives of dermatology, 146(11), 1241–1247. https://doi.org/10.1001/archdermatol.2010.327
Case Western Reserve University. (2017). Vitamin D may improve sunburn, according to new clinical trial: Results show high doses of vitamin D reduce swelling, inflammation. ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/07/170706125020.htm
Francesca Fusco, M.D., dermatologist at Wexler Dermatology
Melanie Palm, M.D., dermatologist and founder of Art Of Skin MD
Dominique Caron, founder of Apoterra Skincare
Anthony Rossi, M.D., dermatologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Westchester
Michele Green, M.D., dermatologist and RealSelf contributor
Alan Dattner, M.D., dermatologist and founder of Holistic Dermatology
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