Image: Taking care of your legs
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An ordinary zit cream that contains 2 percent salicylic acid can minimize redness, swelling and bacteria caused by ingrown hairs.
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updated 10/16/2009 11:25:35 AM ET 2009-10-16T15:25:35

Nature isn't always a bed of roses. In our natural state, humans are hairy, sweaty creatures for whom scars are evidence of the body healing itself and calluses merely protection from wear. These mechanisms are a marvel, but sometimes they make it hard to love the skin we're in — especially when freaking 95 percent of it is on display in a bikini. “Embarrassment over body issues is universal,” says Amy Wechsler, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in New York City. “If anything draws negative attention to our bodies, we feel insecure and exposed — but it helps to know we're not alone.” You know what helps more? Easy, painless solutions to persistent skin problems that don't involve elaborate sarong-tying techniques. We asked top experts how to deal with the most embarrassing body issues we could think of ... so you don't have to.

Q: The hair on my bikini area isn't long enough for waxing, but I'm going away for the weekend and will be in a swimsuit. Is shaving — or shorts — the only option I have?

A: We've become enamored with Smooth Away hair-removal pads. They're a little labor-intensive for everyday use, but perfect for touching up small spots — you just rub the pad in a circular motion on the stubbly area until the hair is buffed away.

If you have to bust out the emergency razor, a few key techniques will minimize irritation. Shave at the end of your shower, when the warm water has had time to soften things up, and abandon any perfectionist tendencies. “If you tend to get really bad bumps, you need to shave less closely,” says Alexa Boer Kimball, associate professor of dermatology at Harvard Medical School. To do so, shave with the grain of the hair growth, and don't pull skin taut. And slick on a little hair conditioner first. Unlike shaving cream, “conditioner lowers the hair's pH and smooths its cuticle, making it less brittle and apt to break,” says Jeannette Graf, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City.

Q: OK, I shaved properly … and I still got a few ingrown hairs. Now what do I do?

A: The truth is, no matter how good your technique or how sharp your razor, as the hair regrows, the point at the tip can grow into the skin, causing ingrowns. (Same goes for waxing — hairs that aren't removed at the root can curl under the skin.) To minimize redness, swelling, and bacteria, use an ordinary zit cream that contains 2 percent salicylic acid. “Gel formulas adhere to hair-bearing areas better than creams, and go on clear so you're not left with a white film,” Graf says. (Try Neutrogena Rapid Clear Acne Eliminating Spot Gel or Bliss Change Your Spots Overnight Acne Treatment Gel.) If you have sensitive skin, salicylic acid could be irritating; instead, try Neosporin or Bacitracin.

Q: Am I doomed to have purplish spider veins on my legs forever? They look so terrible.

A: These veins don't spontaneously heal on their own. However, “99 percent of spider veins and small varicose veins can be cleared with sclerotherapy — an injection of salt solution,” says Jeffrey Dover, associate clinical professor of dermatology at Yale University School of Medicine and author of “The Youth Equation” (Wiley).

Q: I've had cellulite on my thighs for years. If I lose weight, is there any chance I'll lose that cellulite?

A: Unlikely. “It's not about being skinny or fat,” says Ranella Hirsch, clinical assistant professor of dermatology at Boston University Medical Center. The good news is that the most cost-effective (albeit temporary) results still come from creams. “I can attest to the short-term magic of caffeine-containing gels for minimizing the appearance of cellulite, though results last only a couple of hours,” says Hirsch. (Try Clarins High Definition Body Lift or Glytone Lipo-Lift Massage Kit.) Graf recommends caffeine gel in the morning and a cream with peptides or retinol at night, which can help fill the dimples over time by revving up collagen production. (Try Elizabeth Arden Prevage Body Anti-aging Moisturizer or Vaseline Renewal Age-Redefining Body Lotion.)

A little self-tanner can also go a long way toward making your skin at least look smoother. Meredith Baraf, makeup artist to Victoria's Secret models, says, “Smooth on a gradual formula, hitting lumpy spots first, so they get the greatest dose of cream and a slightly deeper tan.” Once that layer dries, apply a tanning spray evenly to intensify the color.

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Q: I just cut my leg yesterday, and I really don't want it to scar. What can I do to prevent this?

A: “Keeping the area clean and well-greased is an important part of minimizing scarring,” says Rhoda S. Narins, clinical professor of dermatology at New York University Medical School. Dab it twice daily with Aquaphor or prescription Biafine lotion; the latter, says Hirsch, “recruits more white blood cells that repair damage to the wound, while keeping it moist.”

Once the skin has healed — usually two to three weeks after an injury — nonprescription Mederma gel, applied three times a day for ten weeks, can reduce the scar's redness, according to a study in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology. The gel contains onion extract, which is believed to have natural antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. To prevent the sun from undoing your efforts and darkening the scar, keep it covered whenever possible and wear an SPF of at least 30 every day.

Q: I have a white scar on my knee that's been there for a while. What can I do to get rid of it?

A: If the scar is raised, a series of cortisone injections could deflate it in about two weeks. Kelo-cote, a silicone gel available at drugstores, can also help flatten raised scars. This new rub-on gel is “remarkably effective when worn daily for about two to three months,” says James Spencer, associate professor of clinical dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, who recently studied it.

There's not much you can do to fade a flat scar — but you can hide it. After swiping the scarred area with toner to remove oils, apply a highly pigmented, oil-free concealer, like Laura Mercier Secret Camouflage. Use a synthetic-bristle brush, which “lets you build coverage better than fingers or a sponge,” says makeup artist Morgen Schick DeMann, and blend the color so it fades into the surrounding skin. If your scar is extra-smooth and shiny, pat a dry sponge over the concealer to give the scar a more realistic texture, suggests Schick DeMann. Then dust on translucent powder to set the makeup.

Q: I used to think a big, red zit on my nose was bad — but the ones on my shoulders and back are more embarrassing. Can I treat them with my facial zit creams?

A: The salicylic acid treatments and wipes you use on your face work well on the body, too, but avoid ones with benzoyl peroxide, since it can bleach clothing (if you only have benzoyl peroxide products, wear an old white T-shirt to bed to protect your sheets). Kimball also recommends medicated body washes, since “the back can be difficult to treat, simply because it's hard to reach.” (Try Neutrogena Acne Power-Cream Body Wash.) If you don't see an improvement after two weeks, you may want to consider a series of acne-laser treatments. “We have wonderful success with the Isolaz laser,” says Graf. “In a split second, it expands the pore, vacuums out gunk, and kills bacteria.” Expect to pay $300 to $600 per treatment.

Q: I have little red bumps on the backs of my arms — why don't they ever go away, no matter how much acne cream I slather on?

A: Rough, red bumps that dot the backs of arms and thighs aren't pimples, they're keratosis pilaris — a genetic condition that irks about half of all people. There's no cure, but they are easy to treat (just not with zit creams). Twice a day, slather on a moisturizer with lactic acid or urea, which will dissolve the thickened skin gently as well as moisturize, Graf says. Over the counter, try AmLactin 12% Moisturizing Cream; if that hasn't helped after three weeks, dermatologists recommend prescription Carmol 10 or Lac-Hydrin. And avoid abrasive scrubs, loofahs, and hot showers, which can inflame skin further.

Q: I know the mottled skin on my chest is punishment for sunbathing in my teens, but is there any way to reverse it?

A: The skin on your chest is so thin that, like the hands, it often gives away your age. Mottling typically involves three things: brown sun spots, broken blood vessels, and textural changes, like fine lines and crepey skin. Hydroquinone, which is often used to fade spots on the face, only helps with dark patches, not the vessels, lines, or thinning. All three issues can be addressed at home with prescription retinoids, which encourage cell turnover and collagen production, but be cautious and patient: They can be quite drying to the chest skin, so use them only several times a week, not daily; it takes at least six weeks to start seeing results; and you must be vigilant with daily sunscreen, SPF 30 or higher. If you want faster results, be prepared to spend more. The best option is a few rounds with an Intense Pulsed Light device (around $500 per treatment) or a Q-switched laser (around $750 to $1,000 per treatment).

Q: My calluses make my feet feel like a horse's hooves! How do I smooth them?

A: “Calluses are a protective mechanism the skin invokes when it's rubbed repeatedly,” says Hirsch. “Skin views friction as an injury and responds by getting thicker.” To prevent this, avoid wearing backless or slingback shoes often, says Marlene Reid, a podiatrist in Naperville, Illinois. Once a week, soak feet in warm water and sea salt before sloughing soles with a wet pumice stone, the PedEgg, or a foot scrub. (We like Molton Brown Unwind Island Sand Foot Exfoliator.) Don't use a razor blade or let a pedicurist use one on you — it can cut and harm healthy skin under the thickened area. Hydrate feet nightly with a rich urea cream, which attracts moisture and gently dissolves dead skin. (Try Sally Hansen Salon Pedicure Hydrating Foot Creme.) For really rough feet, Reid prescribes Hydro 40 Foam. If calluses are too severe for scrubs and creams, see a podiatrist to have them safely removed.

Q: I wear antiperspirant every day, but my armpits often feel damp. What can I do?

A: Try one of the clinical-strength formulas available at drugstores, which have a higher percentage of sweat-stopping ingredients, and apply it both morning and night to boost its power. (We like Secret Clinical Strength Waterproof; it contains petrolatum and dimethicone, which form a resistant barrier on the skin.) If that doesn't help, see a doctor — you may have hyperhidrosis, or excessive perspiration. Whether the problem is with your underarms, palms, or soles, the best remedy is Botox, which stops the nerves from signaling glands to release perspiration. According to Patricia Wexler, associate clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, most of her patients who try this get at least nine months of relief from one set of shots in each affected area (around $1,500), but she plans to switch them to Reloxin, a new injection, if it gets FDA approval in the near future. “Reloxin will be a major asset for people with hyperhidrosis, because it works faster, covers larger areas, and lasts longer than Botox,” she says. Another powerful sweat stopper on the horizon is a rub-on nerve blocker that is currently in clinical trials. “It may not be 100 percent effective, but it will give significant relief and be much less expensive and painful than injections,” says Wexler.

Q: Is there any remedy for those nasty white marks on my toenails (besides black polish)?

A: The drying chemicals found in certain nail polishes (formaldehyde, toluene, and dibutyl phthalate) and removers (acetone) may be the culprits. Wechsler suggests going without polish for a month, then choosing products without these chemicals (try polishes by OPI, Sally Hansen, and Barielle, and Essie's Naturally Clean Purifying Nail Polish Remover). In the meantime, buffing can help fade the marks, says manicurist Jin Soon Choi of the Jin Soon Natural Hand & Foot Spas in New York City, who recommends the Kiss Mega Shine Block buffer, since it doesn't weaken nails as other buffers can.

If your toenails are yellow-green and not thickened, you've likely picked up a bacterial infection, which can be cleared by a soaking in white vinegar and water for ten minutes, twice a day. If your yellow nails do seem thicker than normal, your doctor may prescribe an oral antifungal drug, like Lamisil or Sporanox, which takes three months to show results. “Fungus and yeast live deep in the nail bed and usually can't be killed with topical treatments,” says Wechsler. It's fine to polish nails while treating them, and “bright, opaque shades do a good job of concealing embarrassing stains,” says Choi. For safety, dump a packet of Divina Pediclear, with the bleach alternative bromine, into your pedicure water. Says cosmetic chemist Jim Hammer, “It's very effective at killing bacteria and should be nonirritating to skin at the concentrations used.”

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