May, not April, could actually be the cruelest month: The first glimpse of ashen skin, blue veins, callused feet, and unexpected hairs can make you feel as though the body is thoroughly unprepared. "May is really the month of self-discovery," says Ranella Hirsch, a dermatologist at Boston University Medical Center.
What's more, the change of season can prompt a whole new set of issues. "It may be instantly hot and humid, so on top of all your dry skin, you're suddenly having oiliness and acne, or even an allergy that starts in the spring with the first burst of sun exposure," says Audrey Kunin, associate clinical instructor of dermatology at the University of Kansas School of Medicine.
Fortunately, skin responds well to kindness. The right treatments are new sources of hope — something that spring manages to inspire even in the wasteland.
Your skin resembles your alligator bag
"The two keys are moisturization and things that make the skin glow, such as exfoliation," says Jeffrey Dover, associate clinical professor of dermatology at Yale University School of Medicine. Start with a shower rubdown, using a moisturizing body cleanser on a clean washcloth. Don't bother scrubbing your legs if you already use a razor, since shaving removes dead skin on its own. Tempting though it may be to follow this kind of body exfoliation with a heavy cream, it's an unwise move (except on your freshly shaved legs) because in warm weather, even slight perspiration can leave skin dripping. You can avoid the issue completely by applying a soothing cream at night. Otherwise, any light lotion that contains glycolic, alpha hydroxy, or fruit acid will quickly restore vibrance to dead-looking skin, says Dover. (Alyria Resurfacing Body Care lotion contains time-released glycolic acid to reduce irritation.)
For more intense exfoliation on the arms and chest, the microdermabrasion treatment Vibraderm, available at many dermatology offices, uses a vibrating paddle rather than abrasive particles or suction, and was shown in a company-sponsored study to remove over 75 percent of the skin's outermost layer on those areas in less than 10 minutes.
Your arms deserve a penalty for unnecessary roughness
The likely culprit is keratosis pilaris, a genetic condition that can resemble goose bumps (they tend to be white or red), and appears on the arms, legs, or buttocks of about half of all women. "Extra skin cells build up around individual hair follicles, giving you a bumpy texture and a polka-dotted appearance," says Kunin. Though there's no cure, a daily moisturizer containing urea, glycolic, or lactic acid can soften the bumps; Dover is partial to AmLactin, a lactic acid cream, while Kunin's Dermadoctor KP Duty also has a strong following. A body scrub can wear down the bumps even more, but dermatologists preach moderation, since overscrubbing can cause extra redness and inflammation. "Natural particles — crushed seeds or nut shells — have jagged edges that can injure the skin," says Kunin. Synthetic microbeads, on the other hand, are less likely to tear skin. For an instant improvement, apply a shimmery cream to refract light.
Your knees and elbows have faded to gray
"The skin in these areas is some of the driest on our bodies, and so it can take on a cracked, whitish, or grayish appearance — especially on olive or darker skin," says Jeanine Downie, assistant attending dermatologist at Mountainside Hospital in Montclair, New Jersey, and co-author of "Beautiful Skin of Color" (Regan Books/HarperCollins). The best fix is a potent daily moisturizing cream, such as AmLactin or Salex (by prescription), or even petroleum jelly on the elbows and knees once a week before bed. "Trim the toes off a tube sock, and shimmy it up the arm so the Vaseline stays in contact with your skin instead of wiping off on your sheets," Downie says. Scrubbing, scratching, picking, or even leaning on knees or elbows can exacerbate ashiness. So, too, can sun exposure. "When the background skin gets darker, the ashy skin on top stands out more," says Downie, who recommends "constant" use of SPF 30 (or higher) sunscreen.
Acne pops up in unexpected — and unpleasant — places
As if the very presence of pimples on your back and rear weren't disturbing enough, the acne there is also most likely to produce a lasting scar. "The skin is thicker, and there are fewer blood vessels, which means slower healing," says Dover. Wash the areas with a benzoyl-peroxide cleanser, such as Peter Thomas Roth Medicated BPO 10% Acne Wash or PanOxyl. But be sure to let any creams or gels sink in fully before dressing because they can bleach some fabrics. You can also consider treatments with a diode laser (like Smooth Beam), photodynamic therapy, Intense Pulsed Dye laser, or blue light, which often help to rid the skin of acne gradually over a few sessions (usually for $250 to $600 each). Aesthera's Isolaz treatment offers the advantage of instant gratification, says Vic Narurkar, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the University of California–Davis School of Medicine. Available in physicians' offices for $250 to $400, Isolaz suctions the skin to unclog pores while delivering broadband light to kill acne-causing bacteria immediately, for results "just like a cortisone injection," he says. Narurkar recently co-authored a study on the device in the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology that found that it reduced all types of acne (including whiteheads and cysts) by 50 percent in a single treatment and by 90 percent with two treatments, and results were usually maintained for three to six months. "We still recommend a series of three to four treatments, as patients will see improvements in pore size reduction, discoloration, and brown spots," he says.
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Your foot calluses are as tough as leather
High heels and pinched shoes may contribute to calluses by causing friction, but Narurkar says the problem can often be alleviated by slipping in a thin insert. One is Foot Petals Tip Toes, a cushion that supports the ball of the foot and is small enough even for open-toe shoes.
To remove existing calluses, take a shower or bath so that skin is soft and pliable, then buff feet with a foot file, a pumice stone, or a pad premoistened with a cleanser, such as Kerasal Callus Removal Cleansing Pads. Follow with a cream containing urea, which "eats away at and loosens up the dead skin cells, and makes the skin really smooth and hydrated," says Kathy Fields, an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the University of California–San Francisco. You can try Curél Targeted Therapy Foot Cream (which smells of coconut, since company research revealed that most women dislike peppermint scents at night, when they're most likely to apply cream). For a stronger treatment, ask your doctor for a prescription cream that contains 6 percent salicylic acid or 40 percent urea.
Your leg veins look like MapQuest
"I don't care if you're a runner; I don’t care if you cross your legs; I don't care if you wear tight everything — 90 percentish of unsightly blood vessels are genetic," says Seth Matarasso, clinical professor of dermatology at the University of California–San Francisco. Women with extraordinary foresight can help prevent visible veins by dutifully wearing support stockings and elevating the feet when possible. For the rest of us, veins can be masked with shimmering lotions, or self-tanner, which minimizes color contrast against fair or medium skin.
No creams exist to treat veins, but you can render them invisible with sclerotherapy, in which a doctor injects a soap or sugar solution into a vessel, irritating it until it closes down. (Blood is harmlessly reabsorbed into deeper channels.) The procedure is by far the most effective for clusters of spider veins and mini varicose veins that are not bumpy, and usually involves no more pain than a few fine needle pricks, although there is usually bruising for about a week. At the recent annual American Academy of Dermatology meeting, information about a new device called the Cynergy was presented. One or two sessions with it are very effective at targeting both smaller spider veins and larger blue veins, says Hirsch, president of the American Society of Cosmetic Dermatology & Aesthetic Surgery. The Cynergy is similarly effective as sclerotherapy, but the latter can be more painful, depending on the dermatologist's experience level with the procedure, she adds.
Your bikini line is dotted with red bumps
The hair here often emerges from the skin only to dive right back down. "The skin thinks the hair is a foreign body like a splinter, and becomes inflamed," says Arielle Kauvar, a clinical associate professor of dermatology at New York University School of Medicine. Kauvar recommends laser hair removal — though it's costly; it usually takes six treatments to achieve 80 percent to 90 percent reduction of hair and thus the majority of ingrowns. Every year or so, a touch-up session may be required to zap resilient strays. Many women prefer to wax the area because skin stays smooth for four to six weeks, and the hair grows back softer and finer. But Kauvar says waxing has the highest incidence of ingrowns because not all of the hairs are cleanly extracted. "The root may coil up under the skin surface when the broken remnant snaps back," she says. To help prevent ingrowns from waxing, Fields suggests washing the area thoroughly with an antibacterial soap the day you wax and the day after, and then applying a cortisone cream to reduce any redness.
Shaving causes fewer bumps and ingrowns as long as it is done properly, which means shaving with a liquid antibacterial soap and a new razor: "An old, draggy blade can implant bacteria in the skin and cause inflammation," Fields says. (Save depilatories for elsewhere on the body; they dissolve the hair just under the pore, leaving it very short, and "ingrown hairs are more common if the hair is less than a quarter inch in length," Kunin says.)
But no matter what method you used, if the bumps have already appeared, work a scrub onto the outer bikini area to help exfoliate clogged, inflamed pores (use your hands, not a loofah, which can irritate skin or transfer bacteria, making ingrowns worse), and spot-treat ingrowns with a benzoyl peroxide foam or gel (one is DDF Benzoyl Peroxide Gel). And avoid shaving over the area, since that can irritate skin further.
Stretch is fine for yoga, but not for your skin
When the skin is pulled during pregnancy or weight gain, "the collagen and elastin fibers in the middle and deeper layers of the skin literally get stretched and probably torn," says Dover. "Microscopically," says Kauvar, "there is no difference between a stretch mark and a scar." Most creams are useless in preventing these scars from forming, but Narurkar is convinced that the cult eye cream Relastin, which contains antioxidants, moisturizers, and a zinc compound, can help by ramping up elastin production in the skin. Likewise, a prescription retinoid applied daily for six months has been shown to shorten and fade pink stretch marks in about 80 percent of women. Lasers that target redness also can drain the color from an early stretch mark. But once the marks have taken on a silvery color, pulsed dye lasers and fractional lasers are two of the few things known to help. Multiple sessions may fade marks by about half in some people, Dover says.
Your legs feel stubbly just hours after shaving
The 70 percent of women who are faithful razor users, according to a Schick survey, can eke out an extra half millimeter or so of closeness simply by using a good shaving gel or cream, says Fields. Follow it with a moisturizer that contains a soy extract to slow down hair regrowth and a self-tanner, such as Aveeno Continuous Radiance Moisturizing Lotion, to decrease the contrast between skin and dark hairs.
Laser hair removal helps prevent many follicles from growing new hair. But those who don't want to undergo the recommended four to six sessions have at-home options. Gillette is launching an Intense Pulsed Light (IPL) laser later this year. That and the Tria, a recently approved laser to be sold in doctors’ offices beginning this month, both "have clinical studies and will slowly remove hair with time and maintenance," says Fields. A third option is the No! No!, a device that uses a heated wire instead of a laser to singe hair on contact and reduce hair growth over the long term.
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Stubble on George Clooney? Sexy. On your underarms? No.
A fresh razor blade can make all the difference. "Many people let the same damn razor sit in the bathroom for days, weeks, months," Fields says. "To get a really clean shave, it should be a new blade, so go to Costco and buy them in bulk. Shave once with it, and throw it away." Hang a nonfog mirror in the shower so you can see any missed spots. The closest shave comes from drawing the razor against the direction of growth, says Kauvar, which usually means shaving upward on the underarms. (Though this can cause irritation and ingrowns.) A twice-daily layer of the prescription hair-minimizing cream Vaniqua will slow growth further, but Hirsch has just three words for those with a truly relentless stubble: "Laser, laser, laser." Four to six treatments are standard, but many underarm-specific patients are happy sooner than that. Again, although the results are unlikely to be permanent, "most people get an excellent response after three treatments, because the hair that does come back comes back finer" and can easily be cleaned up with the occasional swipe of a razor, Kauvar says.