As summer comes around, and we spend more time soaking up the sunshine outdoors, it’s important to understand how exactly the sun can impact your skin — and your skincare routine. Over the past few years, millions of people have taken a renewed interest in achieving glowy, clear complexions. In 2021, the skincare product market was valued at $115.4 million; it’s projected to reach $213.4 million by 2028.
In turn, massive communities have popped up online to help people design their dream skincare routines. Curious about your celebrity’s skincare regimen? Look no further than YouTube. Need to address a specific issue? Reddit has thousands of threads on skincare. And Tiktok…well, you can find more than what you need to know there.
“Skincare is having a moment right now,” says Dr. Joshua Zeichner, director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital. “Navigating your skincare routine can be extremely complicated because there’s so much conflicting information out there.”
Dermatologists recommend talking to an expert before starting any complex regimens, because combining certain remedies can actually cause more damage than good.
“Usually when spring and summer are starting, we get a lot of questions about sunscreen,” says Dr. Emily Newsom, a UCLA dermatologist. “But I think it’s just as important that we talk about what products can make you more sensitive to the sun.”
Some beloved products, like retinoids, can make your skin more susceptible to damage from UV rays. Below, derms weigh in on which products to be careful with this summer, with some important tips and tricks to avoid damaging your complexion.
Which products can make your skin more sensitive to sun exposure?
Retinoids, which are topical vitamin A treatments, are often considered the holy grail of skincare products. When a patient introduces a retinol concentration into their routine, they may experience redness and peeling. That’s because retinoids target wrinkles, large pores and uneven texture by exfoliating, increasing skin cell turnover and promoting collagen production. “Ingredients like retinol can increase the risk of sunburn by thinning out the outer skin layer,” Zeichner says.
While you should stick to applying retinol at night and lather up on sunscreen the next day, users often tolerate the product better in the summer than in the winter, because the climate often isn’t as dry.
While retinoids are antioxidants, a wide range of exfoliants also “take off the top layer of your skin, which makes it more vulnerable to UV rays,” Newsom adds. Exfoliants range from sweet-smelling sugar scrubs to chemical concoctions, which use acids to break down compounds in your skin and increase cell turnover.
Popular chemical exfoliants include alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), which target hyperpigmentation, fine lines and other issues, and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), which primarily target issues like acne.
Glycolic and lactic acids (which are “a little gentler and better tolerated if your skin is sensitive to the retinol,” Newsom says) fall under the umbrella of AHAs. Salicylic acid, a BHA, is one of the most common ingredients used to fight acne; you’ll likely find it in any type of acne spot treatment.
Other common skincare ingredients that can make your skin more sensitive to UV damage include benzoyl peroxide and citrus essential oils.
How can you use these skincare products while also protecting your skin?
Newsom recommends applying a broad-spectrum sunscreen every morning, specifically mineral sunscreens which have zinc oxide or titanium oxide. “They have the best coverage, but they can be a little more white,” she says, which can be noticeably streaky on people with darker skin tones. “There’s also tinted zinc moisturizer that’s a little more elegant.”
The standard sunscreen recommendation is at least SPF 30, but Newsom points out that your level of protection can stem from how much you appy, rather than SPF alone. “It’s a common mistake that people just don’t apply sunscreen thick enough,” she says. “If you put on SPF 60 and you don’t put it on thick enough, you could actually only be getting SPF 30 or less.”
If you still experience skin irritation from the sun while you’re wearing proper sun protection, Newsom recommends backing off the retinol for the time being. Talk to your dermatologist for advice on what could work best for you.
On the flip side, what are some skincare ingredients that can help repair sun damage?
Say you sit out too long and are worried about wrinkles, or you apply retinol at night, then forget your sunscreen in the morning — and can visibly feel the irritation.
While you can’t undo the damage, you “can help minimize and repair” some of it, Zeichner says. “I recommend applying an antioxidant serum that contains vitamin C every morning,” he says. “Vitamin C neutralizes free radicals, also known as environmental toxins, to protect our skin. Vitamin C also blocks production of abnormal pigmentation to lighten dark spots and even skin tone.”
Ziechner and Newsom both warn that patients should vet out the skincare advice they’re taking. “I think it’s great that people are interested in skin and what we do,” Newsom says. But make sure you’re getting your info from a reputable source.”