Why does skin complexion change with the seasons?
- asks M.P. from New York, NY
Our skin makes up a big part of the outer shell we present to the world each day, and we want to keep it happy and healthy-looking. But, like most relationships, the arrangements people develop with their skin are complicated. Our skin isn’t always great at telling us what it needs: even trained professionals have trouble translating its signals of bumps and blotches. And so, we struggle with creams, gels and exfoliating scrubs, trying to achieve perfect dermatological harmony. Then, just when we think we have it figured out, a breakout or a mysterious rash crops up, reminding us that our skin does not have an exclusive relationship with us; it interacts with other factors–mainly, the environment.
Weather, for one, has a huge effect on our skin. When it’s too hot or dry outside, our skin lets us know it. The winter months bring harsh, cold winds that irritate the delicate skin on our face and hands. Winter also brings dry conditions that strip skin of its natural moisture. This dryness can lead to red patches and excess dead skin cells that clog pores, causing acne. According to some skin-care experts, winter is the worst season for acne. It’s unclear whether these breakouts are due to the weather alone, or are an indirect effect of all the lotions we apply to counteract wintry conditions.
For many, summer brings the promise of clear, easy-to-manage skin. The humidity of summer softens skin and brings back the moisture lost in winter. Some people attribute their improved complexions to increased sun exposure, but the American Dermatological Association says there is no evidence to substantiate this claim. In fact, dermatologists advise patients taking acne medication to avoid the sun’s rays when possible, as many of these drugs increase sensitivity to ultraviolet radiation, which can lead to skin cancer.
Moreover, not everyone says summer helps their skin. Acne has the potential to get worse as the weather gets hotter. There are several explanations for why this happens. For one, excess heat and humidity increase sweat production, which means more oil available to clog pores. Also, summer activities – such as hanging out in swimming pools – can have negative effects on our skin. Chlorinated chemicals can cause a particularly bad form of acne called chloracne. Additionally, sunscreens, while great for protecting users from UV rays, can aggravate the skin, which is why many dermatologists recommend oil-free varieties for patients prone to acne flare-ups.
Extreme heat and humidity can also facilitate bacterial and fungal infections. In the Vietnam War, dermatological problems accounted for 12 percent of outpatient cases, according to one report (pdf). Many of these cases involved bacterial and fungal infections, which the doctors involved blamed on Vietnam’s muggy climate. They reported a high incidence of the bacterial infection impetigo and tinea pedis, a fungal infection more commonly known as athlete’s foot. In addition, numerous soldiers contracted a condition called tropical acne that only occurs in especially hot and humid areas. Tropical acne is a lot like regular acne but much more painful: many of the soldiers who had it were physically unable to carry their backpacks.
Of course, when the temperatures reach all-time highs here in the U.S., we stay inside and crank up the air conditioning. Our skin probably doesn’t like that much either. Both air conditioning and central heating can dry skin out. The struggle to create conditions our skin will find favorable can get frustrating, but what choice do we have? Until researchers come up with a way to prevent our skin from reacting to environmental factors, there is little we can do except cleanse, moisturize and hope for the best.