As a New York City dermatologist, I see all manner of skin problems walk into my office. And while my job is to help my patients to fix those issues, a big part of that is also deducing why they are happening. Think of it as skin care forensic science—I’m investigating the clues to solve the complexion crimes that got you into trouble in the first place.
With that in mind, here are the 10 most common skin care mistakes to avoid if you want to keep your skin on the right side of the (beauty) law.
Wear sunscreen whenever you are in the sun—no matter how long that may be.
The biggest anti-aging tip any dermatologist will give you is a preventative one: Protect yourself from the sun. But people tend to think if they aren’t going to be staying out in the sun, they don’t need to apply it. Like the suburban mom, driving around town on errands, or the office worker grabbing lunch and a breath of fresh air—they don’t plan on spending extended periods of time outside, so they don’t think to wear SPF. The thing about your skin is it doesn’t care how long you are in the sun—any exposure, no matter the length of time, is still damage. Five minutes here, 10 minutes there—it all adds up the same.
Think of it this way: If you spend 30 minutes a day in the sun without protection, over the course of the summer, that is the damage equivalent to spending two full days in the sun. Keep your skin covered while you’re out and about by using a moisturizer with SPF — it’s an easy way to work sun protection into your daily routine.
Apply your sunscreen before you are in the sun.
If you are already wearing sunscreen on a daily basis, then you are one step ahead of the game. However, there’s more to it than that—if you aren’t applying it right, you could still be putting your skin in harm’s way. A big mistake I see is people who wait to apply their SPF until they are already in the sun. Your skin isn’t fully protected until the sunscreen has had a chance to settle and become active. In order to make sure you have the full strength of that SPF working for you, apply it 10-15 minutes before you plan to go outside. Remember to protect often overlooked areas like your ears and lips. Also, classically neglected is the top of your forehead adjacent to the hairline because people fear messing up their hair if sunscreen is applied there. Due to this neglect, the top of the forehead is where I see an epidemic of pre-cancers, skin cancers and sunspots in my practice.
Take your makeup off before you go to bed.
There have been a lot of advancements in makeup formulas recently to make them more lightweight. However, this doesn’t mean they are any better to keep on overnight. Makeup is not meant to be worn to bed because, no matter how it feels on your skin, it will still clog your pores. When we sleep, our skin secretes oil—much more than we produce during the day. If that oil can’t get out because it is covered by makeup, it will build up in your pores and cause them to appear larger and can even lead to breakouts. Take the time at night to quickly wash it off and stop waking up to bad skin surprises.
If you have problem skin, only use oil-free products.
Speaking of oil, those who have breakout-prone skin need to be sure all of the products they use are oil-free. Your skin already has enough oil—adding more will only aggravate your condition. Be sure products explicitly say oil-free on the label; it’s the only way to guarantee they don’t contain any it. Hyaluronic acid is a great oil-free ingredient that internally hydrates the skin and is my recommendation for any complexion challenge.
Your skin care products aren’t the only culprits of breakouts.
Just as you have to be aware of what you put on your face, you also need to pay attention to your hair products. With many patients, I see breakouts on their foreheads and, in cases where those blemishes and blackheads occur only in that area, the cause is often their hair products. Creams, gels and waxes applied to your hair can wind up on your face, clogging pores and causing blackheads. If you’re experiencing forehead breakouts, try switching out your usual styling products for oil-free ones. Ask your hair stylist to suggest another product and you probably won’t notice a difference in your hair.
Large pores aren’t always caused by dirt and oil.
When we talk about large pores, we usually blame clogs caused by oil, dirt, and makeup. However, there is another cause that’s not as commonly talked about: Aging. As we get older, collagen (the firming protein in the skin) diminishes around that pore. Because those fibers are no longer tight, the pore opens up and appears bigger. And no amount of scrubbing, washing, or declogging ingredients will have an effect on them if collagen loss is the cause. Instead, look for ingredients like vitamin C and peptides—used in conjunction with peels—to strengthen the collagen fibers and keep pores small. For the same reason lasers that firm the skin by stimulating collagen also reduce pore size!
Use a shaving cream to get smoother, softer legs every time you shave.
If you find yourself sporting nicks, cuts, or ingrown hairs after you shave, it’s most likely because you’re skipping a very important step. Shaving cream helps your razor glide over the skin, meaning you don’t have to press down hard on it. The less pressure you put on the razor, the less injury it’s going to cause. Shaving cream—or soap or even conditioner—will also soften the hair, making it easier to cut and in turn lead to a closer, longer-lasting shave. Here’s the golden rule when shaving the legs: You’re better off gently gliding the blade 10 times over an area in multiple direction, rather once or twice while pressing firmly.
Protect dry lips from toothpaste.
When your lips are dry and cracked, even the simplest of grooming habits can aggravate them. Take brushing your teeth: Most toothpaste is made with some type of minty derivative that can hurt dry lips. To avoid this, I tell my patients to coat their lips with Vaseline before they brush. It creates a protective barrier that minimizes irritation and keeps lips safe from further harm and lets them recover faster.
Over-plucking your eyebrows can result in permanent hair loss.
Many women tell me that they regret over-plucking their brows in their youth. That’s because constant plucking causes hairs to eventually stop growing. Plucking traumatizes the hair follicle, causing the hair shaft to come back thinner and thinner until it stops entirely. Meaning, once it’s gone, it’s gone for good. If you want to change your brow shape permanently, that might not be a problem for you. However, it’s important to remember that as you age, it’s natural for brow hair to thin out as we get older. Keep that in mind before you pick up those tweezers.
Always take your moisturizer off before exercising.
Hydrating is an essential step for healthy skin, but there is one time when moisturizer can actually harm it: at the gym. When you exercise, your skin releases perspiration, but if you’ve applied a cream prior to your workout, that sweat gets trapped and can cause heat rash or even breakouts. Whatever your exercise of choice, make sure you wash your face and chest before you work up a sweat. This bad habit has caused some of the more difficult acne conditions I’ve treated.
If you want to get to the bottom of your most annoying skin issues, there’s no need to play detective. Just remember these 10 classic mistakes and you’ll have all the clues you need to solve your biggest complexion mysteries. Sometimes prevention only requires a little knowledge!
Board-certified dermatologist, dermatological surgeon and native New Yorker, Dennis Gross, M.D., founded his NYC practice in 1990 following extensive research at prestigious institutes, including Memorial Sloan-Kettering. He and his skin care expertise have been featured in publications including The New York Times Magazine, Elle, Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. Find him on Instagram at @dennisgrossmd or www.dennisgrossmd.com.