Summer Itch and Heat: Skin Tips from the Dermatologists

Bodewell Editor | July 21, 2020

Caring for eczema and sensitive skin during the hottest months of the year can be a challenge. We asked dermatologists from our medical board for their advice on this hot topic.

From left: Dr. Peter Lio, Dr. Smita Aggarwal.

Most people typically think of eczema as being worse during the winter, when the weather is colder and more dry. But summer can also be unbearable for those suffering with inflammatory skin conditions. 

The unique combination of heat, humidity, and sweat make for a perfect storm of itchiness and irritation — and those aren’t the only skin triggers you have to worry about. Seasonal allergens and an abundance of pollen in the atmosphere can make conditions worse, as can the products we use during the hotter months, such as sunscreen and insect repellant. 

“Typically, patients with eczema will learn early on if their skin tends to flare during a particular season. There isn’t unfortunately a way of predicting that in advance, but the pattern does typically tend to repeat itself over the years and they know which season gives them the most trouble,” Dr. Smita Aggarwal, a board-certified dermatologist and pediatric dermatologist, tells Bodewell.

Alongside Dr. Peter Lio, a fellow board-certified dermatologist and clinical assistant professor of dermatology and pediatrics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, the pair of doctors work at the Medical Dermatology Associates of Chicago, specializing in integrative dermatology with a focus on both alternative medicine and traditional, pharmaceutical treatments. Both doctors are accustomed to seeing an influx of eczema patients during the summer months, with flares often located in “body fold areas'' such as the neck, elbow, and knee creases. It’s also not uncommon for patients’ scalps and faces to be affected during hot weather, says Dr. Lio, noting that they are often “related to the overgrowth of a yeast called malassezia.”

 

Keeping Cool

Coping through the summer can be challenging for eczema sufferers, largely because heat and humidity can be hard to escape. When it’s hot, blood flow increases to the skin, leading you not only to sweat, but also to itch and potentially develop a rash. Anyone can suffer from this, not just someone with eczema or sensitive skin, but the results can be particularly brutal for those with pre-existing conditions. 

Because of this, Dr. Aggarwal encourages her patients to rinse off immediately after working out or spending time outdoors, so that the sweat is removed before it irritates the skin. Even something as simple as wearing lightweight, breathable, and moisture-wicking fabrics during hotter months can be a useful trick for managing eczema and preventing sweat from pooling and collecting in skin creases. 

“Keeping the skin cool can really help,” explains Dr. Lio. “If possible, a nice cool bedroom at night helps with sleep, and during the day, using a mineral water spray can help cool the skin when it feels hot and itchy.”

He also advises using wet wraps — “garments or dressings dampened with water” — on the skin to both sooth it and keep it cool. 

 

Taking a Dip

For most of us, arguably one of the best parts about the summer months is swimming. Few things rival the pleasure of taking a refreshing dip on a hot day in a pool, ocean, river, or lake. Luckily, this is not something most eczema sufferers need to abstain from. Though it can be triggering, in both doctors’ experiences, sensitive skin can tolerate swimming so long as precautions and post-treatments are followed. 

“We find that many people can comfortably swim,” explains Dr. Lio. “Rarely, swimming makes things bad no matter what we do. Some patients need to skip the swimming, sadly, until the skin is a bit better, but most are able to find a balance — and some even improve with swimming!”

In order to ensure that skin recovers favorably after a dip, the doctors recommend rinsing off in tap water immediately. This should be followed by application of a lightweight moisturizer (such as Bodewell’s Light Serum) to prevent irritants, like pool chemicals or ocean salt, from sinking into the skin. 

In fact, this tip can also be reversed. Especially before jumping into the ocean, which can sting the skin due its salt content, consider applying an oil or thick ointment ahead of time to create a protective seal over the skin. Though you should never push yourself to stay in the water if it hurts, creating this barrier between your skin and the water — whether you do that with an ointment or simply by wearing a pair of pants or a long sleeved shirt — can help reduce discomfort and prevent later flare ups. 

Products that are petrolatum-based, such as Vaseline or Bodewell’s Super Cream, are excellent for sealing the skin, as they are creamy and non-drying. Though some people choose to steer clear of petrolatum-based products because it is a byproduct of petroleum, most dermatologists consider it one of the most effective ingredients on the market. A tremendous number of studies have shown that petrolatum is not only “extremely well-tolerated” by most skin types, but it’s also beneficial for protecting against infection, facilitating wound healing, and increasing lipid production in the skin.

“Most dermatologists I know are quite comfortable with using petroleum products on the skin,” Dr. Lio explains, “and some even chide dermatologists for recommending non-petroleum products which are often many times more expensive and less effective.”

 

Hydrating Your Skin

With so much heat, humidity, and environmental irritants occurring in the summer, moisturizing is key to preserving healthy skin. There are myriad options to choose from and most of it comes down to personal preference — but both doctors recommend Bodewell’s line of products as a good starting point. 

“Bodewell has sought to marry the best of nature with the best of science,” Dr. Lio says. “I really appreciate how the line has been curated and honed, rather than having 12,000 different niche products. They have found a winning set of ingredients and feature them in their core products.”

Here are some other pointers the doctors suggest keeping in mind when choosing a hydrating product:

    • Heavier is always better: Ointments (particularly ones containing petrolatum or silicone) are the thickest and longest-lasting. Creams are an intermediate level, while lotions are the thinnest and fastest drying.
    • Look at the ingredients: The fewer chemicals and preservatives in a product, the better. They will be less likely to irritate or dry out your skin. 
    • Avoid fragrances: Scents can sting, irritate, or cause allergic reactions making “unscented” products the safest option. 

 

Avoiding Burns

No article about managing eczema during the summer would be complete without addressing the sun and how to protect your skin from it. Though dermatologists are known for lecturing patients about the importance of wearing sunscreen, both Dr. Lio and Dr. Aggarwal are ambivalent about advising patients with eczema to use it. 

It’s “a tricky area,” Dr. Aggarwal says, “because anything that goes on the skin could potentially be a trigger on sensitive skin.” 

Dr. Lio echoes this belief. 

“Perhaps surprisingly, I’m less excited about sunscreen than some of my dermatology colleagues,” he says. “In my experience, while some apply it correctly, many people use far too little and re-apply it far too infrequently such that it is actually the worst of both worlds: The sunscreen creates a false sense of security and people actually wind up getting more sun sometimes.” 

If you must use sunscreen, take caution and only use ones that are mineral based and contain natural ingredients like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Dr. Lio recommends Coola’s Baby Organic Mineral Sunscreen Moisturizer SPF 50, All Good Products’ Kid’s Mineral Sunscreen Butter Stick SPF 50, and Badger’s Baby Sunscreen SPF 30. The Bodewell team is a fan of Super Goop’s Unscreen Sunscreen SPF 40

According to the doctors, it’s best to use a mineral-based sunscreen because chemical ones — especially those with oxybenzone — can irritate the skin and even lead to allergic reactions with long-term, repeated use. Lotion-based sunscreens tend to be the safest, as well, with spray-on and stick options often containing unnecessary additives and aerosolized particles that can irritate airway passages, particularly for those who have asthma. 

And remember, sunscreen isn’t the only way to protect your skin from the sun. Wearing ultraviolet protection factor (or UPF) clothing and wide-brim hats can also help, as can using umbrellas and shade tents. Tailoring your activities to avoid being outdoors during the sun’s peak hours can make a world of difference for your skin, as well. 

And remember: You don’t need to avoid the sun entirely. Some patients actually see their eczema improve with a little bit of natural light because the sun’s anti-inflammatory properties can be both soothing and regenerating. 

Overall, the most important thing to remember when it comes to coping with eczema during the summer is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for everyone. Eczema is highly unpredictable and what triggers your skin might not necessarily trigger another person’s. You will just have to experiment with your body to see what works — and what doesn’t. 

“It’s important not to get discouraged,” Dr. Lio reminds us. “There are many things that can trigger a flare up. … We can’t really test for them all, so some of the sleuthing needs to be done by trial-and-error and seeing how the skin responds.”