Some advice about skin care is simply a waste of time
I hear and read so much advice about skin care, and I don’t know what’s true and what’s not. Can you address some common myths about skin care?
You’re right to be skeptical. My patients often tell me that they’ve heard about a way to keep their skin clear and healthy, and often it is simply not true. I’ll debunk some of the most common myths I hear:
• THE RIGHT SKIN CREAM CAN KEEP YOUR SKIN LOOKING YOUNG.
For reducing wrinkles, the treatment with the best evidence behind it is retinoic acid (as in Retin-A) that you apply to your skin. But the best ways to keep wrinkles at bay are using sunscreen and not smoking.
• ANTIBACTERIAL SOAP IS BEST FOR KEEPING YOUR SKIN CLEAN.
It’s unnecessary to keep your skin completely free of bacteria, and impossible to accomplish anyway. There is no evidence that antibacterial soap cleans better than regular soap. In addition, it may promote bacteria resistant to antibiotics.
• EATING CHOCOLATE OR OILY FOODS CAUSES OILY SKIN AND ACNE.
There’s no evidence that any specific food causes acne. An oily substance called sebum causes acne. It’s made and secreted by small glands beneath the skin.
• TANNING IS ALWAYS BAD FOR YOU.
Spending too much time in the sun or in a tanning booth can increase skin cancer risk. Excessive tanning can also cause skin to wrinkle and age prematurely. That is not a myth: It’s undeniably true. I spent a lot of time on the beaches of sunny Southern California when I was a kid, only rarely using suntan lotion. And I’ve had many skin cancers as a result — all cured, fortunately.
But developing a light or gradual tan through repeated, but careful, sun exposure isn’t dangerous. Just take appropriate precautions: Use a sunscreen of at least SPF 30, apply it thoroughly and reapply when necessary, and avoid peak sun exposure times (10 a.m. to 2 p.m.). • TANNING IS GOOD FOR YOU. There’s no evidence that tan people are healthier than paler people. Sun exposure does have a health benefit, though. Sunlight activates vitamin D in the skin. Vitamin D helps keep bones strong, and may well have other health benefits. But you can get the vitamin D you need from food and supplements. You don’t need to tan.
• THE HIGHER THE SPF OF YOUR SUNSCREEN, THE BETTER.
Above a certain level, a higher sun protection factor (SPF) has little added benefit. Using sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 is fine.
Keeping your skin healthy is important, no doubt. But beware of these myths, as they will only distract you from your goal.
(This column ran originally in November 2014.)
Dr. Komaroff is a physician and professor at Harvard Medical School.)