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How to Damage Your Skin

WebMD discuss 12 ways you might be wrecking your skin including indoor tanning, smoking, under-applying sunscreen, and other skin-damaging mistakes.

Your skin is the largest organ in your body, and it takes a lot of abuse. Constantly exposed to the elements, your epidermis (and the layers beneath) can really take a beating, especially if you're guilty of the following skin sins.

Want to preserve your skin? Here's what not to do.

1. Get Overexposed

There was a time when people thought it was perfectly fine to slather their bodies in baby oil and spend entire days baking in the sun. Over the years, dermatologists set us straight, telling us in no uncertain terms that sun worshipping will only put us on the path to premature aging -- and skin cancer.

"If there's one thing in the world that one can do to avoid the ravages of injury to the skin, it's avoid the sun," says Norman Levine, MD, a dermatologist in Tucson, Arizona and the author of Skin Healthy: Everyone's Guide to Great Skin."The sun has effects on the cells that renew the skin, and when those cells are injured irreparably you get skin aging and you are more prone to skin cancer."

You can tell right away when someone's been spending a lot of time in the sun, says Jennifer Stein, MD, PhD, assistant professor of dermatology at NYU Langone Medical Center. "Their skin looks very wrinkly and is covered in lots of brown spots, and that's from years and years of sun damage."

2. Skimp on Sunscreen

Your sunscreen probably isn't shielding you from sun damage because most of us don't apply the shot-glass-sized amount (1 ounce) of SPF 30 or higher sunscreen -- the minimum experts say we need to protect us.

"Most people under-apply by one-fourth. Whatever you're putting on is probably too little, so at least double it," says Jeffrey Dover, MD, FRCPC, associate clinical professor of dermatology at Yale University School of Medicine] and director of SkinCare Physicians in Chestnut Hill, Mass. Many people also don't apply sunscreen every two hours as dermatologists recommend.

If you’re going to be outside, don’t forget to wear protective clothing and a wide-brimmed hat, and seek the shade, as well as wearing sunscreen (and reapplying it as needed). Then your skin is as protected as possible.

3. Head to the Tanning Bed

Think a tanning bed is safer than being outside in the sun? Think again.

Tanning beds give you a concentrated burst of ultraviolet A and ultraviolet B light, which causes skin aging and could triple your risk for melanoma skin cancer. "Never go into a tanning parlor," Levine says. "There couldn't be a worse thing to do to your skin."

4. Smoke

If the risk of lung cancer, emphysema, heart disease, and stroke aren't enough to scare you off cigarettes, how about all those wrinkles you'll get?

Study after study shows just how extensively smoking ages the skin. "It does a lot of what the sun does. It just does it inside [the body] instead of outside," Dover says. "It makes the skin weak, tired, and listless looking."

If that weren't enough, smoking also yellows the skin, interferes with its blood supply, and slows wound healing. "So if you injure your skin it may not heal as well if you're a smoker," Levine says.

5. Use the Wrong Cleanser

A big mistake people make when they wash their face is using a harsh soap that's meant for their body. Keep the bar soap in the shower. Use only a mild cleanser for your face, especially if you have sensitive skin, Stein advises.

If your skin is acne-prone, make sure the cleanser you use is oil-free and noncomedogenic, which means it does not promote acne. People whose skin is on the dry side should follow up each wash by applying a layer of lotion (preferably one that contains sunscreen) to seal in the skin's moisture.

6. Scrub Your Skin

Washing your face is a good idea. Scrubbing it isn't. 

"Scrubbing can be very irritating to the skin," cautions Stein. "A lot of times people who have acne will feel like they have to scrub the skin to make it better, but that can actually worsen the acne."

Be gentle to your skin. Wash your face using a soft, circular motion.

7. Pop Your Pimples

Whenever you feel tempted to pop a pimple, control the urge. "Picking can actually make the acne worse and lead to permanent scarring," Stein says. "Better to leave it alone."

Instead of popping pimples, try an over-the-counter pimple remedy containing benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid. If that doesn't clear up your breakouts, call your dermatologist.

8. Stress Out

It's not your imagination. When you're stressed out, it really does show in your skin. 

"It's not well understood, but it's clear that stress makes many skin conditions worse," Dover says. 

Stress can flare up psoriasis and rosacea, as well as acne. It may also lower the skin's ability to keep out harmful irritants and infections. Plus, people who are wrapped up in their stress have less time to care for their skin properly.

9. Overdo It

Looking young and vibrant is highly prized, but the quest for it can have a price, especially if you trust your chemical peel to someone without an MD after his or her name. "I think they should be done under the guidance of a doctor because they certainly be very irritating, particularly to sensitive skin or people who have skin conditions," Stein says. In the wrong hands, a chemical peel could leave you with an infection or permanent scars.

You also don't want to overdo home microdermabrasion and peels. Instead of making you look younger, they'll leave your skin red and irritated. Let your dermatologist guide you if you are going to try at-home skin procedures.

10. Overeat

Before you take another bite of that bacon double cheeseburger, consider this: When you gain a lot of weight, your skin has to stretch to accommodate your new girth. Lose the weight and you'll be left with flabby, saggy skin. If your skin isn't elastic enough to bounce back, you may have to resort to surgery to tighten it up.

11. Fall Short on Sleep

More than a quarter of us aren't getting the seven to nine hours of sleep we need nightly, and our exhaustion is as obvious as the pallor of our skin and the bags under our eyes

"Your skin rejuvenates while you're sleeping," Dover says. He warns that a lack of sleep makes your face look "dull and listless" and can exaggerate the appearance of dark circles.

12. Ignore Warning Signs

A changing mole is one of the clearest signs of skin cancer. Spotting it early gives your doctor a chance to treat it before it has time to spread. But how will you ever know a mole is changing if you never look at your skin?

Once a month, you should be checking your skin from top to bottom, front to back in a full-length mirror. "You're looking for changes in the size, shape, and color of moles, or new moles," Dover says. If you spot anything, or if you've got a personal or family history of skin cancer, let your dermatologist do a full exam as well, Stein says.

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