Is Summer's Biggest Fashion Trend Bad For Your Skin?

Photo: Tristan Offit.
I did a bad thing in June. I went to the notoriously sweltering Veuve Clicquot Polo Classic in a crisscross halter dress, stood in the sun for hours drinking glass after glass of Champagne, and didn't apply any sunscreen. When I got home at the end of the day, I had a pounding headache and a bad sunburn. (Okay, so maybe I made two mistakes.) To add salt to the literal wound, thanks to the style of the neckline, I was bright-red everywhere, save for an X across my neck and chest. I spent almost two weeks afterward wearing button-ups in 90-degree weather.

Now, this wasn't my first ride at the sunburn rodeo, but it was my worst one in a long time. When my shoulders finally returned to normal, I suddenly noticed more spots dotting them than ever before. Were they sun spots? Freckles? I wasn't sure, but it felt like an overnight thing (though I assumed it probably wasn't). And if I was noticing more little shoulder constellations, surely those who have embraced the season's biggest trend — off-the-shoulder tops and dresses — while skimping on SPF have been, too. So I reached out to dermatologists Whitney Bowe, MD, and Howard Sobel, MD, founder of DDF Skin Care, to find out how to get rid of those spots.

First, it's important to differentiate between freckles and sun spots. Though both are indicators that you're at increased risk of getting skin cancer, they have some distinguishing markers. Freckles are hereditary, very small ("around 2 mm each," says Dr. Bowe), and cluster together. "They tend to occur in young children, as early as 2 years of age, and get darker and more numerous into early adulthood," she explains. "If they get lighter during the winter, they're freckles."

Sun spots, on the other hand, are larger, slightly raised, don't fade from season to season, and "tend to arise in middle age, in individuals who have other signs of skin aging — like fine lines, wrinkles, rough texture — from cumulative sun exposure," says Dr. Bowe, who notes that she tends to see them most on the face and tops of hands, followed by the chest, forearms, and lower legs.

With this info, I was able to diagnose my spots as freckles fairly confidently (still, I'll be getting myself into the derm's office for a mole check, too — and you should, too, since derms recommend a yearly skin check for everyone). But wasn't it strange that I just noticed them now? Not really, says Dr. Bowe. When it seems like they're popping up overnight, it's "usually as a result of existing, very pale, freckles getting darker after one episode of extensive sun exposure." Dr. Bowe admits that though she is "definitely seeing more freckles and sun spots on the shoulders with the new fashion trends," she always tries to talk her patients out of erasing them completely. "I think they're kind of cute."

However, if you do want to fade your freckles or sun spots, you've got options. Dr. Sobel explains that an effective dark-spot remover should do two things: exfoliate the top layer of skin and inhibit melanin production. If you want to take the hard-hitting approach, he recommends Retin-A for the former and hydroquinone for the latter — both of which need to be prescribed by a doctor. "A series of Clear and Brilliant laser treatments will help, too; a more aggressive treatment would be the Fraxel 1550," he says. If you want to ease in, "glycolic acid, salicylic, or lactic acid peels can be effective, and [you should] look for products that contain kojic acid, alpha-arbutin, licorice extract, and vitamin C." And, of course, applying a sunscreen with broad-spectrum UVA and UVB protection every time your shoulders are exposed is the most important thing you can do, not only to prevent spots but also to protect your skin in general.

The sooner you notice dark spots and begin treating them, the better your chances of fading them. "They can disappear," says Dr. Bowe, "but there's still a hint of them beneath the surface. So even though they might look like they're gone, a bad sunburn or a bit too much time in the sun, even in small amounts over the course of a summer, can bring them right back."
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