5 Essentials That Will Save Your Skin This Summer

Photographed by Collins Nai.
Festival season has kicked off and spring break has come and gone, which, in beauty land, signals more than a return to '90s space buns and a re-up on spray tans: Summer is about to happen, meaning it’s about to get hot AF. Some beauty adjustments are intuitive this time of year, like having an elastic at the ready to pull hair off of sweaty skin. But knowing how to pivot in the skin care department is a much trickier game.
Take some of our top workhorse ingredients, like retinol and alpha and beta hydroxy acids. These actives are known to make skin more photosensitive. Does that mean we have to shelve them once happy hour-ing turns into an outdoor affair? And then there’s the comfort factor: Anyone who has partied in Coachella Valley knows how quickly skin can turn dry and flakey in warm, arid conditions — and how gross it can feel to apply a heavy cream as a remedy. To find out exactly what kind of moves we need to make to get the most of our must-have actives, we pried into the minds of six dermatologists who seem to know it all. Ahead, get their top recommendations for how to use acids, sunscreen, moisturizers, retinol, and vitamin C come summer months.
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The Ingredient: Retinol

By now, it’s been hammered into our heads that using a retinol or retinoid is a must-do step in any adult human’s skin-care regimen. That’s because the vitamin A derivative basically does it all, creating cellular changes in the skin to help control acne, reduce hyperpigmentation, slow the development of fine lines, and smooth the surface. Of course, anyone who has suffered from redness, flaking, and irritation knows that the ingredient can be a tricky one to use, particularly in sunnier months. New York-based cosmetic dermatologist Paul Jarrod Frank, MD, says we should absolutely continue to use retinol during the summertime, just with a few little tweaks.
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How To Use It

That big ball of fire in the sky and retinol are not great bedfellows. So Dr. Frank advises using retinoids only at night, particularly in the summer months. “These products will encourage cell turnover and leave the skin smooth and exfoliated,” he says, noting that retinols also make skin photosensitive and susceptible to more damage and pigmentation if used in the AM. “Night time is best so that the products do not interfere with day time products such as makeup and sunscreen, especially during the summer.”

Let’s face it: Retinols are among the most expensive products in our skin care arsenal. (Though they don't have to be.) To get the most of your investment, Dr. Frank suggests trying a retinol in a serum form, and offers these instructions: “Wash and dry both your hands and face before applying a retinol, then apply a thin layer of the medication to the face, avoiding pimples. Wait until the treated area is dry before applying a nighttime moisturizer,” he says.

Resurface by Shani Darden Retinol Reform, $95, available at Shani Darden.
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Pair It With This

In hot, sticky weather, alpha and beta hydroxy acids are a must for helping exfoliate and clear skin. But Dr. Frank warns against piling on retinol after using these acids, a move that can invite major skin irritation. That means saving at-home peels for nights on which you take a break from retinol. The rule even applies to the use of AHA/BHA-containing cleansers. “If you have to use an AHA/BHA Cleanser, use it in the AM and then the retinol at night,” he says. For nights you do use a retinol product, reach for a balancing cleanser that swaps alpha and beta hydroxy acids for skin-clearing monolaurin, antioxidants, and hydrating virgin coconut oil.

VMV Hypoallergenics Hydra Balance Gentle Cream Cleanser, $22, available at VMV Hypoallergenics.
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The Ingredient: Vitamin C

Vitamin C makes skin look like its inner light was turned on and can stoke collagen production after traveling to the deeper layers of the dermis. The antioxidant has even been proven to absorb free radicals created by oxidative UV damage. But given all it can do, Jessica Krant, MD, a New York-based dermatologist and Assistant Clinical Professor of Dermatology at SUNY Downstate Medical Center, reminds us not to not over-credit the antioxidant’s abilities. “These products are not skin bleaches and don’t necessarily directly fade particular spots as much as they revamp the way the skin responds to sun overall,” she says. “Vitamin C is not considered a sunscreen because it does not block the direct action of UV radiation on skin cells. It’s considered an antioxidant because it helps to absorb damaging free radicals and prevent them from wreaking havoc in cells and connective tissue.”
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How To Use It

Though vitamin C doesn’t exactly fade dark spots in a snap, it can brighten skin’s appearance over time, so regular usage is key. “It may take two to three months (the whole summer!) to be able to recognize progress with daily use,” notes Dr. Krant. And though it can retrain the way skin responds to sun, as the derm mentioned, there’s no need to use more or less or higher or lower concentrations of the ingredient come summer. “In my opinion, there is no need to ramp up or down the strength of Vitamin C products seasonally,” she says. “Everyone’s realistic skin-care lifestyle schedule is different, but applying an antioxidant product twice a day is great. If you can only manage a moisturizing sunscreen (don’t forget neck and chest!) in the morning and an antioxidant at night, that’s a good start.” Finally, the trick to using an optimal vitamin C product is finding one that’s made with serious stabilization in mind. Look for products in opaque or amber packaging, to start, along with products that contain ferulic acid, a proven stabilizer.

Perricone MD Vitamin C Ester Serum, $105, available at Sephora.
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Pair It With This

Vitamin C is just one antioxidant of many that can brighten skin and address dark spots. Dr. Krant calls this moisturizer “one of the most reliable antioxidant over-the-counter products I have encountered.” The lightweight hydrator is also ideal for summer. It contains broad spectrum SPF 30, is oil-free, hypoallergenic, and designed not to clog pores. “Many people are avoiding soy products these days, but in terms of visible fading and brightening of skin in an inexpensive, easy-to-find product, that is one of my basic go-to’s,” she says.

Aveeno Active Naturals Positively Radiant Daily Moisturizer SPF 30, $17, available at Ulta Beauty.
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The Ingredient: Sunscreen

We can almost hear you saying, “Yeah, we get it — sunscreen is important,” as your tapping finger gets ready to click to the next slide. And you’re right. At this point, everybody knows that wearing a broad-spectrum SPF 30 or higher sunscreen is a must. But before you click on, know this: “SPF in makeup and serums isn't substantial enough for proper protection,” as Debra Jaliman, MD, a New York-based dermatologist warns. “I've seen people play tennis with sunscreen in their makeup but because it wasn’t water-resistant, they got burned.” Even when layering serum, foundation, blush, and lip color onto your skin — all with built-in SPF — you’re not properly protecting yourself from accelerated aging and the big C-word. Ditto goes for sunscreen that’s just a little bit past its expiration date. So trust us, or Dr. Jaliman and legions of other derms at least, and use a dedicated sunscreen as part of your AM skin-care routine — there’s no better time to start than when the weather starts warming up.
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How To Use It (If You’re Outdoorsy)

Again, applying a sunscreen seems like such a no-brainer. But you’d be surprised at how many of us get it wrong, Dr. Jaliman says. “The biggest sunscreen mistakes I see are people don't use enough sunscreen to cover their skin. They put it on at the beach, so they're not looking in a mirror and they miss a spots because the bathing suit rides up or the strap falls.” Another common sunscreen fail? Not reapplying enough. “Sunscreen should be reapplied every two hours. If you come out of the water or find yourself sweating, then you have to reapply it more frequently,” she says. Finally, when choosing a sunscreen, go for a broad spectrum SPF 30 or higher with a little extra oomph. “Look for a sunscreen that has antioxidants in it; that is beneficial,” Dr. Jaliman says. This chemical-free sunscreen contains green tea extract and a bit of tint to help blur acne scars or stretch marks on the face or body.

Alastin Skincare HydraTint Pro Mineral Broad Spectrum Sunscreen SPF 36, $55, available at Alastin Skincare.
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How To Use It (If You’re Always In The Office)

Those of us who don’t spend our days playing tennis at the club or chilling by the pool aren’t exempt from reapplying every few hours, or wearing sunscreen altogether. “That's a common mistake people make,” Dr. Jaliman says. Driving to work, walking outside for a couple of blocks and sitting in the cube farm near a window also makes us susceptible to sun damage. “UVA light goes through a window glass, so we still have to wear SPF for protection the same way as if we were outdoors,” she notes. This compact tube contains everything we look for in a sunscreen for the face and hands: It’s free of chemical actives, comes in three shades of tint, and is oil- and- fragrance-free.

Avène Complexion Correcting Shield SPF 50+, $36, available at Avène.
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Pair It With This

A well-rounded skin-care regimen likely already includes antioxidants, like the big three vitamins (A, E, and C). But one that pairs particularly well with SPF is green tea, which Dr. Jaliman likes for its inflammatory effects. If your summertime lifestyle is the stuff teenage movies are made of (surf, sand, sun, long nights, and lots of making out), then applying an antioxidant-rich serum, like this hybrid toner and serum, before your SPF may help keep skin in check.

själ Skincare Bio-Regenerative Serum, $275, available at själ Skincare.
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The Ingredient: Alpha and Beta Hydroxy Acids

Chances are alpha and beta hydroxy acids are already a part of your routine if you’re working to eradicate acne or brighten skin, because salicylic, lactic, and glycolic acids do a killer job of sloughing off dead skin cells and de-gunking pores. Once weather turns hot and sticky, it’s hard to fight the impulse to turn to all the acids in an effort to de-grease complexions. But is that the best plan of attack? For the scoop, we talked to a skin-care acid king: Dennis Gross, MD, a New York-based dermatologist who changed the alpha and beta hydroxy acid game with his eponymous line.
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How To Use It

“The trick to working acids into the routine for summer is using a product that combines several acids versus a single high concentrate, which can often be harsh and lead to sensitivity or irritation — especially in the summer season,” Dr. Gross says. ”I’m a big fan of multiple acids delivered in small doses instead of single acid in high concentration.” The derm’s own at-home peels are built to do just that. “Daily peels are like steady exercise to the skin. Over time, your skin responds like muscle. It starts to get stronger,” he says.

Though alpha or beta hydroxy acid peels or serums can be used in the morning or before bed, Dr. Gross suggests skipping AM treatments on days during which hours of outdoor activity and heat exposure are in the cards. Saving these acids for evening will not only bypass skin’s hypersensitivity to the sun in the wake of application, it will help removed dead skin and oil that accumulated throughout the day.

Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Universal Daily Peel, $84, available at Dr. Dennis Gross.
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Pair It With This

Though Dr. Gross likes a conservative cocktail of alpha and beta hydroxy acids for overall skin care, he favors salicylic acid in particular when temps shoot up. “It’s an excellent acid to work into the routine in the summer because it helps oil control and decongest pores, leading to less summer breakouts,” he says. One way to tap its powers? With a decongesting cleanser. And one last thing: Even though daily sunscreen use should go without saying, the derm reminds us to apply SPF after using alpha or beta hydroxy acids and at least 30 minutes before going out in the sun.

EltaMD UV Clear Broad-Spectrum SPF 46, $32, available at DermStore.
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The Ingredient: Moisturizer

Reaching for a moisturizer can feel a little redundant in warmer months; our skin is already hot and sticky, why would we take our finger off the throttle of a refreshing skin mist in order to pile on lotion or cream? But here’s the thing: No matter what the weather, our skin can use help on the hydration front. “Even oily skin can get dry in hot, arid conditions,” says Patricia Wexler, MD, a New York-based dermatologist. UV rays can affect the skin barrier, making lower layers of the skin more dry, she says. The act of wiping perspiration from the face (and the act of perspiring itself) also disrupt the skin’s protective layer, the derm says. “In addition, air conditioning and fans will dry the skin progressively over the summer.” So we asked the skin pro, along with Elizabeth Tanzi, MD, a DC-based dermatologist and Associate Clinical Professor in the Department of Dermatology at the George Washington University Medical Center for advice on how to moisturize when skin is already slick and sweaty (and all we want to do is hose it down).
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How To Use It

“Lighter moisturizers are needed when going into the summer since the skin produces more of its own natural oils,” Dr. Tanzi says. Still, even lightweight lotions can feel wool-sweater heavy in warm temps. The good news? Options abound. “Hyaluronic gel is best for lightweight hydration,” the derm says, so try looking for a lightweight water cream or gel to hydrate skin without adding extra slick.

“Moving to warmer weather, you want to eliminate any part of the formulation which will clog pores, encourage increased sebum production, feel heavy, or feel occlusive,” Dr. Wexler adds. “Swapping a lightweight lotion for a water gel is better in humid climate, especially for oily skin.” She suggests reaching for a non-comedogenic formula with glycerin, aloe vera, lemongrass, willowbark, or camellia oil to help hydrate without exasperating oil production. If you’re acne-prone, look for something made with salicylic acid, she suggests.

Drunk Elephant B-Hydra Intensive Hydration Gel, $52, available at Sephora.
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Pair It With This

Another way to hydrate when using lighter moisturizers in summer months? With a cool sheet mask, ripped right from the fridge. “A facial mask with hyaluronic acid and antioxidants followed by hydration with aloe, hyaluronic acid, cucumber, and even certain oils will re-hydrate your skin, and give comfort and repair,” Dr. Wexler says. This sheet mask is soaked in a hyaluronic acid-based serum, but doesn’t leave skin feeling greasy.

Garnier SkinActive Moisture Bomb The Super Hydrating Mattifying Sheet Mask, $4, available at Ulta Beauty.
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