A human being's most exposed organ is the epidermis. And summer is the season for suffering when it comes to ailments of the skin. Sunburn, dryness, rash, scrapes, insect bites. That precious layer that holds us together becomes a veritable battle zone when the mercury rises and "less is more" becomes a fashion mantra from the beach to camp sites to the backyard swimming pool.
There are some home remedies — organic, even — with reputations for healing our skin's pain. What follows is a look at a few such salves, with commentary from Dr. John Huber of the Memphis Dermatology Clinic.
"The most important key is prevention," emphasizes Huber. But what about those days when the rays catch up with the sunscreen? Dabbing a burn with milk at room temperature (using cotton balls) is said to soothe the pain, but Huber recommends taking aspirin and pouring a cup of vinegar in a bath. And get the water as hot as you can take it. "Vinegar is an anti-inflammatory," notes Huber, "and aloe vera is awesome, too." Stay in the bath until the water becomes tepid. "It draws the heat and inflammation from your skin," says Huber.
A word of caution to sunbathers who might be nursing a hangover: Ibuprofen exacerbates skin sensitivity to the sun. Never take Motrin or Advil before a day at the beach or swimming pool. "Tylenol at the beach is the bottom line," says Huber.
(An inorganic note: Huber is an advocate of Coppertone Sport Spray for prevention. Works great and easy to apply, particularly for children eager to jump in the water.)
It's commonly held that bleach can soothe a bee sting, but Huber rejects the notion of using a chemical that will cause a rash, however much it reduces pain from an angry wasp. He acknowledges that tobacco juice helps, but emphasizes ice as the first and best curative approach. "People react to bee stings because they induce histamine release," he says, "and the best medicine for that is Zyrtec, which just became over-the-counter. It's less sedating than Benadryl."
Many people are allergic to additives (like fragrants) in common skin lotions. But several natural external moisturizers don't bring side effects: extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, and almond oil, to name three. "These seal the tiny cracks in the skin," explains Huber. "One other thing that works great is Crisco, and it's dirt cheap. You don't have to grease yourself up like a pig, though."
Huber says to avoid Ivory and Dial, as pure soaps will break down all the body's natural lotions. And be careful about applying moisturizers to the face, as the numerous oil glands must be left to do their thing when it comes to sloughing off dry skin. Lotion will merely hold that dry skin down, often exacerbating redness and scales.
A combination of cool water, baking soda, and vinegar (again, an anti-inflammatory) can calm a torturous outbreak of poison ivy, but this is an ailment that must be allowed to run its course. Huber says adding colloidal oatmeal to a bath is another soothing solution. "The oatmeal increases evaporative loss," he says, "so the body feels cooler, less hot and itchy."
"A lot of home remedies rely on the placebo effect," says Huber. What we think might help us often, in fact, does. (He claims one of the best "cures" for common warts is hypnosis.) So be smart — and stay positive — this summer. Better yet, use sunscreen liberally, leave that beehive alone, and avoid those three-leaf plants.