How to Protect Your Skin From Heat Irritation

Warm and sunny weather is welcomed and enjoyed all over the world. Few things feel better than sunshine on your skin and balmy breezes through your hair.

And while letting your skin get some much deserved fresh air and free vitamin D from the sun is great, it sometimes comes with unwanted side effects.

If you find that your skin is not reacting to the hot weather the way you hoped, it may be due to a number of different skin issues that crop up when temperatures rise.

Take a look at what the problem could be, and how to keep your skin happy no matter how hot it gets out there.

Heat Rash

You could be enjoying any summer activity—taking a leisurely bike ride, strolling along the beach, or even just enjoying a good book on the deck— when suddenly you are hit with a persistent itch.

Upon closer inspection, you find that you have a bumpy rash that has appeared out of nowhere. Did you come in contact with some pesky poison ivy?

Or is it just a case of heat rash?

Heat rash—also known as “prickly heat”— is a type of rash that doctors formally call miliaria.

It can develop in persons of any age and is most often triggered by hot or humid conditions.

The way heat rash looks can vary. It usually appears in the form of small bumps or blisters, either red or clear.

While it often causes itching, it can also be felt as a pins and needles “prickly” sensation— thus the name “prickly heat.”

Heat rash can range from mild to severe and is caused when sweat becomes trapped under your skin’s surface due to blocked sweat ducts. Normally, sweat comes to the surface of your skin where it can evaporate. But when the sweat gets stuck in this way, it causes inflammation.

Unknown woman with a heat rash on her arm

There are certain conditions that cause sweat to become trapped and create a heat rash. You are more likely to experience heat rashes when you are sweating a lot—this could be due to exercise and physical activity where your body temperature is made to rise. It could also be brought on by the outside temperature causing you to overheat.

When heat rash strikes, it can usually be resolved on its own rather quickly once you cool off.  Head inside to air conditioning or change into light, loose clothing. Usually heat rash just brings on temporary discomfort, but if you scratch at your rash or don’t allow your skin to cool down, things could get worse if bacteria gets into areas of broken, irritated skin.

The best way to protect yourself from heat rash is by keeping your skin cool. You can do this by paying attention to what you wear when the weather gets hot. Try to wear natural fabrics that breathe, such as cotton. Make sure your clothing isn’t too tight, either. Heat rash tends to show up in skin creases and other areas that are covered by clothing.

Unfortunately, there isn’t anything you can apply to your skin to help keep heat rash away. In fact, using heavy skin care products can make the problem worse by clogging your pores further. 

In addition to dressing comfortably and avoiding pore-clogging products, simply stay in air-conditioned places or keep a fan nearby on hot days.

Polymorphous Light Eruption

But there is another possible culprit in rashes that appear during hot spring and summer days.

This time, instead of clogged pores, though, an allergy is to blame.

What is this allergy, you ask?

Sunlight!

Yes, believe it or not, you can indeed find yourself having an allergic reaction to the sun.

Many people may actually have this sort of allergy and not even realize it. This is because the way the reaction looks can vary greatly from person to person.

This reaction to sun exposure is a condition known as polymorphous light eruption or PLE. PLE usually occurs when the skin is first exposed to the sun for any significant amount of time after a long period of being hidden from sunlight (such as winter). The reaction can occur after as little as 20 minutes of time in the sun.

While this condition is not dangerous to your health, it can certainly be frustrating and uncomfortable. On top of unsightly red or scaly patches, PLE rashes are often itchy or can induce a feeling of burning on the skin.

One of the reasons people who experience polymorphous light eruption don’t always realize what it is that it’s possible to have a delayed reaction.  The time between exposure to sunlight and the rash appearing can range from thirty minutes to days later.

In addition to the timing of the rash, PLE reactions can appear in a number of different ways, and often look similar to other types of skin reactions. An area of red, inflamed skin is common, but the pattern of bumps or lesions on the skin comes in many varieties.

When it comes to telling the difference between a heat rash and polymorphous light eruption, the key is where the rash appeared. PLE will happen on areas of skin that were exposed to the sun. Heat rash is the opposite: it happens where the skin was covered by clothing.

If you think you may have polymorphous light eruption, it’s important to check with a doctor to be sure. A red, itchy or burning rash can be caused by many different things, and it’s important to know what caused the rash so you can treat and prevent it accordingly.

What exactly causes some of us to react negatively to sunlight isn’t clear, but it seems to be that the immune systems of those with PLE are particularly sensitive to the UVA and UVB rays of the sun. This tendency to overreact to UV radiation seems to be a genetic trait, so if someone in your family has it, you are more likely to experience it as well.

When it comes to preventing the irritating rash that polymorphous light eruption produces, there are a few things you can do. If you know that you have PLE, you should try to gradually give your skin small doses of sunlight every spring. Usually, PLE episodes happen at the beginning of the spring or summer when your skin suddenly gets a lot of sunlight at once but diminishes or stops altogether once your skin has gotten more used to the sun.

You can also just limit sun exposure altogether, by staying out of direct sunlight, wearing protective clothing and hats, and using a broad spectrum sunscreen. Physical sunscreens that use titanium oxide or zinc are even better for preventing PLE. However, using sunscreen cannot filter out all UV radiation, so don’t rely on sunblock to prevent PLE rashes.

If you do end up with a PLE rash, you may be able to lessen the reaction with ointments or antihistamines. Check with a doctor for the best advice for your situation.

Sweat Rash

Similar to heat rash, sweat rash is the result of excessive sweating. The difference is that heat rash happens when perspiration is unable to escape from the pores to the surface of the skin.

Athletic woman wiping away sweat and sitting down

Sweat rash, on the other hand, is brought on when sweat leaves the pores normally but is left on the surface of the skin for too long. This sweat can invite yeast to grow out of control, creating red and bumpy areas. If the yeast gets too overgrown, it can lead to a full on yeast infection in areas where sweat pools the most. This is often the places where your skin folds on itself, like your armpits or groin.

Keeping sweat rash away is usually just a matter of being extra diligent with skincare when the temperature increases. Most of us are in the habit of hitting the shower after a workout to wash away sweat and grime. The problem can arise when we start to sweat more often during hot weather. While you may not be able to fully cleanse your skin every time you sweat, try to clean and dry any sweaty areas promptly. On top of wearing fabric designed to wick sweat away,  keep wipes or a cotton cloth with you to soak up sweat on the go.

Folliculitis

Yet another way that heat can wreak havoc on your skin this summer is folliculitis. This skin condition is caused by inflammation in the hair follicles.

There are many conditions that can lead up to a case of folliculitis—it could be yeast, fungus, or bacteria getting into hair follicles and infecting them. But in summer months and hot climates, it’s often excessive sweating that creates the conditions for these microscopic organisms to take hold.

When bacteria mixes with sweat and dead skin, it can block the pore and leave you with itchy pimple-like bumps. Sometimes these are pus-filled, so you definitely want to be careful not to scratch or break the skin.

If you get folliculitis, you’ll want to keep the area clean and use a warm cloth to compress the area to relieve itching. If the area with folliculitis is an area you typically shave, you should try to take a break from shaving until your skin heals.

Folliculitis often heals on its own in a couple weeks, but if it worsens or persists head to your doctor’s office to make sure it’s not infected.

You can stop folliculitis before it happens by taking a shower every day and after every time you work up a sweat. Avoid using oily skincare products and only use clean towels and razors on your skin.

Infographic on healthy versus inflamed hair shaft

One other important thing to know about folliculitis is that it is also commonly developed from using a hot tub. So if you enjoy a relaxing soak on warm summer nights, beware. Keep your hot tub squeaky clean, and wash your skin with a mild cleanser right after going into any hot tub.

Eczema

Those who suffer from eczema often find that weather and temperature play a huge role in the condition of their skin.

Some people have more trouble with cold and dry temperatures and seem to notice that their eczema finds relief when spring comes and the air is warm and humid.

But often just the opposite is true. Eczema can also be irritated by the same warm weather that others find suitable.

Eczema is a condition that affects the health of your skin. And as you may know, the skin is our largest and most important protective barrier to external pollution, allergens, and other environmental irritants.

How your eczema fairs in the spring and summer often depend on your unique allergies and eczema triggers. While your eczema-affected skin may benefit from some sunlight, the pollen in the air might be blown onto the more vulnerable skin when you’re outside. This can cause an itchy allergic skin reaction that only leads to more eczema flare-ups.

On top of that, the extra sweating that so often comes along with enjoying the warm weather can only add to the problem. As we mentioned earlier, excessive sweat can cause clogged pores and even yeast overgrowth. But when the skin is already compromised by eczema, additional issues can develop.

Sweat is salty and drying, so when sweat ends up on areas affected by eczema, this can only cause more inflammation. And of course, sunlight can also be a source of allergic reaction and burns.

So when it comes to eczema-prone skin this summer, follow the same tried and true tips for keeps skin cool. Avoid any clothing that is rough against the skin, and choose to wear things that protect you from too much sun. And if you start to overheat, head indoors and get in front of a fan.

General Tips

While the skin conditions that may result from heat irritation vary, the tips for taking care of your skin and preventing them are all quite similar.

To enjoy happy and healthy skin this summer:

  • Wear a broad spectrum or physical sunscreen to protect your skin from UV radiation. If you want to combine moisturizing benefits with sun protection, try the Resveratrol Zinfandel Radiance Cream, which is infused with SPF 30, green tea extract, and vitamins A and E.
  • When getting dressed for hot weather, choose light, breathable fabrics that aren’t too tight.
  • Keep skin wipes handy for when things get sweaty.
  • Limit your time in the sun and heat — enjoy some time indoors to allow your skin to cool off.