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Skin Health Matters

The Skin Health Matters series covers health topics pertinent to student life in order to promote a safe and healthy university experience.

Topics in this series include:

If there are topics of interest you would like to see in our Health Matters series, send us an health [dot] promotion [at] mcgill [dot] ca (e-mail) .

Click to download a pdf version. Skin Health Matters: Acne


Acne eruptions are caused by problems with the skin's normal functions. Pimples begin in the skin's hair follicles, which are connected to oil-producing glands. Normally, the oil flows out of the hair follicle to the skin's surface.

During puberty, however, the male hormone “androgen”, which is produced by both sexes, stimulates increased oil production . In acne, the excess oil combines with dead skin cells, hair fragments and bacteria to form deposits that plug the skin's pores. If the plug doesn't reach the skin's surface but continues to grow in the hair follicle, it can rupture into the surrounding tissue and cause a minor infection.


Acne is not related to diet and is not cause by poor skin hygiene. Factors which do tend to aggravate acne include:

  • Cosmetics: Anything applied to the face can clog pores. Try to use cosmetics as little as possible. Choose unscented, water-based “hypoallergenic” or “noncomedogenic” products.
  • Stress, fatigue, or illness: Stress stimulates the adrenal glands, which may increase androgen production.
  • Sunlight: Some acne improves, some worsens with sunlight.
  • Hormones: Birth control pills or menstrual cycles may coincide with acne breakouts.
  • Medication: If you are taking medication and you notice an acne flare-up, consult your doctor, don't just stop taking the drug.

There are a variety of prescription and nonprescription drugs now available for those with more severe acne cases. However, some acne medication prescribed by your doctor (i.e. Tetracycline, minocin, accutane etc.) can create problems if taken in association with exposure to sunlight. Always be sure to check with your doctor and find out what is best for you.


Only one in ten cases will require professional care. Self-care and patience can often minimize problems. Keep your skin clean, but don't overdo it! Wash you skin twice daily with a mild soap. Excessive washing may exacerbate the symptoms. Consult with your pharmacist for over-the-counter remedies. Since individual skin sensitivity varies, no one product is effective for everyone.

If cleansing, over-the-counter products and lifestyle changes do not provide improvement in your acne symptoms after two months, consult your doctor.


Click to download a pdf version. Skin Health Matters: Skin

Skin Sores

Dry Skin
Dry skin can result from wind, cold, dryness, heat or even genetics. Although it can occur at any time of the year, dry skin is usually prominent during colder months when humidity is low. In fact, outdoors, cold winds can actually remove water from you skin and heating systems can dry the air indoors.

Dry skin can be extremely itchy and the natural reaction is to scratch; but scratching or rubbing can further irritate your skin causing inflammation. In other words, scratching just makes it worse. This itch-scratch cycle is heightened during the winter and can be extremely frustrating, particularly at night when your body is at rest. Many people often have trouble sleeping because of this.

Here are some simple things you can do:

  • Bundle up when you go out. The less your skin is exposed to cold, dry air, the better it can retain moisture. Make sure to wear a hat, scarf and gloves and a long coat that shields the legs.
  • Take quick, warm (not hot) showers or baths. Excessive bathing and even hot water works to remove moisture from your skin. Not more than one bath every 1-2 days is a general guideline. Pat yourself dry and while your skin is still moist, use a moisturizer.
  • Use mild, nondeodorant soaps, solvents and other products that cause your skin to feel dry. In addition, soap only your underarms, genitals and feet. Wear rubber gloves when handling strong detergents or other chemicals when you are cleaning the bathtub or the dishes.
  • Increase the humidity in your home. During cold weather, your home's humidity levels can drop and adversely affect your skin's moisture, causing dry skin. Often a humidifier can restore the lost humidity.
  • Check your wardrobe. For many people, wool clothing as well as anything tight fitting can be very irritating.


Blisters are usually caused by repeated rubbing against the skin. To prevent blisters, don't wear shoes that are too tight or rub against your feet and wear gloves to protect your hands if you're carrying heavy objects or doing yard work with rakes or shovels.

A small, closed blister should be left alone to heal. You can protect it from further rubbing with Band-Aids or moleskin pads. For blisters larger than 2-3 cm in diameter, ask a doctor about how to drain and care for it. If you experience any swelling, pus, fever of more than 100ºF, or red streaks extending from the blister, it could be infected. See a doctor immediately.


Warts are noncancerous growths that are caused by viruses. They occur on the top layer of the skin, most commonly on the hands, feet, arms and legs. Warts are usually painless, flesh-coloured, raised areas that neither bleed or drain.

Many people find that their warts go away without treatment; however, if you think you might have warts, see a doctor for a diagnosis and advice on treatment. Many over-the-counter treatments do not work and many others can cause severe skin reactions.


Click to download a pdf version. Skin Health Matters: Sun

Sun Sense

Your skin is your body's largest organ. It acts to protect your delicate insides from the harsh outside world, especially the sun.

Facts About Tanning and Sunburn

  • There is no such thing as a safe tan. A tan is just visual proof that you have damaged your skin.
  • There is no such thing as a safe sunburn. A sunburn really just means that sun has burned your skin. This is NOT good.
  • Tanning beds, booths and lamps DO damage your skin. Over time, skin exposed to UV rays, regardless of the sources, feels leathery and begins to look older, dried out and wrinkled. Also, UV light is known to cause the most common types of skin cancer.
  • A “base tan” offers NO protection. There is NO evidence that getting a tan will protect your skin in any way. You will wrinkle faster with repeated overexposure to the sun.
  • Protecting your skin from the sun will reduce the likelihood of skin cancer.

Protecting Your Skin

Reducing exposure to sunlight and avoiding sunburn significantly lessen the risk of developing skin cancer. Here are some sun safety tips:

  1. ALWAYS apply sunscreen to all exposed skin (at least SPF 15) and wear sunglasses that absorb UVA light.
  2. Unlike the rest of the body, lips do not have the protection of melanin. Make sure to protect your lips with a sunscreen in stick form that has a high sun protection factor (at least SPF 15).
  3. Avoid wearing after shave lotions or perfumes to the beach or pool; they increase the skin's sensitivity to light.
  4. Beware of sunlight reflected from snow or water covered surfaces. DO NOT rely on water to provide protection from the sun. Apply sunscreen an hour before exposure or swimming to allow sufficient time for the sunscreen to penetrate the skin. Reapply often, especially after swimming or excessive perspiration.

Instead of Tanning
Self-tanning creams and lotions offer a safe alternative to tanning. These products have dyes that safely darken the top layer of skin for a few days.


Moles are common, noncancerous collections of cells containing pigment or colour. Moles will vary greatly in colour, number and location over the body, but an individual mole should be consistent in shape, colouration and border.

In most forms of cancer the key is early detection; this is also true for skin cancer. KNOW YOUR SKIN AND ITS MOLES. Pay special attention to areas of your body that are usually exposed to the sun, including your face, neck, hands, scalp and ears, in addition to the rest of your body. These ABCDs could be signs of melanoma in your mole:

  • Asymmetry: shape of one half looks different from the other
  • Border irregularity: outer edge is scalloped or not a consistent shape
  • Colour variation: different shades within the mole
  • Diameter greater than 6 mm: mole is larger than the end of a pencil

By performing a simple self-examination once a month, you will get to know the moles and pigmentations of your body. You will then be equipped to recognize any irregularities or potential dangers.


Click to download a pdf version. Skin Health Matters: Warts


Warts are non-cancerous skin growths caused by a viral infection. There are over 80 different strains of the human papilloma virus (HPV), which causes warts. Warts are usually skin-colored and feel rough to the touch, but they can be dark, flat and smooth.

How do you get warts?

Warts are passed from person to person, sometimes indirectly. Some people are more susceptible to warts than others, especially if they have depressed immune systems. Warts occur more easily if the skin has been damaged in some way.

What are the different kinds of warts?

  • Common warts usually grow on fingers, around nails and on the backs of hands. They are more common where skin has been broken, for example where fingernails are bitten or hangnails picked. These are often called "seed" warts because blood vessels in the wart produce black dots that look like seeds.
  • Foot (plantar) warts usually grow on the soles (plantar area) of the feet. They are called mosaic warts when they grow in clusters. Most do not stick up above the surface like common warts because the pressure of walking flattens them and pushes them back into the skin. They may have black dots and can be painful, feeling like a stone in the shoe.
  • Flat warts are smaller and smoother than other warts and tend to grow in large numbers - 20 to 100 at any one time. They can occur anywhere, but are often found in the beard area in men and on the legs in women, probably due to irritation from shaving.
  • Genital warts are soft, fleshy growths in moist areas in and around the sex organs. They are often invisible to the naked eye, painless, and can be raised, pointed or flat. They may appear singly or in clusters. For more information, see our pamphlet on HPV.

Do warts need to be treated?

Warts can sometimes disappear without treatment, although this usually takes months. However, warts that are bothersome, painful, or rapidly multiplying should be treated.

How do dermatologists treat warts?

There are a variety of treatments, depending on the type and location of the wart:

  • Daily application of salicylic acid gel, solution or plaster. There is usually little discomfort with this treatment, but it can take many weeks to obtain favorable results.
  • Treatment should be stopped at least temporarily if the wart becomes sore.
  • "Painting" with cantharidin in the dermatologist's office. Cantharidin causes a blister to form under the wart. The dermatologist can then clip away the dead part of the wart in the blister roof in a week or so.
  • Cryotherapy (freezing) is often the preferred treatment, as it is not too painful and rarely results in scarring. However, repeat treatments at one to three week intervals are often necessary.
  • Electrosurgery (burning) is a possible treatment.
  • LASER treatment can also be used for resistant warts that have not responded to other therapies.
  • "Peeling" methods use daily applications of salicylic acid, tretinoin, glycolic acid or other surface peeling preparations.
  • Injecting each wart with an anti-cancer drug called bleomycin.
  • The injections may be painful and can have other side effects.
  • Immunotherapy, which attempts to use the body's own rejection system, involves several methods. With one method, the patient is made allergic to a certain chemical, which is then painted on the wart. A mild allergic reaction occurs around the treated warts, and may result in the disappearance of the warts. Warts may also be injected with interferon, a treatment to boost the immune reaction and cause rejection of the wart.

Can I treat my own warts without seeing a doctor?

There are wart remedies available without a prescription. However, you might mistake another kind of skin growth for a wart, and end up treating something more serious as though it were a wart. If you have any questions about either the diagnosis or the best way to treat a wart, you should see a dermatologist.

What about the use of hypnosis or "folk" remedies?

Many people, patients and doctors alike, believe folk remedies and hypnosis are effective. Since warts, especially in children, may disappear without treatment, it's hard to know whether it was a folk remedy or just the passage of time that led to the cure. Since warts are generally harmless, there may be times when these treatments are appropriate. Medical treatments can always be used if necessary.

What about the problem of recurrent warts?

Sometimes it seems as if new warts appear as fast as old ones go away. This may happen because the old warts have shed virus into the surrounding skin before they were treated. In reality new "baby" warts are growing up around the original "mother" warts. The best way to limit this is to treat new warts as quickly as they develop so they have little time to shed virus into nearby skin. A check by your dermatologist can help assure the treated wart has resolved completely.

Is there any research going on about warts?

Research is moving along very rapidly. There is great interest in new treatments, as well as the development of a vaccine against warts. We hope there will be a solution to the annoying problem of warts in the not too distant future.