Skin Care for Sailors by Dr. Olasz Harken

Brought to you by

Edit B. Olasz Harken MD, PhD, FAAD
Co-Founder, Harken Derm
Harken Derm LLC

As a sailor, your skin is exposed to the elements, including sun, wind and water, all of which can damage the skin. It is especially important to take steps to lessen this damage and protect against skin cancer, aging, and more.


  • UV light from the sun causes skin cancer by direct DNA damage and indirect oxidative damage. Oxidative damage also causes unwanted pigment formation (sunspots, melasma, freckles) and weakens your collagen and elastin which causes wrinkles.
  • Sun, especially the infrared part (heat) can cause enlargement of blood vessels, facial redness but it also worsens melasma.
  • Wind, cold and any harsh environmental impact can lead to inflammation.


Skin Protection Tips for Sailors

  • Protect your skin as much as possible from the sun, “block” both UVB (causes burning, skin cancer and unwanted pigment) but UVA light (through oxidative damage, main cause of skin aging, reduction of collagen and elastin, unwanted pigment, weakening of skin barrier).
  • Use antioxidants to reduce damage caused by UVA and other environmental stressors.
  • Use moisturizers to repair skin barrier.
  • Use sunscreen that is at least SPF30, water resistant, preferably has only mineral filters, and has added antioxidants.
  • Use anti-inflammatory products that calm and sooth your skin.
  • Use ingredients that induce collagen and elastin production to thicken the dermis and reduce fine lines and wrinkle formation.


Be careful with: 

  • Exfoliants (AHA, BHA).
  • Scrubs and abrasive treatment.
  • Retinol and retinoic acid.
  • Hydroquinone, which can aggressively stop pigment production and can cause irritation.
  • Fragrances (can cause photosensitivity, phototoxicity and skin darkening).
  • Medications that cause photosensitivity (like doxycycline, a common acne medicine).


You may want to avoid using any of these during extended sailing periods in extremely high UV index environment or windy and cold environments. But if you use strict sun protection you can use them with caution.



In general, do not over cleanse or scrub your face. It damages your skin barrier. Avoid alcohol that removes the natural lipids from the barrier layer of your skin. Facial wipes are great to help remove very water-resistant mineral sunscreens like Harken Derm.



When purchasing sunscreen in the U.S., look for mineral filters and antioxidants, SPF50 thick layer, and 80 min water resistance when sailing, SPF thin layer or SPF30 thick layer is recommended for everyday use. I created Harken Derm for sailors! SPF50, high UVA protection with added antioxidants, extreme water resistance, quick drying, doesn’t burn the eyes, stays on the skin for a very long time.



Be careful with scrubs! As a sailor, you likely already have a lot of damage to your skin. Only use them very sparingly. Do not do any big skin resurfacing (ablative lasers) or skin damaging (peels, aggressive microneedling, etc.) treatment if you can’t be out of the sun for 1-2 weeks (depending on procedure) – this is true for everybody, not just sailors.



Antioxidants, like vitamins A and C, can help repair the skin but should be used sparingly.

There are many other antioxidants including Vitamin E (tocopheryl acetate), Ubiquinone (coenzyme q10/antioxidant), Ferulic Acid (antioxidant), Beta-Glucan (skin-soothing), Superoxide Dismutase (antioxidant), Epigallocatechin Gallate (antioxidant), Green Tea Polyphenols, Ergothioneine (antioxidant), Glutathione (antioxidant), Curcuma Root Extract (turmeric extract/antioxidant), Apple Fruit Extract (quercetin), Orange Fruit Extract, Rosa Canina Fruit Oil, Rosmarinus Officinalis (Rosemary) Leaf Extract and so on.



For pure moisturization it is best to have fatty acids, linoleic acid, ceramides, shea butter, cholesterol, glycerin as key ingredients. You can read more about different moisturizers on Harken Derm.

Hyaluronic acid can give your skin transient glow, but it is not a true moisturizer. Best to apply on damp skin.


How to counteract UVA-induced collagen damage

The gold standard, most researched and scientifically proven is retinoic acid (prescription) or its over-the counter weaker variant retinol. Both can be irritating and photosensitizing, but if you are careful and can tolerate it, it’s the best! Try to use it only 2-3 times a week and put moisturizer on top. You have to use it at night. Retinols are precursors of retinoic acid and are gentler most of the time. If you can’t tolerate it, use collagen stimulatory peptides and growth factors. Bakuchiol is a new ingredient which has similar effects to retinol without the irritation.

Almost all companies have retinol products, and the percentage does not always correlate with strength or how much irritation they will cause, as it is also influenced by other ingredients and the vehicle (base) of the product.


Brightening and reducing pigment production

Ingredients which brighten and reduce pigment production include azelaic acid, arbutin, kojic acid, vitamin C or botanicals that have vitamin C, hexylresorcinol, niacinamide, licorice extract.


Acne prone skin

Salicylic acid (beta hydroxy acid) or benzoyl peroxide are good over the counter solutions to combat acne but can be drying and irritating to the skin. Use sparingly. Rx tretinoin is a must for acne if you can tolerate it – ask your dermatologist.

For rosacea-prone skin or if your skin gets red and inflamed easily

Look for antioxidants and anti-inflammatory ingredients such as azelaic acid and niacinamide (B3) (but in low percentage), green tea polyphenols, resveratrol, rosa canina fruit oil (HD), apple fruit extract, safflower seed oil (HD), bakuchiol, chamomile, panthenol (B5), allantoin, bisabolol.


When To Use What

  • Cleansers: Use mainly after you get off the water, after exercise or any other activity that makes your skin polluted. Use to wash off sunscreen and / or makeup at the end of the day. You don’t need to cleanse your face in the morning as washing can dry out your skin.
  • Antioxidants: Can be used twice a day, but at least once a day is recommended. In the morning they will prevent damage, while in the evening they will repair damage. Good topical vitamin C should work for 24 hours and is a good place to start.
  • Moisturizer and anti-inflammatory creams: Use varies depending on how dry your skin is, but it is usually best to use at night. New studies show you can also put it under or over sunscreen during the day without changing SFP. But you should never mix your sunscreen with a moisturizer as it will “dilute” and decrease SPF. It can also be put over retinol or retinoic acid to reduce irritation and the drying effect.
  • Retinol and retinoic acid: ONLY at night.
  • Exfoliation: AHA, BHA, be very careful. They are okay to use in the morning if you are careful to wear sunscreen during the day but is best to use at night when you don’t use retinol or retinoic acid or in conjunction. This is called “skin cycling” (alternating active ingredients during the week).
  • Scrub: Only us a scrub if you feel your skin is dull, tired and gritty. Not more than once a week, or you can use it before an event when you want that “glowing” look.

If you want to simplify your skincare, like most man probably do, just use Harken Derm 2-step-solution. Your skin will receive high UVB and UVA protection, antioxidant defense and skin barrier repair!

Disclaimer: I have no relevant financial relationship to any of the above-mentioned companies except Harken Derm. This is not an exclusive list of recommended products. Ask your dermatologist about the right skincare regimen for you. There are always new ingredients being introduced and new science to stay up-to-date on skincare practices.

Special thank you to Harken Derm!