The Body Beautiful

Can you feel them? Those delightful warm breezes that call for flowing sundresses and strappy sandals? Along with the anticipated return of picnics and fireflies comes renewed attention to skin, including those unwelcome imperfections.

To the rescue: our four-page guide to getting prepped for swimsuit season. No matter what your skin woes, we have the solutions. Start with our at-home beauty treatments for better skin and then, if needed, call in the reinforcements. In no time, you'll be set to strip off the layers with confidence.

Keratosis pilaris

Rough, bumpy skin on the backs of your upper arms, butt, and thighs is the hallmark of this very common -- and completely harmless -- condition. Although keratosis pilaris (KP) looks like tiny pimples, it's actually a buildup of dead cells around individual hair follicles, says Dr. Mary Lupo, a clinical professor of dermatology at Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans. A chronic problem that can be treated but not cured, KP frequently, and inexplicably, improves during the summer and sometimes even gets better with age.

At Home

Regular use of a body scrub, which sloughs dead cells from the skin's surface, can help rub out the problem within a couple of months. To keep follicles from replugging, use a lotion with an exfoliator such as retinol, salicylic acid, or alpha hydroxy acid daily, suggests Dr. Anne Chapas, an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at New York University School of Medicine. Look for one that's also formulated with urea, a moisturizer that softens the toughest of skin.

In Office

Microdermabrasion, a beauty treatment that uses tiny particles to lightly sandblast the top layer of skin, leaves you noticeably softer and smoother. You'll see a significant improvement in KP after two or three weekly treatments, which run about $150 each. If residual redness persists, intense pulsed light therapy, which uses high-intensity pulses of light to target pigment in the skin, may help destroy the redness that creates the polka-dot effect. Each skin care beauty treatment costs $500 to $1,000 and you'll probably need at least three sessions. The pain is bearable, and any subsequent irritation fades within a few days.

Cherry spots

Good news: These bright red spots (cherry hemangiomas, in medical speak) are harmless. Bad news: They tend to grow in number and size with age, though they rarely become larger than a pencil eraser. Exactly what causes cherry spots, a proliferation of capillaries that commonly appear on the chest, stomach, and back, is a mystery, says Dr. David Duffy, a clinical professor of dermatology at the University of Southern California. They are, however, thought to be hereditary.

At Home

There's no effective, over-the-counter treatment for cherry spots, but concealer can help camouflage them. Duffy recommends using a heavy-duty opaque cover-up, such as Classic CoverMark ($22; cover markusa.com). If your skin tone is fair to medium, applying self-tanner or dusting on bronzer can also reduce the color contrast between the spots and your skin.

In Office

A dermatologist can zap away cherry spots, wherever they are on the body, with the pulsed dye laser (PDL). It zeros in on blood vessels to knock out redness. Although you'll shell out $100 to $300 a PDL session (two or three are recommended), the results are worth it: In a 2001 study, cherry spots improved in 97 percent of those treated, and 14 percent saw their spots vanish entirely. Expect some slight stinging and minimal bruising that lasts a few days.

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Stretch Marks

Like a rubber band that eventually snaps when pulled too far, stretch marks occur when the skin is extended to the breaking point. Usually the result of a pregnancy or dramatic increase in weight, the unsightly streaks appear when collagen (which supports the skin) and elastin fibers (which provide elasticity) break apart. Technically considered scars, stretch marks, which most frequently appear on the abdomen, hips, and breasts, initially look pink or purplish and may be slightly raised. With time, they usually assume a thin, sunken appearance and fade to white.

At Home

If you're already using a prescription retinoid cream like Renova to reduce wrinkles, it may help ever so slightly to dab some on your stretch marks as well, especially if they're less than 6 months old. "Retinoids help form new collagen and elastin, which can make stretch marks more similar in appearance to your normal skin," Southern California's Duffy says.

According to a University of Michigan Medical Center study, 80 percent of patients with fairly new stretch marks treated with a retinoid cream for 6 months saw the length of their marks decrease by an average of 14 percent and the width by 8 percent. You can also try retinol, the less-potent retinoid available in over-the-counter cream. "It's definitely worth a try, but the best results are seen on newer stretch marks," Duffy says.

In Office

Consider a new laser skin care treatment called Fraxel, which stimulates collagen production by heating the lower layer of the skin. In a yet-to-be-published study of 18 patients conducted by NYU's Chapas, five Fraxel treatments at 2- to 3-week intervals were found to fade even old stretch marks by about 50 percent. The laser works by emitting a very thin beam of infrared light that makes thousands of microscopic wounds over only 20 percent of your skin; the surrounding tissue is left untouched.

This "fractional" approach allows the skin to heal much faster than if the entire area were treated at once, says Dr. Roy Geronemus, a clinical professor of dermatology at NYU Medical Center. It also means that side effects, including pain, are minimal; mild swelling and redness subside in a few days. The drawbacks: Each treatment costs about $500, and up to five sessions are necessary to see optimal results.

For more health tips, check out the latest issue of Prevention, on shelves now!

Spider Veins

These web-like clusters of red, blue, and purple streaks, each about the width of a hair, affect about 50 percent of women. Spider veins, or telangiectasias, are dilated capillaries that become visible because they're situated so close to the skin's surface. Though the exact cause is unknown, risk factors include hormonal changes from menopause and trauma to the skin, such as bruises. Women who spend a lot of time on their feet are prone to getting them (the pressure on the legs forces the capillaries to fill with blood), as are those who habitually cross their legs or are even a few pounds over their ideal body weight.

At Home

DIY solutions include covering spiders with heavy-duty concealer (a quick fix if you only have a few to hide) or applying self-tanner to minimize the contrast between your skin and the colorful vessels. To prevent them, avoid prolonged periods of standing or sitting. Another smart move: wearing tight-fitting support stockings, which decrease pressure that accumulates throughout the day.

In Office

A dermatologist can exterminate spider veins with a simple "lunchtime" procedure called sclerotherapy, during which a solution is injected into the vein via a very fine needle. The solution irritates the lining of the vessel, causing it to swell and stick together and eventually collapse in this closed position. Over a period of weeks, the vessel turns into scar tissue that's absorbed by the body, becoming barely noticeable or invisible. Though not an instant fix, sclerotherapy, -which doesn't require anesthesia, -usually clears 80 percent of spider veins in three or four monthly treatments, Duffy says. Discomfort is minimal and includes some stinging at the site of injection and possible muscle cramping that subsides after about 15 minutes. Cost: $250 to $750 per session, depending on how many squiggles you have.

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Ingrown Hairs

After shaving or waxing, the curly hairs in your bikini area sometimes get trapped inside the follicle or grow back into the surrounding skin, causing painful, red, pimplelike "bikini bumps."

At Home

Gentle use of a body scrub or washcloth every other day will help dislodge trapped hairs and prevent their return. For a chronic case, try a product such as Tend Skin, which contains an exfoliant that keeps bumps at bay by eliminating the dead cells that hinder hair from growing out of the skin. Then dab on a pimple medication containing benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid to reduce inflammation and stave off bacteria that cause infection, says Cindy Barshop, owner of Completely Bare, a New York City-based spa that specializes in hair removal.

In Office

If ingrown hairs become infected, ask your doctor for a prescription-strength antibiotic lotion to kill bacteria and a steroid cream to quell swelling and redness. If you're especially prone to bikini bumps, consider laser hair removal, which makes them a thing of the past.

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