Can You Reverse Sun Damage?

Medically Reviewed by Stephanie S. Gardner, MD on February 21, 2024
9 min read

It feels good to spend time in the sunshine, but it can take a toll on your skin.

That’s because the sun gives off ultraviolet (UV) light that damages your skin and causes sunburn. Over time, these rays can lead to wrinkles, dark spots, and other problem areas. The result: You can add years to your looks. Research shows that UV exposure is the reason behind 80% of your skin’s aging.

Is there any way you can turn back the clock? Fortunately, experts are shedding light on ways you can reverse some problems caused by the sun. It’s not possible to erase all of the damage, but there are some steps you can take for these common conditions.

By the time your skin turns pink and painful, most of the harm is already done. Sunburns happen when there’s damage to the DNA in your skin cells. Over time, these injuries add up and lead to physical changes like wrinkles and skin cancer.

While there are plenty of things you can do to ease the pain, there are only a few ways you can counteract the damage before it’s there for good. Wear a broad spectrum sunscreen -- and reapply it at least every 80 minutes -- and try to stick to the shade. 

wear long sleeves, long pants and a broad brim hat.

wear long sleeves, long pants and a broad brim hat.

Wear long sleeves, pants, and a hat with a wide brim. You’ll protect yourself from future UV radiation and give your skin’s enzymes time to repair some of the damaged DNA.

An over-the-counter supplement called Heliocare Advanced prevents sunburn, helps your skin repair the DNA damage you get daily, and decreases your risk for nonmelanoma skin cancer by 30 percent a year.

The sun can parch your skin, leaving you with rough patches. But you don’t have to be stuck with the lizard look. Use a scrub or loofah to gently exfoliate and remove the top layer of dead skin cells to reveal the soft skin beneath. Then moisturize with lotion. If you’re sunburned, skip petroleum-based products, which trap in heat. Also drink plenty of water during the day.

UV rays can break down collagen and elastin, two proteins that keep skin firm and smooth. Try these treatments to iron out those wrinkles:

  • Beta-carotene: Research shows that this antioxidant makes skin more supple and flexible and reduces sun-related wrinkles. You can find it in fruits and vegetables, such as carrots, spinach, and cantaloupe, or in a supplement.
  • Retinoids: These compounds boost the amount of collagen in your skin. Your dermatologist can prescribe a cream or a serum, such as tretinoin (Renova, Retin-A). You can find a less potent form, retinol, in over-the-counter products. They do everything from smoothing fine lines and fading dark spots to making pores look smaller. Use the product at night since sunlight makes retinoids inactive. They can irritate your skin, so it’s best to ease them into your skin care routine. Apply every other night to start, and slowly work up to nightly use. During the day, use a cream with antioxidants like vitamin C, coffeeberry extract, or green tea. They defend against the sun’s damage to collagen and elastin, the proteins that keep skin firm and supple, and improve existing signs of aging.
  • Chemical peels: This treatment removes damaged cells from the upper layers of your skin. Options can range from alpha-hydroxy or salicylic acid cream you apply yourself to a medium-depth peel, which you get from a dermatologist.
  • Microdermabrasion: This technique uses tiny grains, crystals, or diamond tips to remove the outer layer of skin. It also prompts the growth of collagen.
  • Laser therapy: Short pulses of concentrated light remove specific layers or areas of the skin to reveal fresh, new skin beneath. There are a few different types of laser therapy, including CO2 and erbium laser resurfacing.
  • Microneedling: This procedure involves prickling the skin with tiny sterilized needles. The small wounds cause your body to make more collagen and elastin, which heal your skin and help you look younger.

Over-the-counter and prescription treatments can help erase these dark spots, also known as liver spots or solar lentigines. Your skin makes a chemical called melanin to protect itself against UV rays. Too much sun can cause a clump of it to form, which shows up as a flat brown or black spot. To fight the damage, try:

  • Skin-lightening creams: Products with hydroquinone can lighten skin. Kojic and glycolic acids are two other ingredients that can help remove these marks, too.
  • Retinoids: Along with smoothing wrinkles, these compounds speed up the turnover and shedding of pigmented cells.
  • Cryotherapy: Liquid nitrogen freezes the area so that it peels away.
  • Chemical peels, microdermabrasion, and laser therapy: These treatments can remove outer layers of skin so new, clear skin can come to the surface.

More than 6 million Americans get these splotchy brown or grey patches. Although experts aren’t certain of the exact reason for it, they know that sun exposure can cause melanin to go into overdrive and create the spots on the skin.

You can reverse melasma with many of the same treatments that work for age spots, such as skin-lightening creams. One study found that hydroquinone, kojic acid, and glycolic acid all worked well in reducing the splotches. Chemical peels, microdermabrasion, and laser therapy are also options.

Most important, strict sun avoidance and liberal use of broad-spectrum sunscreens that protect against UVA, UVB, and visible light are a must for successful treatment of melasma.

Also called solar keratoses, these scaly, crusty patches are forms of sun damage, but they can also turn into a bigger problem. Without treatment, up to 10% of them may turn into skin cancer.

Many of the treatments that repair other sun damage may also work for AK, such as cryotherapy, chemical peels, and laser therapy. You can also try:

  • Prescription creams/gels. Your doctor can prescribe a few different drugs you put on your skin to treat sun-damaged areas.
    • Imiquimod (Aldara, Zyclara) causes your skin to create a chemical called interferon that kills precancerous cells.
    • 5-fluorouracil (Carac, Efudex, Fluoroplex) is another drug that destroys fast-growing AK cells.
    • A newer treatment called ingenol mebutate (Picato) treats the patches within 2-3 days.
    • If your skin is too sensitive for these creams, hyaluronic acid paired with the drug diclofenac (Solaraze) can treat AK.
  • Photodynamic therapy. First, you take a medicine that makes your skin more sensitive to light. Then your doctor will point a strong red or blue light at your skin to switch on the drug and destroy AK.

The treatment you get for AK depends on your specific case. For instance, if you only have a few individual lesions, cryotherapy may be the best option. If your case is more widespread, your doctor will probably recommend a cream or gel to apply to all sun-damaged areas.

If sun damage gives you any new or changing marks, let your dermatologist know. They could be a sign of skin cancer. And protect yourself from future UV harm with sun-safe habits. Avoid the sun between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., and wear protective clothing and a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 and 8% zinc oxide. Apply a thick layer of sunscreen to all exposed skin, and reapply every 80 minutes when out and after swimming and sweating.

The idea that you can sleep away your skin troubles isn’t far-fetched. Nighttime is when skin does the bulk of its repair work, such as making new cells and mending or shedding old, damaged ones. This is also when it makes the most of any creams and lotions you apply. Skin gets warmer at night, so products seep in better and yield faster results. Aim to snooze for at least 7 hours a night. In one study, women who slept 7 to 9 hours a night looked younger, had more hydrated skin, and were happier with their looks than those who slept only 5 hours.

Nutrition is just as important for your skin as it is for the rest of your body. In one study, people with sun damage who ate more vegetables, olive oil, fish, and legumes -- and less butter, meat, dairy, and sugar -- had fewer wrinkles. The results were similar for women with diets high in vitamin C, like citrus fruits, broccoli, strawberries, and leafy greens. Vegetable oils, nuts, and seeds have another nutrient, a fatty acid called linoleic acid, which moisturizes skin. And since antioxidants offer UV protection from the inside out, foods high in lycopene (tomatoes), polyphenols (green tea), and flavanols (cocoa) can be part of your skin-saving strategy.

When you boost your heart rate and blood flow, you help your body undo skin aging by delivering more nutrients to cells that repair damage. A sweat session also makes your skin more taut and toned. Want proof? In a recent study, researchers found that people over 40 who were active for at least 3 hours a week had skin that was similar to that of people in their 20s and 30s -- even in someone up to age 65. As a bonus, exercise also helps you keep a healthy weight, which is key since extra pounds weaken your skin’s support structure and lead to sagging.

Inner turmoil takes a huge toll on skin. Part of the reason is that stress increases the hormone cortisol. It keeps skin from holding on to water and triggers a spike in blood sugar that damages collagen and elastin. Any type of exercise can tame tension, but yoga seems to be an especially good way to lower cortisol levels.

Sure, alcohol has antioxidants that help protect skin from damage. But it’s high in sugar, too.  When you get too much, it triggers a process called glycation that destroys collagen and elastin. It also saps skin’s hydration, which makes wrinkles more noticeable, and causes spidery capillaries to show up on your face. For most people, a daily beer or glass of wine won’t have a visible effect on skin.