Can You Reverse Sun Damage?

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.

Sunburn

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 sunscreen -- and reapply it at least every 80 minutes -- and try to stick to the shade. You’ll protect yourself from future UV radiation and give your skin’s enzymes time to repair some of the damaged DNA.

Dry Skin

The sun can parch your skin, leaving with you 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.

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Wrinkles

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.
  • 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.

Sun or Age Spots

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.

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Melasma

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.

Actinic Keratosis (AK)

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. 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 to apply to all sun-damaged areas.

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Get Checked Out by a Dermatologist

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. Apply a thick layer of sunscreen to all exposed skin, and reapply every 80 minutes when out and after swimming and sweating.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Stephanie S. Gardner, MD on August 11, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:

Lily Uihlein, MD, pediatric dermatologist, Loyola University Medical Center.

Skin Cancer Foundation: “Repair (and Even Reverse) Signs of Sun Damage.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Sun Exposure & Skin Cancer.”

Flament, F. Journal of Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology, September 2013.

American Skin Association: “Sun Safety.”

Cho, S. Dermatology, June 2010.

Darvin, M. Journal of Biophotonics, September 2014.

American Society for Dermatologic Surgery: “Chemical Peels” and “Cryotherapy.”

Garcia, A. Dermatologic Surgery, May 1996.

NIH Office of Dietary Supplements: “Vitamin A.”

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