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Can You Reverse Sun Damage on Your Skin?

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Sun’s out, skin’s out! The hot summer months upon us mean more time at the pool and outdoors. But keeping skin protection top of mind during this time of year is crucial.

For this reason, Lifesavvy spoke with Dr. Elizabeth Hale, board-certified dermatologist and SVP of the Skin Cancer Foundation and Dr. Karan Lal DO, FAAD to dig into the basic signs of sun damage, how and if you can reverse it, and expert tips for preventing skin damage during the hot summer ahead.

What Is Sun Damage?

Sun damage to your skin occurs as a result of prolonged exposure to Ultraviolet (UVB) radiation or UVA radiation. The biggest difference between UVB and UVA rays is that UVB rays have a shorter wavelength, and therefore, while a UVB ray might cause sunburn, a UVA ray has the chance of aging the skin long-term.

According to Lal, sun damage from both types of rays can appear as “brown spots, redness, rough patches, freckling, and/or skin thinning.” Most commonly, these signs will occur on your face, neck, chest, back of the hands, and forearms.

Sun damage can range from acute to chronic (a long-term problem of 6 months or greater). The most common acute damage that the sun can cause to the skin is in the form of a sunburn. But it’s not just a burn. Hale also revealed that skin that’s got a “tan” is also a form of sun damage. In technical terms, tanned skin is a type of hyperpigmentation or excessive amounts of melanin causing the skin to darken.

Naturium Vitamin C Complex Face Serum

A vitamin C is great for brightening the skin.

Hale shared that UVB rays are particularly harmful because exposure to them leads to DNA mismatching, a cellular substitution that can cause cancerous changes in your DNA structure later in life. The same type of ray can stimulate melanocytes, and cause the skin to have hyperpigmentation, melasma (a skin condition that causes patches on the face), sunspots, and other forms of skin aging.

UVA rays, on the other hand, have the ability to penetrate deeper into the skin than UVB rays. Because of this, they are able to break down collagen and elastin which leads to unwanted wrinkles. Collagen and elastin are significant because they provide firmness and elasticity to the skin.


What Does Sun Damage Look Like?

A man has a tan line on his arm from wearing a tee shirt in sun exposure.

Acute and chronic sun damage have distinct differences to note. According to Hale and Lal, the damage falls into two categories:

  • Aesthetic or Cosmetic: This is a type of sun damage that takes the form of sunspots, wrinkles, uneven texture, and enlarged pores. Wrinkles and uneven pigment/texture are also considered aesthetic effects of skin damage due to sun exposure. Lal explained that often times dark spots form from pigment activation from chronic UV exposure.
  • Photocarcinogenesis, or Sun-Induced Skin Cancer:  Hale shared that about 90% of skin cancers are caused by overexposure to the sun. Cancerous skin damage might show up on your skin in the form of a wart (otherwise known as herpes simplex virus), a fever blister, or a cold sore. Unfortunately, there is a latency period for cancer to develop as a result of skin exposure, meaning, years can pass before symptoms of cancer appear on your skin. Lal went onto describe that “the sun can cause DNA damage to occur over time and once this DNA damage is beyond our body’s repair, skin cancer occurs.”

Can You Reverse Sun Damage?

When it comes to reversing sun damage, if your DNA has been altered from UV rays exposure, there’s no reversing it. However, you can reduce the appearance on sun damage on the skin.

Our experts shared a variety of ways to help repair the appearance of hyperpigmentation, brighten skin, and deal with skin damage due to sun rays. Hale recommends products that feature ingredients including vitamin C, niacinamide, retinol, and glycolic acid.

“A topical retinol can help even out texture (if your skin can tolerate it) by increasing cell turnover and stimulating collagen. For people who don’t tolerate retinol, they can look for an ingredient called bakuchiol, which features retinol-like properties but is nonirritating,” said Hale.

CeraVe Retinol Serum

Work a retinol into your routine.

Hale also explained that skin damage can be both repaired and prevented through enzymes, known as superoxide dismutase and photolyase. Superoxide dismutase protects the body from oxidative stress and can help calm skin, and photolyase has shown promise for DNA repair. Hale recommends using Meaningful Beauty Creme de Serum which is packed with antioxidants. 

Lal went on to explain that sunscreen with antioxidants can reduce “free radicals” (or unstable atoms that can cause damage to cells causing illness and aging) from building up in your skin. When applied regularly, sunscreen also has the ability to help brown sunspots fade.

Herbivore Botanicals Bakuchiol

Try this retinol alternative.

Outside of these product recommendations, both doctors had unique insights into the benefits of various treatments that are available for those that suffer from acute and chronic skin damage. While Hale explained Photodynamic Therapy as a laser procedure option for minimizing pre-cancerous cells, Lal shared that Broad Band Light Therapy is a great option for reversing DNA damage as a result of sun exposure. 

“There are also cosmetic lasers like Fraxel that can help to improve the appearance of sunspots and wrinkles,” Hale said

How Do You Prevent Sun Damage?

Hale and Lal came together in sharing that the most important daily habit you can develop to prevent sun damage is to wear sunscreen. Hale specified that wearing a broad spectrum of 30 or higher will help to minimize future sunspots, wrinkles. and prevent skin cancer.

In addition to wearing SPF 30+ on all exposed areas, both doctors emphasized the importance of wearing sun-protective clothing whenever possible, like a hat, sunglasses, and long sleeves to prevent sun damage.

Sun protective clothing is an easy way to get sun protection as you don’t need to reapply sunscreen in covered areas,” Lal explained. 

Lastly, our experts recommend seeking shady areas during your time outside, especially during the summer months.

Sun damage is a high risk for all populations! Our doctors revealed the large range of severity to take into account when inspecting your skin for potential spots, pigmentation, and redness. Above all, take your sunscreen application seriously, and be aware of all of the treatment options readily available to keep your skin healthy.

Jenn Vigh Jenn Vigh
Jenn is a pilates and yoga instructor, an aerialist, and a travel blogger with 5 years of experience in nonprofit communications, and over 10 years of experience writing, teaching, training, performing and collaborating with creatives across the globe. For the last 6 years, her American home-base has been Austin, TX, where she’s worked with the aerial dance company, Blue Lapis Light, and enjoyed the sunshine with her world-traveling yorkipoo, Sheila. Read Full Bio »
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