There’s something so joyful about feeling the sun warm your skin as you power through your daily hot girl walk — you can’t help but smile as you soak up that sweet, sweet vitamin D. Unfortunately, that’s not all you’re soaking up, as the sun is also pelting your poor, unsuspecting skin with a barrage of ultraviolet rays that are slowly and steadily wreaking havoc on your cells. “Sun damage is the main cause of aging as it breaks down collagen and elastin,” says Dr. Paul Jarrod Frank, celebrity cosmetic dermatologist and founder of PFRANKMD in New York City. “Eighty percent of photo-damage and aging is caused by environmental factors such as UV light and pollution.”
It’s called photoaging and it’s what leads to everything from premature wrinkles to hyperpigmentation and textural changes. While your skin will naturally feel these effects over time (so-called chronoaging), photoaging causes you to experience them at an accelerated rate because the UV rays fast track the damage.
And, the older you get or the more sun damage you are exposed to, the more intense those effects will become because your skin becomes progressively less well-equipped to handle it, explains Dr. Corey L. Hartman, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Skin Wellness Dermatology in Birmingham, Alabama. “As your skin gets thinner, and doesn’t produce as much collagen or have as much fat or structure to help support it, it’s going to be affected even more,” he says. It’s the ultimate beauty catch-22.
While you might be tempted to run screaming inside and wrap yourself in head-to-toe UPF gear — or become permanently nocturnal — the good news is you don’t have to give up your beloved (safe) sun worship in order to keep your skin looking and feeling like its best, most vibrant self. We’ve come a long way in the past decade in reversing the effects of cumulative UV exposure with treatments for everything from melasma to broken capillaries to deep wrinkles.
To help you find the most effective treatment plan for your complexion concerns, TZR spoke to the experts to learn what is happening with your skin and the sun at every decade, plus the best at-home products and in-office procedures to most effectively treat them. Keep reading to learn how to reverse sun damage on the skin at every age.
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How To Treat Sun Damage In Your 20s
At this stage, it’s less about sun damage manifesting on your skin and more about its accumulation. As Dr. Ellen Marmur, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Marmur Medical in New York City, explains, this is the decade in your adult life when the majority of your unprotected UV exposure is happening, either due to carelessness, ignorance on proper sun care, or just being too damn busy to remember to reapply. “In your 20s, your skin is really healthy but your behaviors are the worst,” she says. “They can really lead to the abuse of your skin.” What you’ll see at this age in terms of damage will mostly be sunburns, peeling skin, and tan lines. Yes, a tan is technically a form of sun damage and no, there’s no such thing as a “healthy” base tan. Some people might also experience melasma, which appears as hard-to-remove patches of pigmented skin around the eyes, upper lip, and forehead.
Because of this, your goal should be finding a sun care product that you absolutely love, because the odds of wearing SPF goes up exponentially when you actually enjoy it. And the best sun protection is the one you wear consistently. Look for hybrid products that combine steps like moisturizer, antioxidant, and SPF to up the convenience factor while also getting you in the habit of using quality ingredients on your skin. A few standouts to try include Ilia’s C Beyond Triple Serum SPF 40 Mineral Sunscreen with Vitamin C, a lightweight tinted serum which includes antioxidant vitamin C and niacinamide to brighten and blur; Taos Aer SPF 30 Broad Spectrum Mineral Sunscreen that provides non-nano zinc protection infused with desert plant oils and antioxidants to nourish and hydrate skin with non-greasy moisture; and Kinfield Sunglow SPF30 Luminizing Sunscreen Lotion, made with glycerin, jojoba oil, and a shimmering mineral tint that gives you an instant glow up.
And remember, “It’s not about the application of sunscreen, but the reapplication of sunscreen that matters most,” urges Dr. Frank. “Reapplying every three hours between the hours of 10 am and 4pm is crucial. Sunscreen doesn’t last all day and needs to be reapplied, even more often for those participating in water sports or exercising.”
If you are experiencing melasma, Dr. Frank recommends talking to your derm about the Clear and Brilliant Perméa laser treatment. This gentle fractional laser addresses superficial pigmentation by targeting the specific layer of the skin where melanin resides, creating microscopic skin injuries that stimulate collagen and helps improve tone and radiance.
How To Treat Sun Damage In Your 30s
For many people in their 30s, sun damage will begin to manifest in very subtle ways — specifically fine lines and wrinkles, says Dr. Marmur. “The reason this is happening is that the sun is thinning out your collagen,” she says, “so your skin is actually getting thinner.” You might also begin to notice some slight pigment changes in the form of brown spots and redness, and those with darker skin tones can see some reverse pigmentation, says Dr. Hartman, meaning lighter patches of skin. The more you expose your skin to the sun, the more these issues will be exacerbated, and factors like environment and genetics will play a role as to how quickly they progress.
At home, you’ll want to start incorporating retinols into your regimen alongside your antioxidants you were using in your 20s to help address both wrinkles and hyperpigmentation, and of course daily sunscreen. Retinol eye creams, like the MMSkincare Bright & Tight will provide targeted wrinkle-reducing treatment that’s safe for the delicate eye area. For an all-over skin fix, try Medik8’s Crystal Retinal Night Serum, which lets you choose your intensity to customize the level of vitamin A to fit your needs and sensitivity level.
Working with your derm to develop a treatment plan for your sun damage is crucial during this decade because it will be building the foundation for your skin’s health in the decades to come. So…no pressure! On the lasers’ front, Dr. Frank says that he usually recommends several Clear and Brilliant Perméa treatments or one Fraxel annually, depending on the severity of pigmentation. “If the patient has melasma, I might also combine a Picosecond laser with the Perméa, and if broken capillaries are present, a vascular laser like the Excel V or Vbeam to treat the redness.” For Dr. Marmur, she recommends lasers once or twice a year in the winter for her patients (since lasers make you more sensitive to the sun, you want to do them when you won’t be outdoors for prolonged periods of time), as well as microneedling and the occasional Hydrafacial. “Think about it like putting money back in the bank,” she says. “You’ve just dissolved your collagen bank, so you need to replenish it with these proven treatments.”
For more instant solutions, Dr. Hartman suggests Botox to smooth out the crows feet, forehead lines, lip lines, and “bunny lines” around the mouth that are common from sun damage in the 30s.
How To Treat Sun Damage In Your 40s
In the immortal words of Martin Lawrence in the seminal film Bad Boys 2, sh*t just got real. “In your 40s is really when you start to see those changes to your skin — the sagginess, the sallowness, the texture changes, the pigment changes,” says Dr. Hartman. “That’s when people come in and tell me that their skin just doesn’t look the same. It doesn’t have the same life, it doesn’t have the same vibrancy, it doesn’t stay as moisturized. This is when you start to see the sunspots, the melasma, and further exacerbation of that degrading tone and texture.” Adds Dr. Marmur, “I think aging happens kind of gradually at times in your life, and then it seems like it takes a huge step forward. In your 40s is where some people have this moment where they wake up and they're like, ‘Oh my God, how did that happen?’”
If you haven’t stepped up your at-home routine, now is the time to get to work, says Dr. Marmur. “During the day, it’s about peptides, antioxidants, and hyaluronic acid barrier repair,” she says. “At night, balancing the microbiome is really important, so don’t over-cleanse your skin and continue to build up your barrier.” Ultra-hydrating and reparative creams like Joaquina Botánica Porcelain Cacao + Amino Acids Crema Esencial or 27 Rosiers Ma Crème Intense Youth Preserving Moisturizing Balm are great additions at this stage. In people with darker skin tones, says Dr. Hartman, sun damage tends to cause little confetti light spots, and for those patients, he recommends a topical treatment called Cyspera. “It helps to upregulate the good pigment and downregulate the bad pigment — not just lighten skin like hydroquinone would, but give a nice, even, natural-looking skin tone.”
For skin laxity, Dr. Hartman is a big fan of combining microneedling with radiofrequency which will “heat up” the layers of the skin. “Radiofrequency addresses skin tightening and firmness,” he says. “It's great because it can be used on all skin types. It is colorblind because it is taking the heat where it's going to be most effective and bypassing where it can cause the most damage. So it's not going to burn — you can go very deep or you can keep it pretty superficial and keep it as more of a lunchtime procedure with little downtime.” For pigmentation, Dr. Hartman suggests a combo of one Fraxel treatment with a handful of maintenance broadband light treatments (BBL) annually. BBL is a non-invasive light treatment that he calls a “magic eraser” for red and brown pigment. It works by sending intense pulsed light into the deeper layers of the skin to destroy pigmented skin cells. “Depending on the patient, I’ll have them do a Fraxel to clean everything up, then maintain it with a BBL,” says Dr. Hartman.
How To Treat Sun Damage In Your 50s+
Your 50s, 60s, and 70s is a “more of the same” scenario where you’ll see that the sun damage that has already manifested will exacerbate with age and hormonal changes. That means deeper wrinkles, drier skin, rougher texture, more dark spots and broken capillaries, dullness, and a loss of firmness and volume that will make your skin look less firm and tight.
At this point, says Dr. Marmur, you should stop shopping around so much and focus in on the brands and products you know work well for your skin. Again, your routine should be centered around the peptides, antioxidants, and hyaluronic acid barrier repair while throwing in some prescription creams from your dermatologist for your more persistent issues like rosacea.
Because your sun damage has gone deeper, says Dr. Frank, your treatment needs to penetrate deeper into the skin to be as effective as it was in your younger years. “Sun damage affects both the dermal and epidermal layers of the skin,” he says. “Depending on the severity of the damage, various lasers can target each area individually or in combination.” He recommends choosing a Fraxel laser that corresponds best with your specific skin needs. “Fraxel Thulium is a simple and effective treatment that addresses sun damage in the more superficial levels,” he explains. “Several treatments are performed for a cumulative effect. Deeper lasers such as the Fraxel Restore and Fraxel Repair address more severe sun damage, targeting all layers of skin. Depending on a patient’s expectations, availability of downtime, and budget, one or a combination of these treatments are extremely effective in permanently reversing several of the cosmetic and medical symptoms of sun damage.”
For patients who are experiencing a lack of volume, Dr. Hartman is a fan of Sculptra, which is a type of bio-stimulatory filler. That means that in addition to plumping out hollow areas of the face, it also actually stimulates your skin’s own collagen over time. He often times will combine hyaluronic acid fillers with Sculptra for a type of liquid facelift effect on patients who aren’t comfortable or aren’t ready to undergo a surgical facelift procedure.
The key thing to remember about sun damage (well, outside of preventing it and getting those yearly skin checks, obvi) is to remember that the earlier you address it, the better off you’ll be in the long run, says Dr. Frank. “Sun damage is the precursor to wrinkles,” he explains. “The earlier you remove the damaged skin, the better. The longer sun damage sits on the skin, the longer your collagen and elastin will break down.” Adds Dr. Hartman, “Stay consistent — popping in and out of a different dermatologist’s office isn’t going to help you. You want someone to be your guiding light and give you a long-term plan that will keep everything under control.” And that plan doesn’t have to involve giving up your beloved vitamin D or swaddling yourself in a full-body UPF cape every time you leave the house — promise.