What Sun-Damaged Skin Looks Like — & The Easiest Way To Fix It

A girl after the skincare treatment of sun-damaged skin

A sun-kissed glow might seem like a harmless desire, especially in the months where your skin is constantly exposed. But the damage it causes to your skin isn't so safe. Excessive exposure to UV rays can severely damage your skin. But the good news is you can repair the damage with a skincare routine for sun-damaged skin.

According to the American Skin Association, sun damage occurs every time you go outdoors without sun protection (yes, even on cloudy days). The ultraviolet rays of the sun penetrate the epidermis, breaking down the middle layer of skin known as the dermis. Without protection, the UV rays go deep into the skin, causing irritation, and can even change the genetic makeup of the epidermis, which sometimes leads to skin cancer.

Indoor tanning is another culprit when it comes to sun damage. Regardless of whether you've used a tanning bed just once to get a base tan before a vacation or if you go on a weekly basis, once you tan, the skin sustains cellular damage. These beds cause more harm to the skin because the changes occur more rapidly than during normal exposure to the sun. This is attributed to the close range of the ultraviolet rays in the beds.

Whether you’re a repeat offender who seeks tanning or one who doesn’t apply SPF, signs of the damage will start to show. “Sun-damaged skin will appear dull, hyperpigmented, and of course have uneven tone, texture as well as fine lines and wrinkles,” Dr. Marnie Nussbaum, M.D., a New York City-based board-certified dermatologist says. “Cumulative sun damage can lead to precancerous lesions and skin cancer.” When the skin starts to exhibit these signs, it’s known as photo-aging the premature aging from repeated exposure to UV rays.

Dr. Estee Williams, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in New York City, notes that the classic sign of chronic excessive sun damage is the pigmentation of the skin in the form of age spots or patches on the face and other exposed areas of skin like the scalp and arms. Dr. Williams includes other characteristics like atrophy or thin skin and increasingly visible blood vessels. Atrophy is due to the rays breaking down collagen and elastin in the skin, making it look thin and translucent. Dr. Williams goes on to explain that acne and acne scars worsen, too. “Acne marks that are red or brown can get darker in the sun," she notes. "Make sure to cover them before you go outside.”

While the damage may seem permanent, there are solutions to help reverse sun damage to the skin. “Without fail, most of my patients are start a regimen that includes some form of a topical vitamin C in the morning to combat free radical damage, help repair DNA damage and prevent further damage from the environment,” Dr. Nussbaum says. Add retinol to your routine to increase cellular turnover, which leads to exfoliation, new skin cell formation, and encourages the production of collagen and elastin. “I also like to recommend glycolic acid pads two to three times per week to decrease hyperpigmentation and gently exfoliate the top layers of the skin’s surface,” she adds. Complete the routine with a broadband sunscreen of at least SPF 30 or higher and reapply every two hours or sooner if you get wet or sweat. “Prevention is the best defense against the sun!” she notes.

As further treatment for sun damage, Dr. Nussbaum recommends a Fraxel laser treatment. “The Fraxel lasers are great devices to minimize hyperpigmentation, especially when used in conjunction with pigment lightening creams or serums,” she says. The procedure is very efficient and removes most of the brown spots on the face and chest the downtime is about four to seven days. Radiofrequency microneedling is another option when treating sun damage. This treatment promotes collagen and elastin regrowth.

Ahead, see the products that derms recommend to restore your complexion without sacrificing your love of the sun.

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