Five ways to reverse signs of sun damage

Close-up image of a woman with a sunscreen shaped sun drawn on her shoulder

Over time, the glory of sultry, sun-kissed skin can morph into dark spots, fine lines and wrinkles, adding years to your complexion.

As a dermatologist at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, I’ve met many women — and men — who want to reverse the signs of aging caused by the sun’s damaging ultraviolet rays

The myth of the healthy tan

“Is there a way to turn back the clock on sun-damaged skin?” they often ask.

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 steps you can take for these common conditions. Here are five:

1Protect your skin from damaging sunrays

The main cause of the sun’s damaging effects on the skin is exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Sunlight is the main source of UV rays. Tanning lamps and beds also are sources of UV rays. People who get a lot of UV exposure from these sources also are at a greater risk for skin cancer. The first step to reversing sun damage is to prevent any further damage from happening. This means, starting now, protect your skin by wearing sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher on a daily basis. Also, consider wearing hats and clothing that will protect your skin.

How to choose the best sunscreen

2 Apply retinoic acid cream

Topical retinoic acid creams can be an effective starting point for reversing the signs of sun damage to your skin. Retinoic acid is a derivative of Vitamin A that helps your skin shed dead cells and create new ones. Over time, retinoic acid can improve skin pigmentation and help ease the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Retinol products are available over the counter. Retinoids, which are stronger, can be obtained with a prescription from your dermatologist.

What retinoids can do for your skin

3Add alpha hydroxy acid or Vitamin C to your beauty regimen

Over-the-counter beauty products containing alpha hydroxy acid can lightly exfoliate the skin to reduce texture changes and fine lines caused by sun damage. The additional ingredient of Vitamin C can stimulate collagen production. Alpha hydroxy acids or vitamin C can be used in combination with topical retinoic acids. In general, the alpha hydroxy acid or vitamin C will be applied in the morning, and the retinoic acid is applied in the evening. Since all three products can cause dryness or irritation, I recommend starting the retinoic acid first. Add either alpha hydroxy acid or vitamin C once your skin tolerates retinoic acid well.

4Use a skin-lightening cream

Sun damage can lead to dark spots that can be lightened by topical skin-bleaching creams. Products with the ingredient hydroquinone are the most popular and effective. Hydroquinone 2% is available over the counter, but higher strengths of hydroquinone are available by prescription. Other effective, skin-lightening ingredients include alpha hydroxy acid, tranexamic acid, kojic acid, Vitamin C, niacinamide and soy. In my opinion, products having a higher concentration of hydroquinone produce speedier, more prominent results.

5 Consider laser therapy

Laser therapy can target wrinkles, redness and dark spots caused by sun damage, as well as rosacea and blood vessels that flare with sun exposure. Most laser treatments are targeted at the face. However, treatment to neck, chest, arms, back and hands can be performed. Intense pulsed light (IPL) treatment is effective at treating pigment issues and redness with minimal downtime.

The CO2 laser is a great treatment option for people who want more significant improvement in discoloration and wrinkles. This laser carries the most recovery time but also produces the most dramatic improvement in sun-damaged skin. The CO2 laser is an ablative laser, which means it causes microchannels of injury in the skin, which promotes new skin growth and rejuvenation. After treatment, your skin appears to have severe sunburn and heals in about one week.

Keep in mind: Dark spots that grow in size, shape or color should be evaluated by a dermatologist.

Worried about your skin?

Ohio State's dermatology team provides comprehensive care backed by one of the nation's leading academic health centers.

Expert care starts here


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