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End-of-Summer Skincare: Treating Sun Damage

by A Woman's Health Updated 10/2021

Even with your best sun protection efforts and intentions, you may have gotten more exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays this summer than you’d like. Nothing frustrates those of us who know better than sunburn. But if you’re now surveying your skin for signs of damage, there is some good news: while prevention is always best and your only defense against skin cancer (read: wear sunscreen and protective clothing), there are ways to treat the appearance of sun-damaged skin.

The most serious risk with too much sun exposure is skin cancer. Sun damage can be visible as dark and rough patches on your skin (blemishes known as hyperpigmentation or sunspots) freckles, and moles, and too much exposure can contribute to wrinkles, and loose or sagging skin.

Your first priority in addressing sun damage is to prevent additional harm. Think about your sun safety practices and ways to make healthy changes: Are you applying a generous amount of broad-spectrum sunscreen and reapplying while you’re out, especially if you’re sweating or in the water? Are you wearing sun-protective clothing, such as long sleeves and pants, a wide-brimmed hat, and sunglasses? Can you alter your schedule so that you avoid midday sun, when UV rays are most powerful?

As you make changes to avoid further damage, you can also try to reduce the appearance of existing sunspots. There are over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription products designed to both lighten and shrink these dark spots as well cosmetic procedures to remove damage.

Retinoids are compounds derived from vitamin A that are available by prescription in topical creams. They encourage skin cells to slough off and renew themselves, improving skin cell turnover cycles and lighten brown spots. Milder forms of retinoids, called retinols, are available in OTC creams; they may be less effective than their prescription counterparts, but can still have some benefit.

Lightening agents that include hydroquinone, an ingredient with clinically proven skin-lightening properties, can be used in conjunction with a retinoid to lighten sunspots.

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Vitamin C and other anti-oxidants work by slowing the skin’s degeneration due to the production of rogue chemicals (free radicals) that cause visible signs of damage. They can reduce UV damage to skin.

Exfoliants, such as AHAs (alpha-hydroxy acids) and BHAs (beta-hydroxy acids), stimulate faster skin cell turnover, the process by which skin cells replace themselves. Because sun damage slows the rate at which skin cells turn over, exfoliants may be effective treatment.

Laser resurfacing can peel away sun damage, such as brown spots and blotchiness. It’s also quick and painless with a short recovery time (generally about three days). There are several types of laser treatment, including: light-based lasers (or photorejuvenation), fractionated lasers, and ablative lasers (the most aggressive option).

Chemical peels encourage the dead top layer of skin to slough off, which in many cases will take with it areas of uneven pigmentation and precancerous lesions and fine lines. Peels can either be performed in a series or as a one-time treatment, depending on the peel depth. It’s especially important to protect your skin with a strong sunscreen after a chemical peel.

Remember that signs of sun damage are more than cosmetic concerns. They’re visible evidence that’s you’ve been exposed to harmful UV rays, which increase your risk for skin cancer. You can manage your risk by making regular visits to your dermatologist, who can look for and remove precancerous changes to your skin. If you have developed skin cancer, your dermatologist can detect and remove cancer cells before they spread. And, of course, always practice smart sun-safety.