ICYMI, the sun’s UV rays are the number-one cause for premature aging—or, what it’s more widely referred to: sun damage.
“Sun damage is what happens when the skin is overexposed to the sun’s UV rays,” explains Michele Green, MD, a board-certified cosmetic dermatologist based in New York City. “The UV rays can penetrate the skin even in the deepest layers and cause changes to DNA at the cellular level.” By affecting everything from the surface of the skin to the very depths of it, Green says that UV rays are able to negatively affect the aging process of the skin and, in some cases, lead to cancer.
The tricky part about sun damage is that you can’t always see it in a way that would make you think, “Sh*t, I have sun damage.” And, in some cases, your skin might look relatively flawless, but then you’ll visit a dermatologist, test out their UV photography, and gasp in horror at the results. That’s because many signs of sun damage take a bit to fully reach the surface of the skin (which can seem confusing given UV rays hit the surface first but bear with us).
“It can take years for sun damage to become visible because of the depth at which the UV rays damage skin cells,” Green explains, noting that some of the visible signs of sun damage include brown spots, wrinkles and fine lines, loss of elasticity, and an uneven skin tone or texture.
If and when you do start to notice these signs, Green says not to be alarmed. Instead, take a deep breath and—with the help of the below list of at-home and in-office treatments that we’ve compiled—feel confident that you know how to fix (and prevent) sun-damaged skin.
Apply Vitamin C Daily
One of the best ways to combat the harmful effects of UV rays is to stock your skincare routine with antioxidants like vitamin C.
“Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that helps to combat the formation of hyperpigmentation, fine lines, and wrinkles that result from exposure to UV rays,” Green explains,” noting that the restorative properties of L-ascorbic acid (the active version of vitamin C) contribute to the acceleration of collagen and elastin production in the skin. As you may know, collagen and elastin are largely responsible for keeping the skin looking healthy and youthful, so by applying vitamin C, Green says that you’ll be able to revitalize your complexion and slowly reverse the effects of sun damage. (Keyword: slowly. As with any topical skincare product, you’ll need to give vitamin C formulations a few weeks to really show what they can offer.)
Don't Be Afraid of Retinol
Another ingredient that can work a world of good for sun-damaged skin? Retinol.
“Topical retinoids are considered the gold standard in anti-aging skincare only second to sunscreen,” says Adeline Kikam, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and the founder of @brownskinderm. “Topical retinoids can be used frequently in skincare routines to retexturize sun-damaged skin, promote skin cell turnover, and address blotchiness and uneven skin tone.” Additionally, Kikam says that they also help stimulate the production of collagen and elastin in skin lost from UV radiation-induced breakdown. “Prescription retinoids from your dermatologist tend to be more effective with fast results than over-the-counter ones, which tend to be weaker and slow to yield results,” she adds. “However, OTC retinols are great for those with sensitive skin, as prescription retinoids can be associated with more irritation."
Consider Adding Chemical Exfoliants to Your Routine
If the very words “chemical peel” scare you in combination with thoughts of your face, allow us to put your worries to rest. Chemical acids can actually do wonders for your skin. In fact, according to Ohio-based board-certified dermatologist Hope Mitchell, MD, adding acid solutions (aka chemical exfoliants) to your skincare routine—whether you opt for mandelic, glycolic, salicylic, or trichloroacetic acids—can help turn back the clock on sun damage.
“Chemical peels improve the appearance of sun-damaged skin by using a chemical solution to speed up the process of skin renewal or turnover,” she explains. “With skin exfoliation, the new skin underneath may appear smoother, less dull and pigmented, and may even have less fine lines and precancers.” Now that you’re bound to want to add a chemical exfoliant to your routine, just remember that, while on their own they’re plenty gentle, it’s generally not a good idea to mix different chemical exfoliants. So, if you add more than one to your routine, be sure to use one in the morning and one at night. What’s more, as Kikam reminds us, it’s always a good idea to do a patch test before applying the product all over your face.
Book an In-Office Chemical Peel
Since so many exfoliating acids exist—and since many at-home versions are much lower in strength and effectiveness than in-office peels—Mitchell recommends booking a chemical peel if you have noticeable signs of sun damage. Think of in-office peels as at-home acid-infused products taken to the tenth power. That’s because, as Mitchell points out, dermatologists can blend and customize peels for a patient’s specific needs—whether it be sun spots, hyperpigmentation, fine lines, or wrinkles. “It’s a skill that makes chemical peels one of the top cosmetic services performed in dermatologists’ practices—they yield the most results,” she says.
Another treatment that can be enjoyed at-home and in-office is dermaplaning. Where at-home dermaplaning is very gentle and largely geared toward improving skin texture by removing peach fuzz, in-office dermaplaning goes a step further. That’s because, according to Edyta Jarosz, an esthetician at Shafer Clinic in New York City. in-office dermaplaning is often combined with a chemical peel treatment.
“Dermaplaning [helps replace] sun-damaged skin with new skin growth that enables better product absorption and that appears healthier and more vibrant,” she explains. “When you’ve had a combination of dermaplaning and chemical peel, your results will be amplified because your skin can better accept the peel treatment.”
Schedule a Dermabrasion Appointment (After the Summer)
Generally speaking, summer is prime time for sun damage. After all, it’s when most people are out and about, enjoying the great outdoors and all it has to offer. The problem is, in-office chemical peels and other skin resurfacing treatments, like dermabrasion, can make skin sensitive to sunlight, making it that much more susceptible to damage. Because of this, Jarosz recommends holding those treatments until fall.
“In fall, chemical peels and the DiamondGlow Facial may be a great option to revive and repair summer-ravaged skin,” she says, noting that the DiamondGlow Facial is a resurfacing and rejuvenating facial treatment. “It exfoliates the skin’s surface, extracts impurities from pores, and infuses the skin with a targeted serum. The newest option is the TNS Advanced+Serum, which targets coarse wrinkles, fine lines, sagging skin, and enhances tone and texture.” As a result, she says that it’s a great option to help reverse the effects of sun damage.
Book an RF Microneedling Treatment
Another in-office option is radiofrequency microneedling. “Years of sun exposure without sun protection can lead to rough and uneven textural changes along with fine lines and wrinkles,” Kikam explains, noting that RF microneedling can be used to address skin laxity, fine lines, and wrinkles to help retexturize the skin. It’s likely so effective because it combines two techniques in one. “Microneedling is a medical procedure that uses short fine needles for controlled wounding of the skin that stimulates collagen and elastin production with increased blood circulation,” Kikam explains, noting that it can be performed alone or paired with RF energy for even better results. “Radiofrequency energy, on the other hand, is a nonsurgical method using insulated needles to penetrate skin and release radiofrequency energy from needle tips that penetrate deeper layers of skin to stimulate collagen and tighten skin.”
Where retinol is the gold standard, at-home anti-aging ingredient, Green says that Fraxel is the in-office “Magic Eraser” and the gold standard in-office treatment for improving skin tone and texture.
“Fraxel is often recommended for patients who suffer from the consequences of sun damage because it has the ability to target a myriad of skin issues,” she says. “Fraxel creates controlled, microscopic wounds in the skin through the application of highly concentrated laser pulses. As the skin repairs these wounds, collagen production increases, new skin cells grow, and damage from the sun begins to heal.”