How to Treat Sun Damaged Skin — and How to Avoid It In the First Place

Dermatologists explain why sun damage occurs, how to deal with it, and how to prevent it altogether.

Woman covering face from sunlight
Photo: Getty Images

Of all the skin-care products you can choose to slather on, sunscreen is the most important for its ability to protect your skin from the sun. Yes, other skin-care concerns (see: breakouts, large pores, dryness) can be troublesome, but sun damage can even be deadly when it results in skin cancer.

Sun damage occurs when your skin is exposed to UVA and UVB rays emitted from the sun, and can show up on your complexion in many different ways, such as a sun burn or wrinkles. "Dermatologists refer to the damage the sun does to the skin by several names, including photoaging, photodamage, solar damage, or sun damage," explains Liia Ramachandra, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and founder of EpiLynx.

While a quick internet search might lead you to believe that sun damage is reversible, truth is, some damage from the sun is permanent. Ahead, dermatologists explain everything you need to know about sun-damaged skin, including how to prevent it and deal with its effects.

What Is Sun Damage On Skin?

To fully grasp sun damage, you need to understand what causes it: UVA and UVB rays. Ultraviolet (UV) light exists on a spectrum ranging in wavelength from UVA to UVC, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The shorter a ray's wavelength, the less UV radiation is able to penetrate the skin, but the more harmful its effects, according to the WHO. UVB rays are have a medium wavelength while UVA rays are longer, according to the organization. (You don't really need to concern yourself with UVC rays, since are filtered out by the Earth's atmosphere and can't reach your skin, according to the WHO.)

"UVA is solar radiation that can damage skin at all levels, from the surface to way down deep into the dermis," explains Dr. Ramachandra. UVA radiation can lead to broken capillaries, which can appear as enlarged veins (also known as spider veins), and loss of collagen and elastin fibers, which are proteins that help give skin its structure, making it look plump and healthy, according to Dr. Ramachandra.

"UVB [refers to] solar radiation that damages the outermost layer of the skin. UVB damages DNA in the epidermis (outer layer of the skin) and can lead to the formation of precancerous cells," says Dr. Ramachandra. (

Sun damage is caused by UVA and UVB exposure that sparks the creation of unstable molecules called free radicals in skin. The free radicals harm skin cells, collagen, and elastin, and can result in DNA mutations, which can lead to cancer, explains Anthony Rossi, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and founder of eponymous skin-care brand Dr. Rossi DermMD. "Melanin [natural pigment] helps protect your DNA against UV-caused mutations, and that is why people produce more melanin in response to sun exposure," he says. That's exactly why you may get freckles or a tan after sitting in the sun, two signs of sun damage, he explains. (

While everyone is susceptible to photoaging, it can show up on skin differently. Sun damage can contribute to fine lines and wrinkles, loss of facial elasticity, dark spots (also called hyperpigmentation), broken capillaries, and freckles, explains Michelle Henry, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Skin & Aesthetic Surgery of Manhattan. "People with darker skin tend to develop uneven dark patches, called melasma, while those with lighter skin tend to develop freckles, redness, and dark spots," says Dr. Henry. "It can also make skin blotchy, red, dry, rough, and inflamed."

Can You Reverse Sun Damage?

While there are solutions for reversing skin damage, some of the impacts of the sun on your complexion can be permanent. "Unfortunately, DNA damage and cellular changes in the skin cannot be undone or reversed," says Dr. Henry. When sun damage shows up in the form of fine lines or dark spots, it can be especially difficult to treat, because those are signs of long-term exposure, explains Dr. Ramachandra.

How to Address Sun Damaged Skin

While you probably won't be able to completely wipe out any trace of sun damage, you can take various steps to undo some of the effects. These products and treatments are your best bet.

Laser Treatments

"For the long-term photoaging damage, dermatologists have many tools that can help," says Dr. Rossi. For starters, in office laser treatments can help minimize the appearance of dark spots, redness, or wrinkles by administering wavelengths of light that target pigment, hemoglobin, or water in your skin, respectively.

Doctors also sometimes rely on lasers in the treatment of sun damaged-induced cancer. "[Dermatologists] sometimes use photodynamic therapy with red or blue light and a photosensitizer to kill precancerous cells," says Dr. Rossi. During photodynamic therapy, a patient takes a photosensitizing drug which gets absorbed by their cancer cells, according to the American Cancer Society. Then, the light is applied to the area, prompting the drug to create a type of molecule that kills the cancer cells, according to the organization.

In-Office Chemical Peels

Chemical peels can also help combat the effects of photoaging. "Chemical peels cause cell turnover and regeneration of the dermis and epidermis, depending on the depth of the peel," explains Dr. Rossi. Essentially, they're encouraging your skin to shed old cells, making way for new skin that's smoother in texture or tone. These exfoliating effects can help reduce the appearance of existing dark spots, but can't reverse DNA mutations, says Dr. Ramachandra.

Skin-Care Products with Exfoliants and Antioxidants

As for what you can try at home, skin-care products containing retinol, vitamin C, and alpha hydroxy acids can help even skin tone and texture, and reduce the appearance of fine lines, says Dr. Henry. Retinol can help by promoting cellular turnover while antioxidants such as vitamin C protect your skin from free radical damage. Finally, alpha hydroxy acids are often the ingredients that give in-office chemical peels their aforementioned exfoliating powers. They're often incorporated into at-home skin-care products that don't penetrate skin as deeply as professional peels.


While you can make strides toward counteracting sun damage, overall, dermatologists agree that it's best to prevent the issue in the first place. "Always apply sunscreen year-round no matter where you live and no matter whether it is cloudy or not," says Dr. Ramachandra. When looking for a sunscreen, make sure you're looking for an option that contains SPF 30 or higher, she says.

If you have sensitive skin, keep an eye out for mineral sunscreens. They're ideal for people who react poorly to chemical filters such as avobenzone, homosalate, and octinoxate, which tend to be the most likely to cause an issue, says Dr. Henry. An option that was formulated with dark skin tones in mind, KINLÒ Golden Rays Tinted Sunscreen with SPF 50 contains zinc oxide and niacinamide to help brighten your skin. (

Make sure to choose a sunscreen that offers broad-spectrum protection, meaning that it protects against both UVA and UVB rays, says Dr. Rossi. Think: EltaMD UV Clear Broad-Spectrum SPF 46, a lightweight option that's great for all skin types, including sensitive and acne-prone. "In addition to sunscreen, you should wear sun-protective clothing, [such as] hats, sunglasses, and sun shirts," he says. It's also a smart idea to get a yearly skin check with a dermatologist, who can ensure that you don't have any moles that look like they may be cancerous.

When it comes to treating sun damaged skin, the best route for you will depend on how severe your damage is, how invasive of techniques you're willing to try, and your risk for developing skin cancer, says Dr. Henry. You can consult with your dermatologist to discuss the best treatment for you, and using sunscreen will help you ward off future damage.

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