While the idea of soaking up the sunshine with a drink in one hand and a nice tan to boot sounds amazing, prolonged exposure to sunlight can do some serious damage to your skin.
According to 2013 research, UV exposure from the sun alone is responsible for around 80% of visible signs of aging from wrinkles and fine lines to hyperpigmentation, uneven skin texture and sagging skin.
In addition, “precancerous lesions or actinic keratosis and cancerous skin lesions may also be a long-term effect of sun damage,” says Dr. Hope Mitchell, board-certified medical and cosmetic dermatologist and founder of Mitchell Dermatology.
Meanwhile, in the short-term, too much sun exposure can cause mild to severe sunburns. “They may appear as tender or painful, red, swollen areas on your skin, at times with blisters and fever,” explains Dr. Mitchell. “Multiple sunburns may increase the risk of melanoma—a potentially deadly form of skin cancer,” she adds.
What exactly causes photodamage?
Over time, ultraviolet radiation from the sun damages the DNA of your skin cells and accelerates the breakdown of collagen, elastic fibers and the supporting structures of your skin which leads to dark spots, wrinkles and other signs of photoaging, says Dr. Lily Talakoub, a board-certified dermatologist and fellow of the American Board of Dermatology.
Moreover, “sun exposure forces your skin’s DNA to repair and regrow. With time that regrowth can turn into overgrowth also known as overproliferation of cells which leads to skin cancers,” explains Dr. Orit Markowitz, board-certified dermatologist and leading skin cancer expert affiliated with SUNY Downstate Medical Center.
The UVA rays, which have a longer wavelength, are responsible for most of the photodamage as they can penetrate more deeply into your skin, even through the windows and cloud cover. While the UVB rays have a shorter wavelength but higher energy. According to the American Cancer Society, they are the main culprit behind sunburns and can cause direct damage to the DNA in your skin cells.
“Because photodamage happens in the deepest layers of the skin—the dermis—it can take years before the damage surfaces and becomes visible,” notes a Yale School of Medicine report.
Is photodamage reversible?
“Studies have shown that while the skin’s DNA has the memory of exposure and continues to break down, it can also decelerate the breakdown process over time when sun exposure decreases,” says Dr. Markowitz.
“The earlier you address sun damage, the more likely you may be able to reverse some of the possible consequences,” says Dr. Mitchell.
However, cellular DNA damage resulting from prolonged exposure to sunlight and skin cancer aren’t exactly reversible, adds the skin specialist.
Bottom line: While superficial repair is possible with the help of certain treatments and topicals, DNA damage can’t be undone.
How to repair sun-damaged skin
The first and foremost step to reversing photodamage is to stop it in its tracks by using sun protection. “Sunscreen along with sun protective clothing are the best defense,” says Dr. Markowitz.
“To be effective, you must use sun protection every day—even when it’s overcast or cold outside,” states the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD).
Here are a few other ways to treat some of the reversible signs of photoaging, according to derms:
- Resurface with retinol: “Harmful sun rays degrade the collagen and elastin fibers in the inner layer of your skin. Retinoids promote cellular turnover and stimulate collagen production which helps improve discoloration, dullness, fine lines, wrinkles and other signs of photoaging,” says Dr. Mitchell.
- Add antioxidants to your skincare routine: Both Dr. Mitchell and Dr. Talakoub recommend incorporating an antioxidant-rich topical such as a Vitamin C serum or moisturizer to neutralize the harmful effects of UVA and UVB rays, encourage the production of collagen and prevent further DNA damage. In addition, eat foods that are high in antioxidants like blueberries, leafy greens, watermelon, tomatoes, fish and nuts and seeds to boost antioxidant protection from, within, suggests Dr. Mitchell.
- Try chemical peels: A chemical peel can help eliminate dark spots, improve the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines and facilitate skin cell turnover as it stimulates new keratinocytes and fibroblasts that make collagen, explains Dr. Talakoub.
- Consider in-office skin treatments: Dr. Mitchell suggests microdermabrasion to remove the damaged outer layer of the skin and stimulate collagen growth. In-office procedures such as laser and blue light therapy or energy-based treatments may also help regenerate collagen as well as reverse some of the damaging and cancer-causing pathways caused by sun exposure, adds Dr. Markowitz.
- Seek shade when possible: While many of us look to the sun as a natural source of vitamin D, according to the National Institute of Health, as little as 10 to 15 minutes of sun exposure is sufficient to help synthesize the “sunshine vitamin.” So avoid prolonged exposure to sunlight when possible, especially from 10 am to 4 pm when the sun’s rays are most intense, Dr. Mitchell advises.
- Stay hydrated: Hydrate your skin by using topicals that contain hyaluronic acid, ceramides and glycerin to help draw in and lock in moisture, suggests Dr. Mitchell. And up your water intake to hydrate from within, adds the dermatologist.
And just to reiterate, don’t skimp on sunscreen. “If you don’t wear sunscreen with SPF 50 or more daily, nothing will help,” says Dr. Talakoub.
“Sun protection must be intentional and part of your daily routine,” Dr. Mitchell agrees. “When going outdoors, apply sunscreen 20 to 30 minutes before exposure and reapply every one to two hours,” adds the dermatologist.
The best sun protection picks to add to your skincare routine, according to dermatologists:
Sunscreens that have mineral physical blockers work the quickest and last the longest. However, the best sunscreen is the brand you enjoy applying and reapply often,” says Dr. Markowitz.
That being said, here are some derm-approved skincare picks to help you stay protected in the sun: