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Sun Damage and the Potentially Lasting Effects on Your Skin. What You Need to Know

The effects from your sunburn or tan can be permanent. Here's how to prevent and treat sun damage.

Amanda Capritto
5 min read

Sunburns increase your risk for melanoma, and that's not undoable.

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I have a confession to make. I hate to admit it, since my career and life revolve around wellness, and I'm supposed to do all the healthy things. But, I just can't help the fact that I love a good tan and I hate self-tanner (I just can't get over the smell). 

This like-dislike combination means I probably spend too much time in direct sunlight, and although I always wear sunscreen, SPF doesn't always feel like a magic defense against pesky UV rays -- especially not when my post-beach shower reveals bright pink skin. 

I don't burn often, but my last skin sizzle piqued my curiosity. Knowing that sun exposure is a known cause of skin cancer and premature skin aging, I felt rather pitiful as I looked at the flaky, burnt skin on my shoulders. 

Is it possible, I wondered, to reverse sun damage?

I decided to ask a couple of experts, and the verdict isn't as optimistic as I'd hoped. 

Read more: The Ideal SPF You Should Use This Summer

Sun damage, explained


Sun damage often manifests as sun spots, which are clusters of hyperpigmentation.

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"Sun damage" is a catchall phrase that refers to any harm done to your skin by the sun. It manifests in a number of ways, says Dr. Susan Bard, board-certified dermatologist at Manhattan Dermatology Specialists.

"Sun damage can present as dark spots, aberrant blood vessels or ruddiness, or with skin laxity and wrinkles," Dr. Bard says. "It can also present with precancerous skin lesions that feel like little scabs on the skin."

Dr. Hadley King, board-certified dermatologist in New York City, says sun damage often looks different across skin tones. "In lighter skin types, thinning of the skin, fine lines and discolorations will be apparent," she says, while "In darker skin types, discolorations may be the most prominent feature of sun damage."

The technical term for these changes is "photoaging," and while most people know photoaging as the face of sun damage, other types of damage can occur, depending on which type of UV ray enters the skin.

"UVA rays are generally linked to the aging of skin cells and tend to be the cause of wrinkles, sunspots and other signs of sun damage," Dr. King says. "UVB rays, on the other hand, are the principal cause of sunburns, directly damage DNA in skin cells and are linked to most skin cancers. 

Read more: Still Using Last Year's Sunscreen? Here's How to Tell If It's Expired

You can partially reverse sun damage


A dermatologist can help you treat certain types of sun damage, such as premature wrinkles.

Dimitri Otis/Getty Images

Rejoice! Dr. King and Dr. Bard both say it's possible to partially reverse -- a better word is "treat" -- some types of sun damage. If you have discoloration, wrinkles, fine lines or other characteristics of photoaged skin, a dermatologist can help you smooth out your skin. 

"It is possible to reverse [sun damage] to some extent utilizing lasers, chemical peels and certain topical medications to destroy dark spots and vessels, encourage collagen deposition and remove the damaged layers of skin," Dr. Bard says. It usually requires a combination of multiple modalities to address the different components of sun damage, she clarifies. 

Certain at-home treatments might help, too. Dr. King says humectants and emollients can hydrate and smooth the skin to keep it looking plump, which is particularly important for dry skin. Anti-aging topicals, such as retinoids, antioxidants, peptides and alpha-hydroxy acids can also help, Dr. King says. 

Topical retinoids are the most proven anti-aging topical option, she says. These compounds are "very powerful and able to produce significant changes in the skin. They increase the turnover of skin cells, increase collagen production and decrease discoloration," as well as reduce pore clogging, Dr. King says.

Read more: Blue Light Exposure Can Harm Your Whole Face, Not Just Your Eyes

But don't get too excited


UV rays can alter your DNA, and this type of sun damage is not reversible.

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While you can treat the aesthetic effects of sun damage, you unfortunately can't reduce or reverse DNA damage caused by the sun, Dr. Bard says. 

"Once DNA mutation has occurred due to UV irradiation, there is no way to undo that. The cell needs to be destroyed by an outside modality or by the body," she explains.

UV radiation is a known human carcinogen, Dr. King reminds me. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, your risk for melanoma doubles if you have more than five sunburns, and just one sunburn that blisters in childhood or during your teen years can more than double your risk of developing this deadly skin cancer later on. 

Photoaging alone wasn't always enough to deter me from basking in the sun for hours, but an increased risk of skin cancer sure is. 

Read more: Don't Believe These 10 Sunscreen Myths and Save Your Skin

How to prevent sun damage


Please wear sunscreen.

Angela Lang/CNET

Prevention is key for avoiding sun damage from both UVA and UVB rays. Daily protection is critical, Dr. King says, because "much of the sun damage that accumulates in our skin is the result of daily incidental sun exposure."

Dr. King cites a study done in Australia that tracked the skin of people who used sunscreen everyday, regardless of the weather or their daily activities. The researchers compared this to the skin of people who only used sunscreen on days that were particularly sunny and they felt they would be spending significant time outside. The results? The skin of the people who used sunscreen everyday aged significantly better.

Don't wait until you see signs of sun damage to start taking care of your skin. Protecting yourself from UV rays is the best way to keep your skin young and healthy. 

Dr. King and Dr. Bard offer the following tips:

  • Wear sunscreen on any skin exposed to direct sunlight, and not just when you go to the beach. Daily SPF is essential. 
  • Wear hats and sunglasses to protect your eyes and face.
  • Seek shade or cover if the sun is harsh.
  • Try to avoid direct sunlight at peak hours (this varies depending on where you live, but usually occurs in the afternoon).
  • Wear light, breathable, long-sleeved shirts and pants when possible, especially if you're particularly susceptible to sunburns.

Read more: Good Skin Care Can Actually Be Super Simple. Here's What to Do

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.