Can You Repair Your Skin From Sun Damage? Here's What Experts Have To Say
If you could only have one skin care product for the rest of your days, what would it be? A pretty common answer, especially from skin care professionals, would likely be sunscreen. While chemical exfoliants, face masks, and serums of all kinds are fun and great for extra care, SPF might just be the most essential.
This is because it's the only product that can protect your skin from sun damage, something that can trigger all sorts of negative effects on the skin—some of which you'd look to those extra products to treat.
So priority No. 1 is always prevention. But even among the most diligent skin care devotees, sun care slip-ups do happen—which may leave some wondering: Are there any additional steps that can actually reverse the damage done?
Here, skin experts go over what we know about sun damage thus far and what to do about it.
What is sun damage, and what are the effects?
Before we get into whether or not you can repair skin damage from the sun, let's first be clear about what's happening below the surface. "The DNA in skin cells gets damaged when the skin is unprotected and exposed to UVA and UVB radiation from the sun," explains Jodi LoGerfo, DNP, who is a doctor of nursing practice and a family nurse practitioner certified in family medicine and dermatology.
When these cells are damaged it leads to genetic defects and mutations. These, in turn, can manifest in a few different ways including:
- Skin cancer
- Dark spots
- Skin sagging
Jodi reiterates, "It is important to be reminded that UV radiation is a proven human carcinogen1. UV radiation results in basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) of the skin; both of these types of cancers frequently develop on sun-exposed areas of skin."
For this reason and more, you should prioritize sun damage prevention (more on that in a bit), even if certain physical effects of sun damage such as fine lines and dark spots can be treated over time.
Can you repair sun damage?
Overall, you can't repair sun damage completely. However, there are certain topical products and procedures that can be done to better the visual effects of sun damage, says board-certified dermatologist Rebecca Marcus, M.D.
"Topical retinoids are useful in repairing photodamage (damage to the skin caused by UV radiation)," Marcus explains. Tretinoin2 specifically has been studied and used for this purpose, in addition to treating other skin conditions like moderate acne and naturally occurring fine lines.
As far as DNA damage caused by sun exposure, the options are limited. However, recent developments have shown promising results. "Another option for treatment of DNA damage caused by the sun is an enzyme called photolyase3," Marcus says. "This enzyme is activated by UV radiation and works to repair previously acquired UV-induced DNA damage. It is not innate to humans but can be found commercially in ISDIN Eryfotona Actinica."
Regardless of what options are available now or become available in the near future, prevention is more accessible and foolproof than treatment. Here, a few prevention strategies and some post-sun tips.
How to care for skin pre- and post-sun:
Avoid it in the first place.
For many reasons, avoiding UV exposure completely is just unrealistic. In fact, as Marcus says, it may be dangerous to your health, skin not included. "Avoiding sun exposure altogether would cause modifications to lifestyle that might impact mental health," she says.
However, you should take precautions when you're headed to a sunny space. "I do recommend seeking shade whenever possible and using hats, sunglasses, and UV protective clothing whenever possible to shield skin from reasonably avoidable sun exposure," Marcus suggests.
Stop being lazy with SPF.
A single layer of SPF won't suffice for those long days in the sun. As most dermatologists preach, "I wholeheartedly endorse daily application of broad spectrum SPF 30 or higher, with reapplication every two hours, and more frequently when swimming or sweating," Marcus says.
We know—this seems excessive. If you weigh the pros and cons of taking a few extra minutes to maintain a decent layer of SPF compared to the previously mentioned impact of sun damage on the skin, you'll likely realize it's a small price to pay.
Apply and ingest antioxidants.
Topical antioxidants (think vitamin C, CoQ10, etc.) can provide a layer of protection4 against UV damage. "While it is not classified as SPF, it does increase the skin's resistance to the sun by a little bit and is an excellent choice as a base layer before sunscreen," Marcus says.
"Oral antioxidants may be somewhat helpful as well, especially astaxanthin," Marcus says. We've covered astaxanthin before, so check out this guide to its benefits and where to find it if you're curious.
While hours spent in the sun may result in a bronzy glow, that's not the only road to a beautiful tan. In fact, it's one of the more dangerous routes to take. Instead, get your sun-kissed look from alternative tanning methods like self-tanner.
This way, you can achieve that post-vacation look you're going after without exposing yourself to harmful UV rays. Not sure where to start? Here's a list of our favorite clean self-tanners that will help you replace sunbathing for good.
Hydrate your skin post-sun.
If you're wearing enough sunscreen and reapplying frequently, your risk of burn is pretty minimal. However, it still happens. If you've got a slight burn or just want to care for your skin better after being exposed to UV rays, you should prioritize hydration.
"Keeping skin well moisturized will help to soothe and repair some of the immediate effects of sunburn such as peeling, pain, and itching," Marcus says. Be mindful of which products you use, as anything with chemical exfoliants will only make the burn more uncomfortable and irritated.
Topical products may help reduce the visual signs of sun damage, like dark spots, fine lines, and hyperpigmentation. However, there are limited options when it comes to actually reversing it, which is alarming considering the devastating consequences of UV exposure. So instead, focus on prevention and proper post-sun care. If you want to learn more, check out our guide to all things sun care.
Hannah Frye is the Assistant Beauty Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a B.S. in journalism and a minor in women’s, gender, and queer studies from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. Hannah has written across lifestyle sections including health, wellness, sustainability, personal development, and more. She previously interned for Almost 30, a top-rated health and wellness podcast. In her current role, Hannah reports on the latest beauty trends, holistic skincare approaches, must-have makeup products, and inclusivity in the beauty industry. She currently lives in New York City.