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How to Repair Sun Damaged Skin

Mary Lucas, RN

Medically reviewed by Mary Lucas, RN

Written by Our Editorial Team

Last updated 7/29/2020

As much as we love the sun, the sun has mixed feelings about us. Sure, it warms us and helps grow our food, but spend too much time basking in her glory, and you may end up with burns, blisters, aging skin or cancer.

Sun damage can happen in as little as less than an hour, particularly for folks with the fairest skin. But even if you’re cautious and avoid burns, the cumulative effects of sun damage can be lasting.

As with other poor choices we make about our skin — teardrop tattoo, anyone? — sun overexposure may feel good at the time, but is best approached with commonsense prevention.

Just don’t do it. Whether you’re after a golden tan or if you just forget to apply sunscreen, the potential for lasting effects is similar. And while you can’t completely undo sun damage, there may be steps you can take to mitigate its negative effects.

What You Need to Know

  • Everyone is susceptible to sun damage, but the fairer your skin, the greater your risks.

  • The acute effects of sun overexposure include an inflammatory reaction to ultraviolet radiation, leading to a visible burn, pain and blistering, and can be treated at home over the days following exposure.

  • The long-term effects of sun damage include premature aging, dry skin, wrinkles, discoloration, and increased risk of skin cancer. While these are more difficult to treat and repair than a sunburn, there are some options.

  • Prevention is the best way to deal with sun damage. Though you may be able to treat the visible damage, cellular damage and thus cancer risks cannot be undone.

How Sun Damage Happens

There are two types of UV rays that reach the earth. A third, UVC, is blocked by the ozone layer.

UVA rays penetrate the skin to its deepest layers, into the dermis and damage the cells there, which is where most skin cancers occur.

UVB rays have a shorter wavelength and don’t get past the epidermis; they’re largely responsible for sunburns. Both UVA and UVB rays do damage and both can lead to premature aging, mutations, and cancer.

People with fairer skin are most at risk of sun damage and its effects. That’s because melanin, a pigment, helps block UV rays.

This doesn’t mean people with olive and darker skin tones aren’t at risk for sun damage, but that their skin is less sensitive to the sun’s powers and the risks are lower.

Types of Sun Damaged Skin

Excessive sun exposure can lead to a variety of signs and symptoms, including:

  • Wrinkles

  • Rougher skin texture

  • Looser skin

  • “Sun spots,” or pigmentation changes like age spots or freckles

  • Spider veins

  • Redness 

  • Blotchiness

  • Melasma

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Treating Acute Sun Damage

If you’re unfortunate enough to end up with a sunburn, whether intentionally or unintentionally, you’ll certainly regret it within a matter of hours. Just know the effects of an acute burn are not short term. You’ve done lasting damage.

Still, in the interest of minimizing your suffering, here are some tips for managing your bad decision:

  • Get out of the sun. If you have any inkling that you’re burning, remove the thing that does the burning.

  • Cool your skin. You can do this with a cool shower or bath, or compresses with cool, wet cloths.

  • Reduce inflammation. If the pain is intense, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory like ibuprofen may help ease your discomfort.

  • Keep your skin hydrated. Gels containing aloe vera are a great option that cool and moisturize sunburned skin. Reapply them frequently.

  • Hydrate internally. Sunburned skin essentially draws the fluids from your body to the skin’s surface in a sort of emergency response, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. Prevent dehydration by drinking plenty of water.

  • Let blisters heal naturally. If your skin blisters, treat it gently and don’t manually peel your dead skin off.

These steps may help you feel better and the short-term effects of a sunburn may disappear within a week, but the damage you’ve done isn’t as fleeting as it appears.

How to Repair Sun-Damaged Skin 

Once sun-damaged skin reaches this point, the damage is done. But that doesn’t mean sun-damaged skin treatments don’t exist. 

(This does mean that frequent and thorough self skin checks are a must, as are yearly skin exams by your healthcare provider. These are vital for possible skin cancer detection.) 

You can potentially remove sun spots and plump up wrinkles through products and procedures like injectable fillers, lasers, chemical peels, microdermabrasion or ultrasound.

Those treatment options for how to get rid of sunspots on face can be quite invasive or expensive, however, so many dermatologists recommend at-home options like exfoliation, prescription retinoids, night wrinkle creams and other serums as a first course of action.

From removing skin spots to smoothing out wrinkles, dermatologist-formulated hims Anti-Aging Cream is an excellent multi-pronged plan of attack — and it starts at $10 per month. 

Apply this along with SPF every day and your 10-years-from-now skin will be singing your praises.

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Protecting Your Skin From The Sun

The best way to deal with sun damage is not to get it in the first place. Because even if you’re able to lighten your dark spots and heal your latest burn — you can’t undo the increased risk of skin cancer that sun damage has delivered. The damage is done, but you can make an effort to prevent future damage.

  • Wear sunscreen daily. Using a moisturizer with at least an SPF 30 makes this step easy.

  • Minimize sun exposure. If the UV index is moderate to high (5 or greater), limit the time you spend out in it. You can find the UV index in most weather apps.

  • Cover up.

    If you have to be out in the sun, wear a hat and consider UV-protective clothing.

  • Skip tanning beds. If you “need” a golden glow, look into spray tans. They deliver the color without the increased risk of skin cancer and sun damaged skin.

Good skincare practices make all the difference. 

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment. Learn more about our editorial standards here.