Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 2/9/2022
We’re all aware that sun exposure can burn your skin, leaving it red, dry and painful. But did you also know that exposing your skin to sunlight without protection can contribute to premature skin aging and the development of wrinkles?
Referred to as “photoaging,” sun damage can affect your skin in numerous ways, from fine lines and wrinkles to dark spots.
Luckily, several options are available to treat and prevent sun damage, including the topical skin care medication tretinoin.
Tretinoin is a topical retinoid -- a type of medication derived from vitamin A. It’s widely used as a prescription cream for sun damaged skin and general skin aging, as well as acne breakouts.
We often get questions about tretinoin as a treatment option for sun damage. Can tretinoin treat the effects of excessive sun exposure? Does it really work?
Below, we’ve explained how sun exposure can damage your skin, as well as the signs you may notice if you’re spending too much time outdoors without sun protection.
We’ve also discussed how tretinoin can help to reverse the effects of sun exposure and promote smooth, healthy skin at any age.
Before we get into the specifics of using tretinoin to treat sun-related skin aging, it’s important to briefly explain how exposure to sunlight can damage your skin in the first place.
As you grow older, it’s normal for your skin to change. With each decade, it’s common for skin to become thinner, drier and less elastic. Combined with the always-there effects of gravity, these age-related changes in your skin play a role in the development of fine lines and wrinkles.
Part of this process is intrinsic, meaning it’s an inevitable aspect of growing older that, to a large extent, can’t be stopped.
However, part of the aging process is extrinsic and caused by environmental factors, including your skin’s level of exposure to bright sunlight.
When you spend time outdoors during the daytime, you expose your skin to a large amount of ultraviolet (UV) radiation. While a small amount of sun exposure is often good for your health, spending lots of time in direct sunlight can harm your skin due to excessive UV exposure.
The reason for this is that UV radiation can damage your skin at the DNA level, causing cells to produce melanin in order to shield your skin from further damage.
That’s right -- the process that gives you a tan occurs in response to damage to your skin. The tan isn’t just aesthetic -- it’s a type of protection that your body uses to block UV radiation from continuing to penetrate into your skin and damage your DNA.
The most serious potential consequence of excessive UV exposure is skin cancer. But there’s also an aesthetic consequence -- photoaging.
Photoaging is a form of skin aging that develops as a result of long-term UV exposure. It’s the most significant form of extrinsic aging, and it’s responsible for up to 90 percent of the change that occurs in your skin as you get older.
Simply put, sun exposure is the single largest source of damage to your skin. While it may not be obvious in the short term, the cumulative effects of spending lots of time in the sun can be incredibly visible over the long term.
When UV radiation damages your skin, it affects collagen and elastin -- vital proteins that are involved in giving your skin its smoothness, strength and elasticity.
This damage, both to your skin’s DNA and to its proteins, is what contributes to wrinkles, fine lines, age spots and other common signs of aging that can affect your skin.
So, how does tretinoin fit into this? Tretinoin is a well-known topical skin care medication that’s derived from vitamin A. It’s commonly used to treat acne, but it’s also prescribed as a treatment for skin aging.
Sun exposure can lead to two different types of skin damage. First, there’s the short-term skin damage that you experience right after spending too much time in the sun -- a red, unpleasant form of radiation burn that most of us know as sunburn.
Tretinoin doesn’t have any effects on sunburn. Applying it directly after spending time in the sun won’t do anything to reduce redness or combat pain and discomfort.
The only ways to avoid sunburn are to limit your time in the sun and keep yourself protected by applying a good quality sunscreen.
However, tretinoin does help to treat some of the long-term effects of UV exposure, such as the damage it can cause to your skin’s collagen and elastin.
Tretinoin works by speeding up your skin’s production of new skin cells -- a process referred to as epidermal turnover. It also stimulates the production of some types of collagen that provide your skin with its strength and elasticity.
By increasing skin cell turnover, tretinoin also promotes the shedding of dead skin cells that can accumulate on the outermost layer of your epidermis.
Because of tretinoin’s effects on skin cell turnover and collagen production, it’s approved by the FDA as a treatment for facial wrinkles, roughness and hyperpigmentation (age spots). We cover more on tretinoin for dark spots in our other blog.
Over the years, numerous studies have looked at the effects of tretinoin on skin aging linked to sun exposure. Many of these studies have produced positive findings suggesting that tretinoin offers real benefits for treating and preventing sun damage.
For example, in a study published in 1990, 89 people with clear signs of photoaging (skin aging caused by long-term sun exposure) were instructed to apply a tretinoin cream to their face over the course of six months.
After six months of treatment using .01%, .05% and .025% tretinoin creams, participants in the study showed improvements in skin texture and follicle density, as well as a decrease in facial wrinkle width -- all common signs of skin aging linked to long-term UV exposure.
Another study from 1992 produced similar findings. Participants with photoaged skin used one of three concentrations of tretinoin cream (.05%, .01% or .001%) for a period of 24 weeks. After treatment, participants given the .05% tretinoin cream showed the largest improvement.
Of the people assigned .05% tretinoin cream, 68% showed improvements in photoaging by the end of the study.
Hyperpigmentation, skin roughness and fine wrinkling -- all common signs of sun damage to the skin -- were all significantly improved in the group given the 0.05% tretinoin cream.
Finally, another study from 1993 found that tretinoin produces significant improvements in skin damaged by photoaging over six to 12 months of use, with relatively stable results after the six month period.
Put simply, research shows that tretinoin works very well for repairing sun damage, all with few issues. In all of the studies of tretinoin for reversing photoaging linked above, the vast majority of people experienced few or no significant side effects from using topical tretinoin cream.
Tretinoin is frequently used as a prescription medication for sun damaged skin, and using it to reverse and repair photoaging is simple.
Tretinoin is available as a cream, lotion or gel. It’s also an active ingredient in prescription skin care treatments, such as our Custom Anti-Aging Face Cream.
Before applying tretinoin, make sure to wash your hands and the target area of skin with mild, bland soap. After cleaning your skin, wait 20 to 30 minutes for it to properly dry before using tretinoin or other medications.
Apply a small amount of tretinoin cream or lotion (a pea-sized amount is often enough) to your fingertips, then carefully apply the medication to your face or other areas of skin.
When applying tretinoin, avoid your eyes, mouth, nostrils and ears. When you apply tretinoin to skin near these areas, make sure to apply it by moving your fingertip away from the opening to reduce your risk of accidental application.
Apply tretinoin only to skin that’s affected by photoaging or acne. After you finish applying the medication, wash your hands thoroughly to remove any leftover cream, gel or lotion.
For skin care products that contain tretinoin and other active ingredients, follow the instructions on the product label.
Below, we’ve shared several tips to help you get the most from using tretinoin as a prescription cream for sun damaged skin:
Apply tretinoin daily before you go to bed. Tretinoin is typically used every day close to bedtime. It’s best to apply tretinoin 20 to 30 minutes before you plan to sleep, as this allows your skin to properly absorb the medication.
Start with a low to moderate strength of tretinoin cream. Tretinoin cream, lotion and gel come in several strengths. You may want to start with a mild or moderate version of tretinoin to assess your response during the first few weeks of treatment.Ask your healthcare provider for their recommendation and use tretinoin cream, lotion or gel as directed. Our guide to topical tretinoin strengths lists the most common strengths for tretinoin and their effects on your skin.
Get familiar with tretinoin’s side effects. Tretinoin can cause side effects. While most side effects of tretinoin are mild, some people report experiencing irritated and/or peeling skin while using tretinoin.During the first few weeks of use, you may experience the tretinoin “purge” -- a sudden increase in acne lesions and other skin imperfections that fades away over time.
While using tretinoin, avoid sun exposure. Tretinoin can increase your skin’s level of sensitivity to sunlight and ultraviolet light, meaning you may develop a sunburn easily or experience more severe symptoms of UV damage.Avoid spending time in direct sunlight or using tanning beds while treating your skin with tretinoin. If you need to spend time outdoors, apply SPF 30+ sunscreen and protect your skin with clothing and sunglasses.
Use tretinoin for several months before assessing your results. Tretinoin works well for reversing sun damage and skin aging, but it’s not an overnight treatment. Most of the time, tretinoin takes several months to get rid of wrinkles and other signs of damage.Make sure to keep using tretinoin, even if you don’t see improvements straight away. It’s best to wait for approximately six to 12 months before assessing your results.
With consistent, regular use, tretinoin can have a huge positive impact on your skin’s health and appearance.
If you’re prescribed a skin care product that contains tretinoin, follow your healthcare provider’s instructions and use it as directed. Over time, you’ll likely notice improvement in your skin tone, texture and overall appearance.
Tretinoin’s effectiveness and versatility make it a great addition to your skin care toolkit, whether it’s for the treatment of acne or photodamaged skin.
While tretinoin works well on its own, it’s most effective when it’s combined with good habits. Try to limit your sun exposure and use a broad-spectrum, SPF 30+ sunscreen to keep your skin as protected as possible while you’re using tretinoin.
You can also learn more about how to use tretinoin for repairing sun damage and common signs of skin aging in our guide to tretinoin for wrinkles and anti-aging.