Sun Damaged Skin: Derm-Approved Treatments & Prevention Tips

It’s finally summer, which means we can finally get outside again. From beach days to backyard cookouts, there are so many things to do in the sunshine, and we all want to soak it in. But while you might savor the feeling of the sun on your face, your skin certainly doesn’t. 

The UV rays that make up all that beautiful sunshine can actually harm your skin over time. Without the protection of sunscreen and other sun protectants to block that ultraviolet light, both UVA and UVB rays can leave your skin vulnerable to their damaging effects. 

More than one-third of adults experience a sunburn every year, meaning they’re also experiencing the sun-damaged skin that comes with it. 

But hope isn’t lost. While the best protection against sun damage will always be prevention (i.e. wear your sunscreen every day), there are ways to help soothe skin that’s seen too much sun exposure. Today, we’ll dive into not only how to prevent sun damage on your skin but also treatments for sun-damaged skin that a board-certified dermatologist would stand behind. 

What Are Some Common Signs of Sun Damage on Skin?

So, you’ve spent a few too many days in the sun without sunblock and want to know if your skin is worse because of it. Luckily, the most common signs of sun damage are visible to the naked eye — you can typically tell if your skin has suffered sun damage just by looking at it. 

When it comes to figuring out if your skin has suffered too much UV radiation, there are four major indicators to look for. 

Dark Spots

Also known as sun spots or age spots, dark spots are one of the first signs of sun damage on your skin. 

Dark spots are formed when sunlight (and the UV light in it) penetrates the outer layer of your skin and interacts with melanocyte cells. These specialized cells are responsible for producing melanin, which gives your skin its color. Because UV radiation increases the production of melanin , patches of skin that get a lot of UV exposure will have more melanin than skin that is protected from the rays.

In lighter skin tones, this higher concentration of melanin shows up as darker brown spots on the surface of your skin. However, dark spots can occur on every skin color.

Uneven Skin Tone

Another sign of sun damage on your skin is the development of an uneven skin tone. 

Hyperpigmentation is the most common cause of an uneven skin tone. This type of skin discoloration, like dark spots, is caused by an increase of melanin in the skin. 

As your skin cells produce more melanin to protect itself from harmful UV rays, they can do so in uneven amounts. This is what causes your skin to look patchy: certain areas may produce more melanin than others, causing your skin color to vary. 

Redness

Too much sun exposure can also cause sun damage in the form of red patches. 

This redness on your skin is the second most common cause of uneven skin tone. When UV rays strike the surface of your skin, they can damage the blood vessels in this outer layer . The walls of these vessels can thin or even burst, causing that red color to bleed through the upper layer of skin. 

While these broken blood vessels are usually harmless (and painless, minus the sunburn itself), they are visible on your skin.

Freckles

The last sign of sun damage on your skin is the appearance of new freckles. 

In general, freckles aren’t a cause for concern. Like other beauty marks, they’re often a natural part of your skin tone, inherited through your DNA. They’re caused by the same melanin-producing skin cells as dark spots, but unlike those large patches of discoloration, the pigment behind freckles are the result of naturally overactive melanocytes — not excessive UV radiation. 

However, if you start to notice a bunch of new freckles appearing on your cheeks or the bridge of your nose that weren’t there before you stepped into the sun, it might be sun damage. 

It’s important to note that some freckles can be caused by sun exposure. Remember that melanin is your body’s natural defense against UV rays. Exposed skin will naturally freckle to protect itself against ultraviolet light, but there’s a difference between normal freckles and larger sunspots. 

While little brown spots are not normally a cause for concern, if they develop into dark spots, then they might be a sign of sun-damaged skin. Otherwise, feel free to embrace your freckled skin. 

How Can You Support Sun-Damaged Skin?

Sunburns are a widely common skin concern, but that doesn’t mean you have to settle for lifelong sun damage. If you want to reduce the appearance of skin texture and discoloration associated with sun exposure, you have options to make that happen. 

There are two approaches to supporting sun-damaged skin: 

  1. Preventing sun damage through sun protection.
  2. Treatingexisting sun damage with treatment options rooted in skin care.

Wear SPF Every Day

The best way to support sun-damaged skin is to avoid sun damage altogether. UV radiation can’t damage skin cells that it can’t reach, so blocking out those light waves is key to avoiding sun damage. 

When selecting the right sunscreen for daily use, pay attention to the different SPFs available. SPF (or sun protectant factor ) measures how much solar energy the sunscreen can protect against — so a higher SPF value will block out a higher percentage of  UV radiation. 

While you don’t need to wear the highest SPF every day, you should wear sunscreen every day. Dune’s Mineral Melt SPF 30 gives you sheer coverage with 100% clean ingredients that feel smooth and give you weightless hydration. 

Whether you spend the day in the pool or working at your desk, you’re still exposed to the sun’s harmful rays at one point or another. Without sunblock or protective clothing, you leave your skin vulnerable to the effects of UV light. 

“If you are an active person, frequent reapplication will provide maximum coverage to ensure consistent and thorough SPF coverage,” Gregg highlights.

Incorporate Vitamin C

Another way to protect your skin from the effects of UV radiation is to incorporate topical vitamin C, like the M-61 Vitablast C 30% Serum Concentrate , into your skincare routine. This formula works to support your skin barrier to help protect against environmental stressors and improve the appearance of hyperpigmentation, sun damage, and discoloration.

Vitamin C is a type of antioxidant, meaning it is a natural source of support for your skin during exposure to oxidative stress . “We are not able to inject enough vitamin C to support all of our skin needs, so through topical application and provide the needed cellular support,” notes Johannah Gregg, Certified Family Nurse Practitioner. 

By keeping your skin cells strong, vitamin C works alongside your sunscreen to protect your skin from damaging UV rays. Topical creams and even serums made with vitamin C are a great way to protect your skin from ultraviolet irritation and prevent sun damage. 

Try Retinoids

At the end of the day, no method of sun protection is 100% effective, so even if you wear a high SPF every day and use vitamin C, you still might deal with some sun damage on your skin. If your skin is feeling irritated after too much sun exposure, try treating your skin with retinoids, like the 111Skin Wrinkle Erasing Retinol Patches .

Retinoids (including retinol) are a vitamin A-based skincare ingredient that improve the tone and texture of your skin. By working to increase cell turnover, skin care products made with this ingredient can refresh your face…literally. 

As new healthy skin cells are resurfacing, the old ones damaged by the UV are cast away, leaving behind a fresh layer of skin that is untouched by UV rays. This effect makes retinoids a popular ingredient among people trying to address photoaging . This is the best way to treat premature aging — early signs of aging caused, in this case, by too much exposure to UV light, either from the sun or from tanning beds. 

Exfoliate

Another way to treat sun damage is by exfoliating your skin. The Noble Panacea The Elemental Cleansing Balm and Exfoliating Refiner removes makeup, cleanses, and exfoliates skin with ingredients like AHA, PHA, and niacinamide.

In the same way that retinoids treat sun damage by removing affected skin cells, exfoliants polish the surface of your skin , washing away the dead and damaged skin and making room for healthy ones to take its place. Exfoliating regularly can help even out your skin tone and minimize the appearance of sun-damaged skin. Just be sure to follow it up with a moisturizer with vitamin C and SPF to protect all that hard work.

When Should You Consult a Dermatologist?

While over-the-counter options are perfect for the occasional sunburn, sometimes you need the support of a dermatologist to soothe your sun-damaged skin. 

If you’re concerned about the level of sun damage on your skin, reach out to your dermatologist. These healthcare professionals can not only diagnose sun damage but they can walk you through the different treatment options available to you and help you devise a plan specific to your skin, your sun damage, and your needs. 

The Bottom Line

If you spend a lot of time in the sun, sun damage is inevitable. Even if you apply the best broad-spectrum sunscreens to your skin at the exact right time intervals, some UV radiation is bound to sneak through. That’s why it’s important to be on the lookout for signs of sun damage on your skin. 

Between your own eyesight and the support of your dermatologist, sun damage is a spottable and manageable skin concern. If you know the signs to look for, you can keep your skin happy and healthy — and still enjoy the sunshine. 

Sources:

Sunburn Prevalence Among US Adults, National Health Interview Survey 2005, 2010, and 2015 | National Library of Medicine

Age Spots (Liver Spots) | Mayo Clinic

Are Some People More Likely to Get Skin Damage from the Sun? | American Cancer Society

Sun Damage | Mayo Clinic

Broken Veins from the Sun | News Medical

Freckles: What They Are, vs. Moles, Causes & Removal | Cleveland Clinic

Sun Protection Factor (SPF) | FDA

Oxidative stress and skin diseases: possible role of physical activity | National Library of Medicine

A topical antioxidant solution containing vitamins C and E stabilized by ferulic acid provides protection for human skin against damage caused by ultraviolet irradiation | National Library of Medicine

Sun-damaged Skin: Photoaging, Signs, Causes & Treatment | Cleveland Clinic

How To Safely Exfoliate at Home | American Academy of Dermatology Association

How Dermatologists Treat Sun-Damaged Skin | American Academy of Dermatology Association