What’s the Best Skincare for Sun-Damaged Skin?

Sun-damaged skin is permanent, but there are several things you can do to reduce its appearance. Skincare products that might treat sun-damaged skin include retinol and vitamin C serums.1 Dermatologists say that sunscreen with a SPF of at least 30 is essential for preventing photoaging, or the effects of sun damage.2

Excess unprotected sun exposure might increase your risk of health problems like skin cancer.3 Find out how you can treat—and prevent—skin damage from the sun and how it might harm your health.

Young redheaded girl with a hat and sunglasses spends the afternoon with a brown boy on a Mediterranean beach. 
What Is Sun Damage (Photoaging)?
The sun emits ultraviolet (UV) rays. UV rays are essential because they provide your body with vitamin D, which is necessary for strong bones. UV rays can cause health risks if you do not protect your skin properly. For example, UV rays might burn your skin and decrease its elasticity, resulting in premature aging, known as "photoaging."31

UV rays can damage your skin cells if they penetrate the deep, inner skin layers.3 Sun damage might increase your risk of skin cancer over time.

What Sun Damage Looks Like
You may have developed sun-damaged skin if you have ever sat outside in the sun for a little too long without applying or reapplying sunscreen.1

Signs of photoaging include:14

Age spots
Loose skin
Melasma, which causes dark skin patches5
Skin growths
Spider veins, or red veins that appear as branches or spider webs underneath your skin6
Uneven pigmentation, or skin coloring
You might develop actinic keratoses (AK), or deep lines and dry patches of scaly skin. AKs are precancerous growths that may become squamous cell carcinoma, a type of skin cancer.

Using tanning beds, which use artificial UV rays, might speed up photoaging. Some people might see significant skin changes within one year.1

8 Questions About Sun Protection
Who's at Risk?
Anyone can develop sun-damaged skin since every person is exposed to the sun. Some people might have a higher risk of developing health conditions from sun damage than others.

People with an increased risk of sun damage include people:7

Older than 50
Who have a family member with a history of skin cancer
Who have had sunburns
Who spend a lot of time outdoors
Who take certain medications, such as antibiotics and birth control pills, or use products with benzoyl peroxide
With light-color eyes, hair, and skin
How To Prevent Sun Damage
Sun exposure is unavoidable. Still, you can protect yourself from harmful UV rays and stop photoaging in several ways.

Apply Sunscreen
Sunscreen delivers essential sun protection. Ensure your sunscreen has a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher.2 SPF determines how well the sunscreen can block UV rays. The higher the number, the more protection you have from UV rays.

Sunscreen loses its protection over time. You'll want to reapply every two hours while you are outside or after sweating or swimming.8

Cover Your Skin and Eyes
You can reduce your risk of sun-damaged skin by covering it. Wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts to protect as much of your skin as possible. Find shade, such as a tree, or use an umbrella outside if the weather is too hot for long sleeves. Try to wear light-colored clothing, which also helps protect you from the sun.  

Hats provide even more coverage by shielding your face, head, and neck. Opt for a wide-brimmed hat made out of canvas or another tightly woven fabric.  

The sun can damage your eyes, too. Wear sunglasses to protect your eyes and the surrounding skin from UV rays.8

Avoid Tanning
UV rays can come from artificial sources, such as lasers and tanning beds. Avoid indoor tanning, especially for adolescents with a high risk of melanoma, the most harmful type of skin cancer.7

About 10% of people with melanoma have close relatives with the disease. People with a family history of melanoma have a higher risk than others, possibly because of shared characteristics, such as gene changes, light-colored eyes, hair, and skin, and regular sun exposure.9

Treatment for Sun Damage
Most sun-damaged skin is permanent. Still, there are multiple treatments that you might try to improve your skin's appearance.1

Treatments might include:1

Chemical peels: A healthcare provider will use a chemical solution to remove your skin's outer, damaged layer so that new, smooth skin replaces it. Chemical peels might cause permanent or temporary changes in your skin color or scarring.10
Cryosurgery: This is a freezing technique that helps reduce age spots.
Fillers: These might improve loose skin and wrinkles on your face, hands, and lips.11
Growth factors and peptides: You apply these to your face to help tighten loose skin. 
Lasers and lights: Laser and lights are in-office procedures that treat photoaging by heating your skin cells.12 For example, photodynamic therapy (PDT) uses light and special drugs that react to light to get rid of AKs. You might need two PDT sessions to get rid of AKs.13
Microdermabrasion: This treatment exfoliates your skin to get rid of age spots, uneven skin tone, and wrinkles.14
Moisturizer: Apply a hydrating moisturizer daily to help prevent and treat wrinkles.
Non-invasive radiofrequency: The dermatologist will apply a device to your skin that heats the tissue to help tighten loose skin.15
Prescription-strength retinoid: This has a stronger formula than OTC options to help reduce signs of photoaging.
Ultrasound: This delivers heat to your skin to help tighten it.15
Skincare for Sun-Damaged Skin
Dermatologists say sunscreen is one of the most essential products to add to your skincare regimen to prevent photoaging.16 Use a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 daily. Make sure you apply sunscreen to all parts of your skin that your skin does not cover, and reapply every two hours or as needed. 

Avoid using too many anti-aging skincare products, which may irritate your skin. Instead, stick to a gentle cleanser, moisturizer, and sunscreen.16

A skincare routine for sun-damaged skin could look like the following:1716

Wash your face with a gentle cleanser, then pat dry.
Use any medications and treatments, like a retinoid or vitamin C serum.
Apply moisturizer, then sunscreen. You might save time by using a moisturizer with SPF. 
Apply a lip balm with an SPF of 30 or higher to protect your lips from skin cancer.
Best OTC Treatment for Sun Damage
You might consider looking for ingredients available over the counter (OTC) to treat sun-damaged skin. For example, retinoids are vitamin A derivatives that help speed up skin cell production to improve the appearance of photoaging, such as uneven skin tone and wrinkles.

Retinoids make your skin more sensitive to the sun than usual. Use retinoids at night to minimize sun damage and protect your skin from the sun during the day.18

Niacinamide is a vitamin B3 derivative that might prevent photoaging by boosting the repair of cell damage that UV rays cause. Some evidence suggests that niacinamide might lower your risk of non-melanoma skin cancers.19

Vitamin C is an antioxidant that may prevent sun damage. Research has found that topical vitamin C helps reduce signs of aging and improves uneven skin tone.20 Consider adding a vitamin C serum to your skincare routine if you have signs of aging or uneven pigmentation.

Other ingredients that might help even your skin tone by reducing dark spots include:21

Azelaic acid
Glycolic acid
Kojic acid
When To Contact a Dermatologist
Excess unprotected sun exposure over time is the leading cause of skin cancer. Frequently checking your skin for changes and suspicious growths is one of the best ways to detect and treat skin cancer early.3

Consult a healthcare provider if you notice:22

Changes in the color, shape, or size of a mole
A mole that becomes scaly, bleeds, crusts, is painful, or oozes
A sore that take two weeks or longer to heal
Shiny bumps that look pearly white, pink, red, or translucent 
A healthcare provider can perform a skin biopsy to determine whether skin change or growth is skin cancer. They will remove a sample of the suspicious area, which they will observe under a microscope for cancer cells. Keep in mind that not all skin changes or growths mean skin cancer.