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Is sun damage reversible?

By The Health News Team | September 8, 2022
Sun spots

If you thought smoking, drinking alcohol and poor sleep habits were prime skin-damaging culprits, you wouldn’t be wrong. However, the biggest contributor to skin damage by far is the sun.

The warmth of the sun’s rays may feel good on your skin, but years of spending time outdoors or lounging in the sun inevitably take a toll. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, the sun is responsible for approximately 90% of external aging. There are plenty of skin care products and treatments on the market that promise not only to repair skin but also to reverse sun damage.

Are these claims too good to be true? Is there a way to turn back the clock on sun-damaged skin? Dr. Curt Littler, a board-certified dermatologist with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group, helps shed some light on the topic.

What causes sun damage?
To fully grasp sun damage — also referred to as photoaging — you need to understand what causes it: ultraviolet (UV) rays. The sunlight that reaches the earth has ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays. UVA and UVB rays differ from each other in two ways: the length of their wavelengths and how deeply they penetrate the layers of the skin.

  • UVA rays
    These sun rays penetrate deep into the skin and are known to cause premature aging and wrinkles. They may also play a role in some skin cancers. Shorter-wavelength UVA rays can penetrate the skin’s inner layers and are far more prevalent, comprising about 95% of the UV radiation that reaches the earth’s surface.

  • UVB rays
    The vast majority of UVB radiation is absorbed by the epidermis, or the outermost layer of the skin. UVB rays may not penetrate the skin as deeply as UVA, but they can wreak havoc on the top layers of the skin and are the main cause of sunburns and most skin cancers.

What damage can UV rays cause?
When ultraviolet (UV) light hits unprotected skin, it causes DNA changes at a cellular level that can lead to premature aging and skin cancer. It can also lead to changes in the skin’s texture and appearance. “Ultraviolet light causes damage to epidermal cells that can result in pink, scaly, rough areas on the skin known as actinic keratoses,” says Dr. Littler.

Repeated sun exposure breaks down the mesh of collagen fibers and slows production of elastin, resulting in fine lines and deeper wrinkles. “If there is enough sun damage, skin cancerous red bumps or pigmented bumps can occur,” he says.

So, is sun damage reversible?
After years of UV exposure, you may be left with some unwanted souvenirs. Common signs of sun damage include fine lines and wrinkles, dark spots, visible fine blood vessels and rough, uneven skin texture.

“Sun damage is reversible to some extent, but you can’t completely undo the changes to your skin,” Dr. Littler says.

A few products and treatments may help improve sun damaged skin:

  • Retinoids
    Topical retinoids can help improve the appearance of surface wrinkles, fine lines and dark spots. Tretinoin, commonly known by its brand name Retin-A, is a prescription-strength retinoid that can help with the production of new collagen and elastin, Dr. Littler says. The over-the-counter option is retinol, which comes in a variety of concentrations and formulations. Both are derived from vitamin A and promote faster skin cell turnover.

  • Laser treatments
    There are several in-office laser treatments that can improve sun-damaged skin. Photodynamic therapy (PDT) is a treatment that uses blue light exposure to activate a topical drug. Though there may be some cosmetic benefits, PDT is a treatment that targets precancerous skin cells. “PDT can help to reduce epidermal damage and treat precancerous lesions,” Dr. Littler says.

  • Chemical peels
    Chemical peels remove the outer layer of old skin with a chemical solution. The outer layer of skin is shed and reveals a new layer of skin underneath. An in-office chemical peel treatment can reduce dark spots, diminish the appearance of wrinkles, and improve discoloration and skin texture.

Preventing sun damage is easier than reversing it. The best way to protect your skin is to build sun protection habits into your daily routine as early in life as possible. Dr. Littler recommends using a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher daily.

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