Think back to all those idyllic childhood days spent at the beach, digging sand castles and splashing in the water, or pool parties in your twenties. Sitting in the sunshine with a cold drink in your hand, feeling the warmth of the sun on your body is one of life’s simple pleasures, along with summer hikes and skiing on a bright winter day. But while you’re basking in the sun in your youth, what you don’t realize is that decades later all that fun in the sun shows up on your body in unwelcomed ways, including dark spots, discoloration and fine lines – not to mention loss of collagen. But once sun damage is done, is there anything you can do to fix it?
What is Sun Damage?
The sun’s UV (ultra violet) rays are what cause damage to the skin. Immediately after sun exposure, this can show up as a sunburn. But sun damage has a cumulative effect so even if you don’t have a sunburn, the sun is doing damage to your skin. By some estimates, 80% of skin’s visible aging is caused by UV rays. The physical signs of sun damage are also called “photo aging.” And it’s not just the sun causing it. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, anyone who uses a tanning bed will see signs of photoaging even faster.
Over time, sun damage causes fine lines, wrinkles and red spots to appear. Dark spots, also known as liver spots or solar lentigines, crop up when the skin makes melanin to protect itself from UV rays. Over time these brown dots clump together to form a flat brown spot – a bumpy spot or one with blurred edges is not a true sun spot and could be something more serious. If in doubt, see a doctor as skin cancer is more common than you may think. According to the American Cancer Society, skin cancer is by far the most common type of cancer.
UV rays also break down collagen and elastin, which keeps skin plump and firm. This means that skin that has gotten too much sun exposure will look loose and saggy. Too much sun is also attributed to spider veins, broken capillaries and a ruddy complexion, as well as dry, scaly patches. Thinner skin is also a consequence of too much sun.
Can Sun Damage Be Reversed?
Although there is no magic way to turn back the clock, there are things you can do to help minimize the look of sun damage. Prevention is the best line of defense and remember that once you start tackling the signs of sun damage you need to keep up with your sun protection – otherwise they will just come back.
Wear Sun Protection. While you are treating existing sun damage, its crucial to continue to protect your skin from further damage by wearing a broad spectrum SPF every single day, even if its cloudy or you’re just walking around the corner. The easiest way to remember to put on your sunscreen is to buy a moisturizer with a high SPF or just leave a bottle of sunscreen on your vanity. If you don’t like the feel of sunscreen on your face, consider buying sunscreen drops. Double up on sun protection by wearing a hat and sunglasses, and don’t forget about the rest of your body, especially the neck, chest and back of hands.
Skin Lighteners. Whether you’re looking to tackle dark spots, hyperpigmentation or melasma (also known as the mask of pregnancy), there are plenty of creams that can help fade dark spots. It’s important to keep in mind that consistency is key when using the products; if you stop, it may come back. Hydroquinone basically works by bleaching the skin, and is highly effective. It is available by prescription or in over the counter products. It is, however, a controversial ingredient that has been banned in many countries due to concerns it may be a carcinogen.
Another skin lightener is azelaic acid. It works by blocking the enzyme tyrosinase which triggers melanin production. It tends not to irritate the skin, and is derived from grains such as barley and rye. Kojic acid, which is made from various fungi, also helps to lighten the skin, along with licorice root, arbutin (derived from the bearberry plant) and mulberry extract. DIY options include lemon juice and papaya.
Exfoliation. Removing the top layer of skin helps get rid of dead skin cells – and leave skin looking brighter and smoother. Exfoliation can be done in two ways- a physical exfoliation using a chunky scrub or a rotating facial brush, or a chemical one using an alpha hydroxy (AHA) or beta hydroxy (BHA) acid in the form of serums and leave on masks. Physical scrubs can be too harsh for the skin and cause micro-tears. If you do like the instant gratification of a scrub, try one made with rice enzyme powder.
Some of the most common AHAs include glycolic acid (from sugarcane), lactic acid (from milk) and citric acid. Start just once weekly, gradually increasing the frequency as tolerated. Salicylic acid is the most common BHA and it helps fade dark spots. It is also anti-inflammatory and antibacterial. Concentrations of AHAs and BHAs can vary so start off slowly with a face wash and see how your skin tolerates it. Just be careful not to overdo it, which will leave skin looking raw and irritated rather than lighter and brighter.
Hydrate. While you’re treating your dark spots and fine lines, it’s important to keep your skin hydrated as sun damaged skin (especially immediately after sun exposure) can feel dry and tight. Layer on the moisture by starting with a hydrating serum – look for one containing hyaluronic acid, which holds up to 1,000 times its weight in water, followed by a rich cream. Mist your face throughout the day with an atomizer, and treat yourself to a hydrating mask at least once a week.
Retinols. Derived from vitamin A, retinols work wonders on dark spots as well as fine lines as they encourage cell turnover. Retinol based creams are available by prescription as well in over the counter products. The general rule of thumb with retinols is to start slowly and build up to more frequent use as they can cause irritation. Use of retinols also makes the skin more sensitive to the sun so be extra vigilant about sun protection.
Chemical Peels. A chemical peel can be done in a dermatologist’s office or a medical spa. The application of an acid will remove the top layer of skin and the new skin will look younger, brighter and lighter. Chemical peels vary in depth from light, medium to deep and recovery time varies accordingly. Redness and scarring are possible side effects. At-home chemical peels are also an option, but they won’t penetrate the skin as deeply as a doctor can.
Skin Brighteners. Antioxidants such as vitamin C help to brighten the skin and give it a little extra glow. They also help lighten hyperpigmented spots on the face. Vitamin C is found in serums, creams and masks. A slight tingling may occur after application.
Microdermabrasion. This technique is basically a deep manual exfoliation performed by a dermatologist or esthetician. During microdermabrasion, a hand held tool sprays tiny crystals on to the skin to remove the top layer, while simultaneously being suctioned up. A non-suctioning version is also available. A series of treatments may be need to help minimize the look of fine lines and dark spots.
Cryotherapy. Cryotherapy uses extreme cold in the form of liquid nitrogen to target and destroy skin tissue. It can be effective for treating dark spots.
Niacinamide. This form of vitamin B3 has plenty of skincare benefits. It helps minimize the look of dark spots and hyperpigmentation, as well as the look of fine lines. Niacinamide also helps improve the skin’s barrier function, protecting it from other damage. It can be found in toners, serums and is also sold as a booster.
Lasers. Lasers can be effective at helping to fade the look of dark spot and fine lines. Performed in a doctor’s office, there are two types of lasers- ablative and non-ablative. An ablative laser removes the top layer of the skin, which means that the new skin growing in will be soft, smooth and bright. A non-ablative laser doesn’t remove skin. It works by heating a deep layer of skin to help trigger collagen production, which will help skin look smooth and firm.
Products to Try for Reversing the Signs of Sun Damage
If you want to minimize the look of fine lines and wrinkles, take a look at Formulyst. The brand’s philosophy is helping its customers achieve their best looking skin. Formulyst’s Luminous Skin Serum zeroes in on skin discoloration with Triple Brightening Technology, a powerful blend of naturally derived alpha arbutin (derived from the bearberry plant), rumex extract (a plant that helps stop the production of melanin) and a biomimetic peptide. The serum leaves skin looking lighter, brighter and more luminous.
Although hydroquinone is effective in lightening dark spots, it is not without its controversies. It’s not the only option for fading dark spots though. Formulyst’s Dark Spot Solutions is powered by HyWhite, which is derived from alpha linolenic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid found in plants. It works to minimize the appearance of dark spots while also hydrating the skin thanks to hyaluronic acid.