How to Recognize and Treat Sun-Damaged Skin

Medically Reviewed By Clare Wightman MS, PAC
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Exposing unprotected skin frequently to the sun risks developing dry skin, burns from the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation, and long-term changes in skin structure. Some treatments can help to reduce the signs of long-term sun damage. Damage to the skin from the sun usually happens gradually over time. Protecting your skin as early as possible is important to prevent as much damage as possible. Contact your doctor or dermatologist for advice when you notice skin damage, such as freckles, age spots, and skin growths.

This article will discuss how to recognize symptoms of sun damage, treatment options, and more.

What does sun-damaged skin look like?

A woman is sunbathing on the beach.
Anna Rvanova/Stocksy United

Sun-damaged skin can present as:

  • wrinkles
  • fine lines
  • loose skin
  • broken blood vessels
  • loose skin or loss of elasticity
  • dull skin
  • fine and coarse wrinkles
  • actinic keratosis, which are pink and scaly precancerous spots

View the slideshow for sun damaged skin pictures.

Actinic,Keratosis,On,A,Mans,Sun,Damaged,Head

Actinic keratosis can appear on the scalp.

Douglas Cliff/Shutterstock

hg-sun-spots-on-cheek-1.jpg

Age spots on the face

Wischy/Shutterstock

hg-sun-spots-on-hands-1.jpg

Age spots on the back of the hand

Zay Nyi Nyi/Shutterstock

How do I treat sun-damaged skin?

The treatment for sun damage depends on the form of sun damage. However, it is important to wear broad-spectrum sunscreen daily to protect your skin from further damage.

A dermatologist can recommend treatment for skin damage that has occurred over time. The treatments will depend on which symptoms you experience.

Wrinkles

Treatments for wrinkles caused by sun exposure include:

  • topical retinoids to increase the production of collagen
  • chemical peel
  • microdermabrasion
  • laser resurfacing
  • injectable botulinum toxin and fillers

Age spots

Treatments for age spots focus on either removing the age spots or changing their color.

Possible treatments include:

  • topical retinoids
  • chemical peel
  • microdermabrasion
  • laser resurfacing
  • intense pulse light therapy
  • cryosurgery or freezing
  • topical agents such as hydroquinone, ascorbic acid, and kojic acid

Learn more about treatments for age spots.

Loose skin

Treatments that can help with loose skin include:

  • topical retinoids
  • ultrasound for skin tightening
  • noninvasive radiofrequency for skin tightening
  • growth factors and peptides to apply directly onto your skin
  • laser treatments

Uneven complexion

Various treatments can help make your complexion more even. Your dermatologist may recommend:

  • topical retinoids
  • microdermabrasion
  • intense pulse light therapy
  • laser treatments
  • topical agents

A dermatologist can explain each treatment option in more detail. They can answer your questions and help you decide on the best treatment for you.

Learn more about the types of skin treatments.

What causes sun-damaged skin?

Sun-damaged skin results from exposure to the sun’s UV light. Its light rays react with a chemical in your skin called melanin. The lighter the skin color, the less melanin to absorb UV light. People with darker skin have more melanin.

Skin damage happens when UV exposure from the sun exceeds the skin’s protection of melanin. Every time UV light hits your skin, it carries the risk that it will damage your DNA.

Blue light from computer screens or cellphones can also cause photodamage. The light can break down collagen and age the skin.

When the damage becomes more than your body can repair, mutations develop in the skin’s cells. As the mutations build up, skin cancer may develop.

The type of skin cancer depends on which of your cells have mutations. Melanoma happens when mutations develop inside cells called melanocytes. These cells give your skin its color.

Learn more about melanoma.

When should I see a doctor?

Make an appointment with a dermatologist if you have any of the following:

  • dry skin that does not respond to over-the-counter (OTC) treatments
  • rough, scaly patches on your skin, or a skin ulcer that does not heal
  • skin that bruises very easily
  • a new mole or any change in color or appearance of a mole
  • presence of a new growth
  • non-healing ulcer

Also, contact a dermatologist if you frequently experienced blistering sunburn as a child or if you have a family history of a first-degree relative with melanoma. These can increase your risk of developing melanoma.

A dermatologist will examine your skin and advise on any tests to reach a diagnosis.

How do doctors diagnose sun-damaged skin?

Your doctor or dermatologist may ask about your medical history and perform a physical. In most cases, they may be able to confirm the diagnosis by looking at your skin.

Depending on the symptoms of sun damage, your dermatologist may perform a biopsy to remove a small sample of the affected skin. During a lab analysis, medical professionals will check for precancerous cells, signs of skin cancer, and other possible complications.

What are the risk factors for developing sun-damaged skin?

Certain factors make you more likely to develop sun-damaged skin, including:

  • having fair skin
  • having naturally red or blond hair
  • working outdoors
  • using tanning beds
  • previously experiencing blistering sunburn
  • age 50 years or older

Contact your doctor if you have concerns about the risk factors of sun-damaged skin.

Complications of sun-damaged skin

Repeated sun exposure resulting in sunburn increases your risk of premature skin aging, precancerous skin lesions, and skin cancer.

It can also cause the skin to become dry, coarse, or thickened. Sun-damaged skin can also result in rosacea or skin that bruises or tears easily.

Premature aging of your skin

Sun-damaged skin accelerates the aging process. The results of photoaging include:

  • weakened skin strength and elasticity
  • deep wrinkles
  • dry, rough skin
  • tiny veins occurring on the cheeks, nose, and ears
  • freckles
  • dark spots on the face, back of hands, arms, chest, and upper back

Precancerous lesions

Long-term sun exposure can cause rough, scaly patches called actinic keratoses.

Actinic keratoses are precancerous and may evolve into skin cancer

Skin cancer

Excessive sun exposure, even without a sunburn, increases your risk of skin cancer. Unprotected sun exposure may damage the DNA of skin cells.

In addition, frequently experiencing sunburn during childhood and adolescence increases your risk of developing melanoma later in life.

Skin cancer generally develops on areas of your body exposed to sunlight, including:

  • scalp
  • face
  • lips
  • ears
  • neck
  • chest
  • arms
  • hands
  • legs
  • back

Some types of skin cancer can appear as a small growth or a sore that bleeds easily, crusts over, heals, and reopens. Basal cell skin cancer can appear as a new or pearly patch that might feel itchy.

An existing mole may change with melanoma, or a new, suspicious-looking mole may grow.

Contact your doctor if you have concerns about the complications of sun-damaged skin. They will perform tests to reach a diagnosis and then advise on treatment.

Preventing sun-damaged skin

Protecting yourself from UV damage is essential all year round. On cloudy, cool, sunny days, the sun can still damage your skin. Apply broad-spectrum sunscreen daily — the sun’s rays can penetrate clouds and windows. Reapply sunscreen every 2 hours if you are outside.

In the United States, UV rays are the strongest from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daylight saving time and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. standard time. Staying indoors or in shady areas during this time can help to prevent sun damage.

Preventing sun damage on your lips

Use sunblock on your lips that has been specially formulated for the lips. The American Academy of Dermatology Association recommends using a lip balm or lipstick with an SPF of at least 30.

Preventing sun damage to your eyes

 Wear sunglasses with UV protection to protect your eyes from the sun. Wearing a hat with a wide brim can also help protect your eyes.

Preventing sun damage to your body

There are further steps to help protect your skin from sun damage, including:

  • applying broad-spectrum sunscreen before going outdoors to protect against UVA and UVB rays
  • choosing a water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30
  • limiting time outdoors when the sun is at its peak
  • wearing clothing that covers as much skin as possible
  • reapplying sunscreen at least every 2 hours, as well as after swimming or exercise
  • applying an antioxidant such as topical vitamin C every morning
  • checking the expiration date on the sunscreen, noting that sunscreen without an expiration date has a shelf life of no more than 3 years

Summary

Sun-damaged skin results from exposure to the sun’s UV rays and blue light from computer and phone screens. Symptoms that develop gradually over time include wrinkles, age spots, and an uneven complexion. Sunburn happens within a few hours after exposure to the sun.

Your dermatologist will advise on treatments for sun-damaged skin. Possible treatments include topical retinoids, microdermabrasion, and laser treatments. Also, apply sunscreen daily.

To protect your skin from the sun, wear sunscreen, spend time in shaded areas, and cover your skin with clothing.

Contact your doctor or dermatologist if you have concerns about sun-damaged skin. They can examine your skin and recommend treatments.

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Medical Reviewer: Clare Wightman MS, PAC
Last Review Date: 2022 Sep 29
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