As much as we love the sun, the sun has mixed feelings about us. Sure, it warms us and helps grow our food, but spend too much time basking in her glory, and she’ll repay you with burns, blisters, aging skin, and cancer.
Sun damage can happen in less than an hour, particularly for folks with the fairest skin. But even if you’re cautious and avoid burns, the cumulative effects of sun damage can be lasting.
As with other poor choices we make about our skin — teardrop tattoo, anyone? — sun overexposure may sound good at the time but is best fought with commonsense prevention. Just don’t do it. Whether you’re after a golden tan or if you just forget to apply sunscreen, the potential for lasting effects is similar. And while you can’t completely undo sun damage, there may be steps you can take to mitigate its negative effects.
What You Need to Know
- Everyone is susceptible to sun damage, but the fairer your skin, the greater your risks.
- The acute effects of sun overexposure include inflammation, a visible burn, pain, and blistering, and can be treated at home over the days following exposure.
- The long-term effects of sun damage include premature aging, dry skin, wrinkles, discoloration, and increased risk of skin cancer. While these are more difficult to treat and repair than a sunburn, there are some options.
- Prevention is the best way to deal with sun damage. Though you may be able to treat the visible damage, cellular damage and thus cancer risks cannot be undone.
How Sun Damage Happens
There are two types of UV rays that reach the earth. A third, UVC, is blocked by the ozone layer.
UVA rays penetrate the skin to its deepest layers, into the dermis. UVB rays have a shorter wavelength and don’t get past the epidermis; they’re largely responsible for sunburns. Despite this difference, both UVA and UVB rays do damage and both can lead to premature aging, mutations, and cancer.
People with fairer skin are most at risk of sun damage and its effects. That’s because melanin, a pigment, helps block UV rays. This doesn’t mean people with olive and darker skin tones aren’t at risk for sun damage, but that their skin is less sensitive to the sun’s powers and the risks are lower.
Treating Acute Sun Damage
If you’re unfortunate enough to end up with a sunburn, whether intentionally or out of sheer stupidity, you’ll certainly regret it within a matter of hours. Just know the effects of an acute burn are not short term. You’ve done lasting damage.
Still, in the interest of minimizing your suffering, here are some tips for managing your bad decision:
- Get out of the sun. If you have any inkling that you’re burning, remove the thing that does the burning.
- Cool your skin. You can do this with a cool shower or bath, or compresses with cool, wet cloths.
- Reduce inflammation. If the pain is intense, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory like ibuprofen can help ease your discomfort.
- Keep your skin hydrated. Gels containing aloe vera are a great option that cool and moisturize sunburned skin. Reapply them frequently.
- Hydrate internally. Sunburned skin essentially sucks the fluids from your body to the skin’s surface in a sort of emergency response, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. Prevent dehydration by drinking plenty of water.
- Let blisters heal naturally. If your skin blisters, treat it gently and don’t manually peel your dead skin off.
These steps may help you feel better and the short-term effects of a sunburn may disappear within a week, but the damage you’ve done isn’t as fleeting as it appears.
Treating Long-Term Sun Damage
If you’re an adult, you likely have some sun damage. Even kids do — freckles are a tell-tale sign. In those of us over the age of 20, such damage looks like old. Wrinkles, age spots (bigger, not-as-cute freckles), thickening skin, etc. — these are all signs of lasting sun damage. So, what can you do about them?
- Exfoliate. Assuming you’re not nursing a sunburn, removing dead skin cells can even your skin tone and leave your face looking smoother. You don’t need a sandblaster or abrasive cleansers to achieve this — a clean washcloth used daily will do the trick.
- Moisturize. Dry skin looks older. Keeping your skin hydrated with a high-quality moisturizer can reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. If you have oily skin, look specifically for oil-free and noncomedogenic products.
- Eat right. There is some evidence that a vitamin-rich diet can reduce UV skin damage, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.
- Repair. Topical retinoids are the “gold standard” of repairing sun damage, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. They work by increasing collagen production and cell regeneration, according to the organization. They are backed by a significant amount of research, too. One such retinoid, called tretinoin, has been shown to reduce wrinkling, hyperpigmentation (dark spots), and roughness, according to the journal Clinical Interventions in Aging.
- Laser? Laser treatments are another, albeit more extreme, option for men wanting to reverse the signs of sun damage. These treatments can be obtained through a dermatologist and can target melanin, the pigment responsible for dark spots.
An Ounce of Prevention…
The best way to deal with sun damage is not to get it in the first place. Because even if you’re able to lighten your dark spots and heal your latest burn — you can’t undo the increased risk of skin cancer that sun damage has delivered. The damage is done, but you can make an effort to prevent future damage.
- Wear sunscreen daily. Using a moisturizer with at least an SPF 30 makes this step easy.
- Minimize sun exposure. If the UV index is moderate to high (5 or greater), limit the time you spend out in it. You can find the UV index in most weather apps.
- Cover up. If you have to be out in the sun, wear a hat and consider UV-protective clothing.
- Skip tanning beds. If you “need” a golden glow, look into spray tans. They deliver the color without the increased risk of skin cancer and sun damaged skin.