What is Sun-Damaged Skin and Can it Be Prevented?

Regardless of your environment, it's really easy to damage your skin in the sun. If you live in very sunny areas, the risks are obvious, but even cold climates have a summer, albeit a shorter one.

In fact, colder climates can be even more dangerous because your skin has not had a chance to build any kind of tolerance and there is no culture around sun protection.

In this article we’ll explore what it really means when we refer to sun damaged skin. We’ll provide guidance on prevention, and of course what we can do to treat or reverse the damage your skin has already suffered.

Sun damaged skin

So winter’s over and you rush out to lay in the sun, soaking up the warmth and cultivating that sunkissed glow. If you’re like me, you might even have been guilty, in your youth, of using baby oil or a sunbed to accelerate the process.

For so many years, society taught us that you need to be tanned to be beautiful and laying in the sun was the way to get there. But a sun tan is actually your skin’s way of showing damage and over time, that damage starts to show in the form of wrinkles, leathery skin and sun spots.

Sun damaged skin can also occur anywhere on your body, not just your face, so it's extremely important to check your hands, chest, neck, feet and ears as those areas are most exposed and more likely to burn.

The dermatological term for sun damaged skin is pretty broad. As in...any harm done to your skin by the sun. This damage can manifest itself in many ways like wrinkles, dark spots, skin lesions, extreme dryness, peeling skin and so on.

Is skin damage from the sun reversible?

If you are like most people, you were a little naughty in your younger years and you already spent a lot of time in the sun, unprotected, and now you have the proverbial scars to show for it. The bad news is that the ultra violet light in the sun rays can actually alter your skin DNA making that damage irreversible.

Fortunately, there are various preventative measures you can take, to ensure no further sun damage occurs moving forward.

How do I prevent sun damage to my skin?

As they say, prevention is better than cure so let’s address that before we get into the various available treatments.

Sunscreen: It's all too easy to associate sunscreen with those days when you’re planning a big sun day like going to the beach, going fishing or running a marathon. What’s less obvious is the fact that you should really be applying sunscreen every day of the year. Not only that, but you should use a high SPF sunscreen like 50. There is really no reason to expose your skin to the sun. We can talk about tanning later. Make sure to use a sunscreen containing zinc and make it a daily habit, like brushing your teeth.

Protective Clothing: There’s no need to walk around in a hazmat suit, but it's pretty easy to also be sensible and fashionable while out in the sun. Hats are a great place to start because the sun will get to your scalp and that’s also the one place that is pretty hard to adequately cover with sunscreen unless you’re bald. If you are indeed bald, then you definitely need that hat, cap or handkerchief with knots balanced on your tender head.

Dark clothes tend to absorb the sun’s rays better than light colors like whites and pastels. That said, those whites and pastels do look pretty great so quick fashion tip: If you wear a light grey t-shirt under your summer linen chemise, it won’t show underneath. For some reason a white t-shirt always shows under your shirt giving you a slight Dilbert effect.

Sunglasses with polarized lenses do a nice job protecting your eyes from bright sun but a hidden benefit of a pair of sunnies is the fact that you squint less due to brightness and so do not accelerate the creation of crow's feet around your eyes.

Finally, avoiding the sun between 10am and 3pm depending on where you live is always a good idea if possible. This is usually when the sun’s UV rays are at their strongest.

Eating clean foods: Research has found that adding certain foods to your diet like blueberries, carrots and leafy greens in the form of smoothies or salads, can really help repair sun damage and boost your natural sun protection all year round. That said, eating right is kind of a nice-to-have. There is no way good food by itself is going to do the job alone. Clean food is just another tool in the tool box.

When does sun damage set in?

There are two basic types of ultraviolet rays; UVA rays and UVB rays. UVA rays have higher wavelengths, but lower energy levels than other UV rays.They penetrate more deeply and can affect cells deeper in the skin. These rays cause indirect damage to the skin DNA and can cause the skin to show signs of premature aging.

UVA rays are not absorbed by the Ozone layer and so about 95% of UVA rays reach the earth’s surface, penetrating clouds and windows along the way. UVA rays are also the main source of rays used in tanning beds.

UVB rays on the other hand, have shorter wavelengths and higher energy levels. It’s these rays that damage the outermost skin layers and can also alter the skin's DNA. UVB rays are mostly absorbed by the atmosphere’s Ozone layer but about 5% gets through and that 5% can do a lot of damage to your skin like premature aging, wrinkles and skin cancer.

Unfortunately the effects of UVB take a while to manifest so you’ll only realize you have been sunburned after the fact, when it's too late!

Is sunburn just for white people?

There is a misperception that darker skins which have more melanin, don't burn or need sunscreen, making sunburn a white skin problem. While white skin does show the effects of the sun more prominently, that does not mean darker skins are safe. The effects are just not as obvious.

This means that everyone is susceptible to sun damage and at risk of skin cancer. Those moles that start changing colour, the freckles that suddenly appear out of nowhere, sun spots, skin lesions, they all need to be monitored carefully and regularly.

How can I treat sun damaged skin?

There are various treatments that can reverse sun damage aesthetically, but it does depend on your age and how much time you have actually been exposed to the sun. In your early 20s, sun damage may start to show in the sign of sunspots. In your early 30 and 40s you will start to see fine lines, wrinkles and skin discoloration which means it’s crucial to start treating any sun damage that has occurred. If you are in your early 50s+ you will notice pronounced wrinkles and hyperpigmentation which are changes in skin colour due to sun exposure.

Can Retinol reverse the effects of Sun Damage?

Retinol is highly effective in reversing sun damage and signs of aging. Retinol is a weaker over-the-counter version of Tretinoin. The only drawback with retinol is that it should only be applied at night. If applied during the day, the skin will actually be more susceptible to sun damage causing the exact opposite or the desired effect.

Can masks and serums combat the effects of sun damaged skin?

Green tea and charcoal masks are great antioxidants for sun damaged skin as well as clay masks that improve elasticity and help to repair cutaneous damage caused by aging and photoaging.

Vitamin C serums are also very good for the skin. When applied under your sunscreen, they can really help to promote collagen synthesis, skin inflammation and provide photo protection from both Ultraviolet A and B rays.

Microdermabrasion, laser therapy and chemical peels. These treatments all work by removing the top dermal layer and getting rid of cells that show evidence of aging and sun damage. These types of treatments are also very effective for darker skin tones where the sun damage may not be as visible as with lighter skin tones.

Fortunately, no matter how many years of sun damage your skin may have suffered, you can still prevent it from getting worse. It’s never too late to start taking precautions, covering up and getting regular checkups.