How to Reverse Sun Damage, According to Dermatologists

The best things you can do for your skin. 

Young woman in straw hat with sunlight through holes on her face
Photo: Getty Images

Though the warmth of sunshine can certainly feel good on our skin, this lawless ball of fire can do some serious damage to our dermis (yes, even in the winter). Even when we're diligent about applying sunscreen or sticking to shady spots, incremental sun exposure can add up over time and expedite signs of aging.

"The sun's UV rays can cause uneven pigmentation, brown spots, broken blood vessels, and white spots," explains Debra Jaliman, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and author of Skin Rules: Trade Secrets from a Top New York Dermatologist. "It can also break down the collagen and elastic tissue leading to wrinkles and sagging of the skin."

While a full reversal of sun damage isn't always feasible, there are a handful of treatments and products that can partially turn back the clock and curb future damage.

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At-Home Maintenance

Before we dive into targeted treatments that can deliver more immediate payoff, it's important to stick to a daily skincare regimen that promotes a healthy complexion.

At the forefront of your "must apply" list is an SPF 30+, which should be worn everyday. It's also good practice to cleanse and moisturize daily. Prioritize products formulated with ingredients that have scientific backing, such as peptides, ceramides, niacinamide, and vitamin C. If your skin isn't too sensitive, you can also work in an exfoliating product once or twice a week.

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Chemical Peels

Chemical peels work by removing the top layers of your skin so that your body regenerates new, healthy, and younger-looking skin. They can minimize fine lines and wrinkles, boost brightness, and even out your complexion.

In-office treatments range from very mild peels that use gentle enzymes, all the way to very intense acid peels (such as a TCA peel) that require downtime. Though stronger peels can create the most noticeable results, not everyone is a candidate. Your provider can walk you through the best options based on your complexion and specific goals.

While professional chemical peels are typically stronger (pH of around 2.0), you can opt for the lower strength stuff at home with AHAs and BHAs, lactic acid, and mandelic acid. Also known as "lunchtime peels" (since they involve little to no downtime), these superficial peels penetrate minimally and exfoliate gently to assist with mild skin problems like minor discoloration and rough texture.

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Topical retinoid products can reverse existing sun damage and restore some of that youthful quality. The over-the-counter option is retinol, which comes in a variety of concentrations and formulations depending on the brand. Retinoic acid (tretinoin) is a more potent and effective option that's available only through a prescription.

Over time, consistent application of tretinoin helps thicken the dermis and increase elastin, which makes skin appear less wrinkled, rough, and dull, says Orit Markowitz, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and skin cancer specialist.

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Laser Treatments

There's an entire fleet of laser treatments out there that can target the discoloration, dullness, and rough texture caused by sun damage. Your dermatologist can recommend the best type of laser to address your specific concerns, but favorites include Pico and Fraxel.

"For basic freckles and sun spots, I like the Pico laser technology," says Dr. Markowitz. "This is a photo acoustic, rapid pulsing laser. There's no heat or thermal damage on the skin and therefore no downtime with very great results."

You'll need three or four Pico laser treatments, usually spaced about two to four weeks apart, to see optimal results. Fraxel lasers, which use fractionated light, target brown spots and fine lines. They require about four treatments spaced one month apart, and generally include about five days of downtime each.

"It's about an hour-long procedure done in the office," Dr. Jaliman adds. "You are first numbed for an hour with numbing cream. Then the laser takes 15 minutes. Then you ice for another 15 minutes."

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Phytodynamic Therapy

Another helpful in-office treatment, which is often covered by insurances, is photodynamic therapy (PT). Though there are potentially some cosmetic benefits, this is really a treatment that targets potentially cancerous skin cells.

"Here you apply a chemical called aminolevulinic acid, [which] tends to bind to cells that are probably growing at a more rapid rate. [This is] usually a sign of cancer or precancerous damage," says Dr. Markowitz.

The chemical sits for 16 minutes and 40 seconds (yes, it's that precise!) while the skin is exposed to blue, or sometimes red, light. Dr. Markowitz explains that the cells growing too quickly will light up, crust over, and the skin will appear almost like it has a sunburn.

"Then, after a week, things begin to nicely fade away. You won't see optimal results until three to four weeks after treatment."

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  1. American Academy of Dermatology, Chemical peels: Overview. Accessed August 10, 2022.

  2. Szymański Ł, Skopek R, Palusińska M, et al. Retinoic acid and its derivatives in skin. Cells. 2020;9(12):2660. doi: 10.3390/cells9122660

  3. Jakus J, Kailas A. Picosecond lasers: A new and emerging therapy for skin of color, Minocycline-induced pigmentation, and tattoo removal. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2017;10(3):14-15.

  4. Cohen SR, Goodacre A, Lim S, et al. Clinical outcomes and complications associated with fractional lasers: A review of 730 patients. Aesthetic Plast Surg. 2017;41(1):171-178. doi:10.1007/s00266-016-0767-x

  5. Ozog DM, Rkein AM, Fabi SG, et al. Photodynamic therapy: A clinical consensus guide. Dermatol Surg. 2016;42(7):804-827. doi:10.1097/DSS.0000000000000800

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