Shedding light on the truth about this common stat.

By Eleni N. Gage
Updated April 14, 2010
Woman holding sun reflector
Credit: Elinor Carucci

While it’s true that people often get most of their sun exposure before the age of 18 (thanks to all that time playing outdoors), sun damage, which causes wrinkles, discoloration, and skin cancers, happens steadily throughout your life. In fact, a study published by the American Society for Photobiology found that Americans acquire only 23 percent of their sun damage by age 18 and get about 10 percent more every decade after that. "So never think, I blew it. The damage is done. I’ll just keep tanning," says Kathy Fields, a San Francisco dermatologist.

How Should I Deal With Damage I Already Have?

To treat mild signs of damage, such as fine lines and uneven skin tone, use an over-the-counter retinol cream nightly, which essentially helps renew skin (try Philosophy Miracle Worker Anti-Aging Retinoid Pads and Solution, $73, For more impact, New York City dermatologist Anne Chapas often prescribes Retin-A, which contains a stronger retinoid and is also used nightly. Every other day, your skin can benefit from applications of a product containing glycolic acid, which exfoliates and softens the look of wrinkles (try B. Kamins Glycolic-10, $48,, says New York City dermatologist Neal Schultz. Perhaps more important, “glycolic acid helps regularize damaged cells and gets rid of abnormal ones,” he explains. “Studies demonstrate that applying 8 percent glycolic acid every other day decreases the incidence of precancerous keratoses, the cells that can become squamous-cell cancers.” Schultz also suggests using a moisturizer containing peptides, such as Olay Regenerist Regenerating Serum ($20 at drugstores), since peptides “have been shown to increase collagen.” Over-the-counter lightening remedies that contain vitamin C, kojic acid, soy, and licorice “also brighten skin a bit,” says Fields.

To treat dark spots, experts recommend prescription hydroquinone, which is highly effective when used under the care of a doctor; reevaluation is recommended after six months of use. “It really works,” says Fields. And for the most troublesome pigment issues, covering patches of the face or the body, there are two options. One is Fraxel laser treatment (one to three sessions at $1,000 to $1,500 per session), an intense resurfacing laser that will leave your skin red for a few days or weeks, depending on the strength of the laser. Or consider photo-dynamic therapy (one to two sessions at $250 to $750 a session, usually covered by insurance), in which a lotion is applied to damage-prone areas and activated by 5 to 15 minutes of intense light. Additional benefits: “Studies show that this therapy decreases the number of skin-cancer cells people make, preventing cancers from forming,” says Chapas. “There’s also evidence that it builds collagen.”

How Do I Prevent Future Damage?

It’s simple: Protect yourself. “Stop tanning today and your brown spots will begin to fade almost immediately,” says Fields. Apply an SPF 30 or higher sunscreen with antioxidants each morning (like DCL Super Sheer sunscreen SPF 50+, $24, to locate a participating physician) and an antioxidant cream at night (try Murad Active Radiance Serum, $89, “During the day, antioxidants provide one more layer of sun protection for you,” says Schultz. “At night they act as a sponge for damaging free radicals, sparing skin cells.” Schultz’s preferred antioxidants are vitamin C and caffeine, which can be found in Garnier Skin Renew Awakening Face Massager ($13 at drugstores). “Caffeine has been shown to protect cells against the cancerous effects of ultraviolet light,” says Schultz. And if you do sunburn, minimize potential skin damage by reducing inflammation. Take aspirin, and soothe your skin with topical aloe vera or a cold milk compress (soak a paper towel with milk and chill in the freezer for a few minutes). A cool bath containing a cup of oatmeal can also calm skin.