Can Your Skincare Routine Actually Reverse Sun Damage?

If you’re curious to see how your skincare products stand up to sun damage, here’s what the experts say.
Expert Opinion
Written by Taylor Lane
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Can Your Skincare Routine Actually Reverse Sun Damage?Martin Courreges/Unsplash

The warmth of the sun’s rays may feel oh-so-good against your skin, but the exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays wreaks havoc on the deepest layers of skin. Over time, this leads to premature signs of aging (think: dark spots, lines and wrinkles, crepiness) and, more severely, skin cancer. Sunscreen is, obviously, the first line of defense from a protection perspective, but how can you treat the sun damage that’s already accrued?

When it comes to skincare, we talk a lot about products that can brighten, smooth, and protect the skin. From antioxidants to retinoids to sunscreen, over-the-counter and prescription topicals can improve the skin tone and skin texture. So, is it enough to treat and minimize the effects of sun damage? Top dermatologists and a cosmetic chemist break down everything you need to know.

Sun Damage 101

We probably don’t need to tell you that UV rays damage the skin. Whether they are from the sun or tanning beds, UV rays have the ability to alter DNA at a cellular level. The way these changes appear on the skin are what we know colloquially as sun damage. The amount of damage the skin endures is directly correlated to the amount of time spent in the sun or exposed to UV radiation, says Alicia Zalka, MD, board certified dermatologist and founder of Surface Deep. “One mitigating factor is one’s own defense to ultraviolet’s oxidative damage to cells,” she explains. “This, in large part, is hereditary and linked to things such as one’s inherent melanin (pigment) content of the skin.”

Dr. Zalka compares sun damage to the odometer of a car. “Like the odometer, which cannot turn back miles driven, the skin cannot turn back ultraviolet damage deep within the skin,” she notes. But all is not lost for the car or your complexion. “However, like the vintage car with lots of miles that has been carefully maintained, the skin can be treated so that the wear and tear is less visible and potentially less dangerous,” she notes.

What Sun Damage Looks Like on the Skin

Sun damage manifests on the surface of the skin in several forms. According to Adriana Lombardi, MD, a board certified dermatologist and founder of the Skin Cancer & Cosmetic Surgery Center of NJ, it falls into three buckets:

  1. Visible discoloration (think: hyperpigmentation)
  2. Wrinkles
  3. Erythema (read: redness)

More specifically, “the most common sign of sun damaged skin is photodamage known as solar lentigines, commonly called sun spots or liver spots,” says Amy Spizuoco, DO, a board certified dermatologist and founder of True Dermatology in New York City. “Rhytides, or wrinkles, are the second most common sign, followed by telangiectasia, which are dilated, superficial blood vessels, causing redness on the skin and dilated pores.” But that’s not all. “Additionally, actinic keratosis, which are precancerous pink rough bumps, develop on sites of chronic sun exposure,” notes Jessica Weiser, MD, a board certified dermatologist and founder of Weiser Skin MD in NYC.

While everyone responds to UV radiation differently, the degree of skin tone and texture irregularities you experience is linked to the degree of sun damage (mild to risky) you’ve experienced. Dr. Zalka breaks it down this way:

  • Mild: Scattered brown spots, lightly etched-in lines, slight loss of elasticity
  • Moderate: “Widespread brown spots, many deep lines, skin texture roughness, and bumps, sagging,” Dr. Zalka notes.
  • Severe: “Precancerous spots and brown blotches, uneven skin tone, severe skin sagging, deep wrinkles,” she shares.
  • Risky: “Too many precancerous spots to count, multiple skin growths, dryness, paper-like skin, easy bruising, skin cancers develop,” Dr. Zalka explains.

We’re not sure if this will make you feel better or worse, but the sun damage you are concerned about now has been years in the making. “Studies show that sun damage shows up as long as 15 to 20 years after the sun exposure,” Dr. Weiser says. “This is why we see skin cancers many years after intense sun or repeat sunburns.” There is a reason for the delay. “When we get a sunburn or exposure to free radicals, the cells in our skin are subject to oxidative stress which can create DNA damage,” Dr. Lombardi explains. “The repercussions of this damage do not become apparent immediately because it takes several years for the cells to multiply and create the effects of sun damage.”

Can Topical Skincare Really Treat Sun Damage?

The short answer is yes, but you must first make sure you know what you’re treating. “While deeper DNA damage may be challenging to treat and requires the care of a dermatologist, the more superficial manifestations of sun damage can be improved with skincare,” Dr. Zalka shares. To get a better sense of where your skin stands, pay a visit to your dermatologist for your annual skin cancer screening and, throughout the year, do your own at-home skin checks to monitor for any unusual spots or changes to existing ones.

With that in mind, it’s time to talk skincare – specifically, how you can use it to minimize the visible signs of sun damage (i.e. dark spots, fine lines and wrinkles, redness, uneven skin texture). According to Mona Gohara, MD, a board certified dermatologist in Connecticut, skincare products can certainly make a difference, but, as with any skin concern, it all comes down to using the right ingredients. Dr. Weiser agrees. “For overall improvements in skin tone and skin pigmentation, a variety of skincare products can be helpful,” she notes. All of our experts agree that the best actives for targeting sun damage are:

  • Antioxidants
  • Retinol & retinoids
  • Sunscreen

Here’s what you need to know about the benefits of each:


Antioxidants have the unique ability to both correct current skin concerns and protect against future damage. “Antioxidants are anti-inflammatory and can help the skin cells maintain normal DNA despite free radical exposure because they protect cellular DNA and help to prevent oxidative stress and free radical damage,” Dr. Lombardi explains. “Studies also show that diets high in anti-inflammatories and antioxidants also are protective to the skin and help prevent sun damage as well as sunburn and photoaging.”

It’s this multifunctionality that makes them a dermatologist favorite. “Using vitamin C and other such antioxidants can reduce free radical damage and simultaneously impede production of pigmentation,” Dr. Weiser says. In the antioxidant family, vitamin C may get the lion’s share of attention, but it’s not the only one worth considering. “Topical antioxidants include vitamin C, niacinamide, resveratrol, vitamin E, retinols, and other polyphenols,” Dr. Lombardi shares. Dr. Gohara is a fan of vitamin E because it “reduces inflammation and helps your body regenerate cells.”

Retinol & Retinoids

It often feels like retinol and retinoids are the answer to just about every skin concern, but, when it comes to sun damage, there is good reason to reach for vitamin A derivatives. “Topical retinoids have been proven to reverse the signs of sun damaged skin by shrinking pores, lightening sun spots, and increasing collagen production to minimize the appearance of wrinkles,” Dr. Spizuoco says.

While you can see results with an over-the-counter retinol, prescription retinoids tend to be the most effective. “Retin-A has been shown to speed up epidermal turnover and therefore promotes the shedding of dead skin cells at the surface,” Dr. Weiser shares. “Additionally, retinoids stimulate the production of certain types of collagen to improve the skin quality.”


Sunscreen makes the list for several reasons. For starters, we never pass up an opportunity to remind you that you should be wearing SPF every single day regardless of the weather (we’ve rounded up some dermatologist-approved formulas). “Ninety percent of the visible signs of aging and skin cancers come from unprotected daily exposure to UV rays,” Dr. Gohara says. “This means not just beach or pool, but if you are in your car, running errands, exercising, etc.“

It’s also the best defense against sun damage. “Any unprotected time outside is a potential compromise to skin health,” she notes. “Daily SPF, regardless of skin type or color, is essential.” And don’t forget that the reapplication of sunscreen is as important as the first application. “While such products are instrumental in providing protection from ultraviolet damage both surface and deep, they must be used year-round and reapplied every few hours for maximum benefit,” Dr. Zalka emphasizes.

And, if you want your sunscreen to pull double duty, Dr. Spizuoco recommends looking for one of the many formulas on the market that does more than just protect (here are some of the most innovative). “Some sunscreens contain ingredients that help repair sun damaged skin, such as ISDIN Eryfotona,” she shares.

Additional Actives

While antioxidants, retinoids, and sunscreen are the big three, there are additional ingredients that can effectively treat sun damage. If pigmentation is your concern, “topical cysteamine (Cyspera® Intensive System) has demonstrated excellent tolerability and nice improvements in skin tone and sun-associated hyperpigmentation,” Dr. Weiser says. Exfoliating acids – like alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) – can also improve skin tone and texture. Dr. Spizuoco is a fan of glycolic acid to “increase collagen production and lighten sun spots.” Additionally, “defensins, peptides, and many other active ingredients have been shown to improve skin quality,” Dr. Weiser adds.

For more severe damage, prescription topicals may be required. “When medically necessary, some prescription agents, such as Imiquimod, 5-fluorouracil, and, more recently, Klisyri, are able to destroy precancerous cells and certain superficial skin cancers,” Dr. Weiser explains. A consultation with your dermatologist will provide diagnosis and determine if this is needed.

How Long Does It Take to See Results From Skincare?

Skincare products topically treat sun damage and are effective because, “on a topical level, our skin will shed away the dead layer every 28 days or so,” says cosmetic chemist Ginger King. As such, patience – and consistency – is key. “Generally, to see noticeable skin quality improvements from topical treatments, I encourage patients to be consistent for three to six months with the same regimen,” Dr. Weiser notes. While that is a good timeline to keep in mind for treating cosmetic concerns, know that the protocol may be different for certain medical conditions. “For the prescription medications, different precancers and superficial non-melanoma skin cancers require different durations of treatment depending on the diagnosis,” she adds.

Developing a routine that you know you can stick to is one of the best ways to reap the benefits. “To get the most protection from a skincare regimen high in antioxidants, you want to use it daily along with a physical sunscreen,” Dr. Lombardi shares. “Typically, it takes around about three months to see differences in the skin after starting an antioxidant regimen.”

What In-Office Procedures Treat Sun Damage?

While skincare can go a long way to minimize many signs of sun damage, it often works best when paired with in-office treatments. “A topical skincare regimen will help to protect and prevent future sun damage and will help to erase damage over time,” Dr. Lombardi says. “But, to get the best results, I typically combine in-office procedures with a good skincare regimen.”

Treatments that resurface the skin, improve pigmentation, and boost collagen production can address the uneven skin tone and texture concerns that accompany sun damage. “While topicals can effect slow subtle changes to the skin, in-office procedures – like laser resurfacing and photodynamic therapy – can deliver more significant changes in shorter time frames,” Dr. Weiser explains. “I frequently utilize a 1927 nm thulium resurfacing laser to provide both collagen stimulation and pigment improvement in as little as one to two sessions.”

Additionally, our experts are fans of intense pulsed light (IPL), chemical peels (Dr. Spizuoco specifically likes glycolic acid peels), and microneedling with PRP. While professional treatments might speed up the results, they will not last without a solid at-home routine. “Emphasis needs to be placed on continuing a good skincare regimen at home,” Dr. Lombardi reiterates. “If a patient is exposed to free radical damage after a procedure, they can again have ‘sun damaged’ skin.” At the end of the day, a holistic approach is necessary. “The combination of a well-rounded topical skincare routine and in office procedures will yield the best improvements in sun damaged skin,” Dr. Weiser adds.

The Takeaway

Preventing is always easier than correcting, but, with sun damage, we’re usually playing defense. “The sun damage we see in adulthood is from damage done in our youth, typically the cumulative sun exposure we experienced before age 18,” Dr. Spizuoco says. While that’s not an excuse to skimp on sunscreen, it does mean that you may also want some skin smoothing and toning ingredients in your skincare routine. You can’t go wrong with antioxidants and retinoids, but, during your annual skin checks with a board certified dermatologist, ask for their tips for at-home and in-office treatments, too.

All products featured are independently selected by our editors, however, AEDIT may receive a commission on items purchased through our links.

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TAYLOR LANEis a contributing writer for AEDIT.

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