Your Guide to Dealing with Existing Sun Damage, Including When to Be Concerned About Your Skin's Health

Start by seeing a board-certified dermatologist, say our experts.

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While there's nothing better than being outdoors in the summer, prolonged sun exposure causes significant changes in the skin, including hyperpigmentation, wrinkles, and other issues. "These changes happen when UV light hits skin unprotected by sunscreen, causing DNA changes at a cellular level," says board-certified dermatologist Dr. Rachel Maiman. What's more, as we age, the visible signs of this process only become more prominent and more difficult to treat. Dealing with existing sun damage, however, can be tricky to navigate, and that's especially true when it comes to identifying which signs and symptoms are cause for concern. To help us better understand the nature of sun damage, we spoke to two leading dermatologists who are experts in the field.

What does sun damage look like?

"Sun damage can show up in our skin in many ways and take several different forms," explains board-certified dermatologist Dr. Corey L. Hartman, who notes that the earliest sign is sunburn. "It may only last a few days, but even a mild sunburn can lay the foundation for years of problems with precancers, skin cancers, and wrinkles." Excessive exposure can also cause hyperpigmentation, like brown spots, freckles, and broken capillaries.

How can you treat sun-damaged skin?

To identify the type of sun damage you have, it's important to visit a board-certified dermatologist who can determine your best course of treatment. At-home remedies like topical retinoids and chemical peels have proven successful in resurfacing and rejuvenating the skin; certain LED light treatments can also help fade existing hyperpigmentation like pesky brown spots. "Photodynamic therapy with blue or red light is a great way to reverse signs of sun damage and prevent precancers from developing into full skin cancers," adds Dr. Hartman.

As for in-office procedures? Dr. Maiman recommends resurfacing lasers, like Fraxel, which can help target a wide range of skin issues such as visible vessels, loss of skin laxity, and wrinkles. However, if you're dealing with more severe sun damage, like precancerous lesions, prescription topical chemotherapeutic creams and in-office treatments like photodynamic therapy (PDT) may be recommended by your dermatologist.

How can you prevent sun damage?

To prevent further UV damage from occurring, practicing proper sun protection is a must. "Diligent adherence to sun-protective measures is critical and begins with the use of a broad-spectrum sunscreen that shields skin from both UVA and UVB rays," says Dr. Maiman, who advises using an SPF of 30 or higher. In addition to sunscreen, it's important to always wear a hat and to avoid direct sunlight when possible.

When do you need to be concerned about sun damage?

"If you sustained a lot of sun damage, including blistering sunburns in childhood, see a dermatologist who can evaluate the extent of the issue," advises Dr. Maiman. "Most importantly, always, always make an appointment if you see a new or changing "mole" or spot that is brown, black, red, or white, which could be a sign of skin cancer," she continues. If you notice persistent red scaly patches that come and go in the same location or non-healing lesions that persist longer than three weeks, Dr. Hartman also recommends visiting a dermatologist to rule out skin cancer.

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