Chances are you feel younger than what’s on your birth certificate. But do you think you look older than you are? Time spent outside over the years may have something to do with it.
Even if you’re practicing sun safety now, the damage may already be done. Years of exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation — whether from the sun or tanning beds — can lead to sun-damaged skin, also known as photoaging. UV rays can cause DNA changes in your skin cells, resulting in premature skin aging and an increased risk of skin cancer.
While sun-worshippers and people with lighter skin tones are more at risk for sun damage, UV rays can leave their mark on anyone. And photoaging can appear earlier than you might think. “Signs of photoaging can start as young as your teens to early 20s,” says Summit Health dermatologist Hee Jin Koh, MD.
Common signs of sun damage
Sun-exposed areas such as your face, neck, upper chest, arms, hands, and legs are the most susceptible to photoaging. Dr. Koh says the most common signs of sun damage she sees include:
- Broken capillaries. These enlarged blood vessels also are called spider veins or telangiectasia. Sun exposure can break down the fibers keeping these small vessels tight, allowing them to grow larger and give your skin a reddish appearance, often on the nose and cheeks.
- Pigmentation changes. Your skin produces a brown pigment called melanin to protect your skin cells from sun damage. But sometimes the sun triggers an uneven increase in melanin production, resulting in irregular skin coloring. Freckles and age or liver spots (solar lentigines) are examples of pigmentation changes.
She adds that other photoaging signs can include:
- Uneven skin texture
- Loss of skin tone or elasticity
Cosmetic treatments for sun-damaged skin
Although you can’t completely reverse sun damage, there are treatment options that can reduce some of its visible effects. Dr. Koh says Summit Health dermatologists offer these cosmetic procedures:
- Pulsed dye laser. This treatment uses concentrated, gentle pulses of light to target broken capillaries. The light is converted into heat, destroying damaged blood vessels while keeping the surrounding skin safe.
- Laser skin resurfacing. This technique uses pulsed beams of light to target the outer layers of the skin and smooth out an uneven complexion due to pigmentation changes. It can also reduce the appearance of wrinkles.
- Chemical peels. These rejuvenating treatments use a solution to remove layers of skin, treating various pigmentation changes, uneven texture, and other skin imperfections.
- Microneedling. For this procedure, a provider uses a device with tiny needles on the skin to stimulate the skin’s production of collagen and elastin. Microneedling can be used to treat uneven skin texture.
- Cosmetic botulinum toxins. This injectable treatment for wrinkles works by blocking nerve impulses to muscles, causing them to relax. Botulinum toxins are better known by their brand names, such as Botox Cosmetic.
- Dermal fillers. Dr. Koh notes that these injectable gel-like substances can be used to restore facial volume when appropriate.
Dr. Koh adds that treating pigmentation changes early can help in reducing premature skin aging, as can using the right skin care products. Summit Health offers consultations for guidance on a skin care routine and products that best meet patients’ needs.
Still, Dr. Koh says the best treatment for sun-damaged skin is prevention. “Sun protection is the most important,” she says. Not only can it prevent adding years to your appearance, but it can reduce your risk of developing skin cancer.
Sun safety tips
UV exposure is the most preventable cause of skin cancer. While sun exposure is inevitable, you and your family can take steps to enjoy the outdoors safely.
- Cover up. Wear lightweight protective clothing such as long-sleeved shirts, pants, and wide-brimmed hats. Choose sunglasses with UV protection since the sun’s rays can also damage your eyes. Wrap-around style sunglasses can prevent the sun from getting in on the sides.
- Get in the shade. The sun’s rays are the most intense between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., so minimize your midday exposure. Do not be fooled by a cloudy day — the sun can still damage your skin.
- Use the right amount of sunscreen. Choose a broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher. Apply at least 1 ounce — about a palmful’s worth — every two hours, and more often if you are sweating or getting in the water. Do not forget places like your ears and hairline. Protect your lips with sun balm.
How a dermatologist can help you
In addition to cosmetic treatments for sun-damaged skin, Summit Health dermatologists offer screening and procedures for various skin issues. Check out these frequently asked questions to learn more.