Dermatologists agree that sun damage is the number one affront to our skin’s youthful appearance. From causing dark sun spots and discoloration to bringing out premature wrinkles and fine lines, sun damage is the biggest culprit to premature aging on our face and neck.
Sure, the warm sun may feel great on a breezy spring day, but not using the right protection on your face and neck will leave you wondering how to reverse sun-damaged skin.
By fully understanding the exact effects the sun’s rays have on our skin health, you can be more clear about what approach to take in reversing your skin’s sun damage. So, let’s dive into the most common complaints about skin that are caused by sun damage. Then we can size up the most effective ingredients in over-the-counter dark spot remover creams and anti-aging products.
Of course, there’s a quick way to analyze your own skin and determine the right ingredients for your type of skin and your personal skincare concerns. Take the Y’OUR Skin Analysis Quiz. It’ll take about 3 minutes to complete. We’ll then recommend a personalized skincare ritual that just works for you.
Most people already know that spending several hours in the direct sunlight will cause painful sunburn to your skin. But did you know that sun damage happens to your face and neck almost every day? Not just on a hot summer day by the pool! Everyday exposure to sunlight causes a variety of sun damage symptoms.
UVA rays from the sun contain a high level of free radicals which break down collagen in your skin. Collagen is what gives your skin plumpness and elasticity. Without enough collagen, your skin hangs more loosely and seems deflated - leading to wrinkles and creases. Wrinkles are the number one complaint regarding premature aging, so the best way to avoid them is to protect our skin from UV damage.
Sun damage also causes uneven skin tone. When the rays from the sun hit our skin, our skin produces extra melanin (the same thing that makes us tan). But when your skin cells produce unequal amounts of melanin, some cells will be lighter and some will be darker. That will make your skin tone look blotchy and can even cause dark spots. This is called hyperpigmentation.
Melasma is a specific example of hyperpigmentation. Melasma looks like whole patches of brown or darker skin. (Side note: Melasma is common among women who are pregnant - it’s even referred to as “the mask of pregnancy.” But melasma can occur in both men and women who are not pregnant, too.)
Commonly known as sun spots, liver spots, are rather common. Anyone can have sunspots; however, those who are more fair-skinned, or even older than 40-years-old tend to be more susceptible to sunspots.
Sunspots tend to be physically harmless, but having discolored face and neck skin is a common complaint for physical appearance. The most predictable areas for sunspots to appear are on the back of the hands, the face, shoulders, and forearms. They are easy to identify, as they are flat brown spots that develop to sun exposure.
Take our three-minute Skin Analysis Quiz to identify your unique skin needs. You’ll get a custom skincare routine with the right ingredients for your skin.
Some people with dark skin tones believe that they don’t have to worry about sun damage because their skin is already dark. But it actually is common to see hyperpigmentation on dark skin.
Dark skin has higher melanin and melanosomes, which act as natural UV damage blockers. Therefore, darker skin has more natural protection from the sun, so there are some benefits. (Brenner 2007). For example, dark skin is less prone to wrinkles than light complexions.
Unfortunately, not only is dark skin just as culpable to sun damage, it also tends to have more intense and longer-lasting effects than light skin. Sun spots and melasma are just as common among dark complexions as in lighter skin tones, but are more likely to take longer for discoloration repair.
Here’s another fun fact you may not already know about sun damage. Were you aware that certain sunlight, UVA rays, penetrate right through clouds and windows, so you can get blasted by these rays even when you’re sitting by a window or outside on a cloudy day.
This is why you must wear sunscreen every single day, no matter what.
Plus, did you know that sunlight can make some of your skincare products ineffective?
The sun’s rays are incredibly strong — if they can break down the collagen in your skin, they are definitely capable of breaking down the most potent anti-aging and anti-acne ingredients in your skincare products.
And this is exactly what happens when you don’t use skincare products correctly or use daily products that don’t include sunscreen. Your beneficial skincare products can be wasted, rendered useless by damage from the sun.
Want to take a short Skin Analysis Quiz to determine the root of your skincare issues? You’ll even get a custom skincare routine with the right ingredients for your skin needs!
There are several products and medications that can not only protect your skin from further damage but also reverse sun-damaged skin. Some of these products, such as dark spot remover creams, may take several months to see benefits, while others are more instant. You see, sun damage can affect any layer of skin, from the outermost epidermis to the inner dermis.
Depending on how deep your sun damage is, discoloration repair can take from weeks to months using topical products.
Here are a few of the ingredients used topically to reverse sun-damaged skin, but it’s important to find the right ingredients for your skin type. You can find out exactly what types of ingredients will work best for your skin type by taking our short Skin Analysis Quiz.
Hydroquinone is a commonly used topical cream for lightening dark spots. Hydroquinone is an ingredient in many over-the-counter lightening creams and dark spot removers. It works by suppressing the production of melanin.
Studies have shown that hydroquinone can improve photodamage from 30-70%, including reducing hyperpigmentation, texture, fine lines, dryness, tone and clarity of the skin. (Gladstone et al)
It’s important to note that there are significant risks in using hydroquinone (and other topical bleaching agents.) There has been controversy in the past over whether hydroquinone has carcinogenic properties. In recent scientific studies, it has been shown that long-term use of hydroquinone could increase the chance of developing cancer. Therefore, this might not be a safe option. That’s why it’s so important to use the right ingredients for your skin.
Arbutin is a synthesized derivative of hydroquinone. It acts as a powerful skin lightening ointment that works a bit differently than hydroquinone. It blocks the production of melanin instead of “bleaching” the skin.
To geek out on specifics, α-Arbutin (α-Ab) is synthesized from hydroquinone (HQ) by enzymatic biotransformation using amylosucrase (ASase). It inhibits the enzymatic oxidation of tyrosine and L-3,4-dihydroxyphenylalanine (L-DOPA) and therefore suppresses production of melanin in the skin. (Seo et al)
Also of note, arbutin has not been linked to cancer in the same way that hydroquinone has.
Vitamin C is an important component of a great skincare routine. Vitamin C is effective for sunspots by protecting skin cells from the sun damage caused by UV light, pollution and smoke. But also, Vitamin C can be used as a brightening agent to lighten the hyperpigmentation of your sunspots or melasma. It works by inhibiting the enzyme tyrosinase, preventing the formation of melatonin.
What’s more is Vitamin C boosts collagen-production, making skin appear more plump and tight. Vitamin C also acts as a hydration barrier, keeping your skin viable and pliable. So, it’s a wonderful ingredient in daily skincare to reverse sun damage in a variety of ways!
One drawback to mention about Vitamin C is that there are so many different derivations of this ingredient. Each derivation has its own benefits and drawbacks, making it very confusing to understand where to start with putting together the right combination of topical treatments for your hyperpigmentation. We’ve taken the guesswork and research out of personalized skincare routines. The Y’OUR Skin Quiz is powered by Skin AI™ - designed by beauty experts and MIT data scientists! Our team has done the legwork of testing and researching products with natural ingredients —looking for the right non-harmful combinations. Click here to take the Skin Quiz to get your personalized skincare routine.
Ascorbic Acid is actually the formal scientific name for Vitamin C. It can refer to either a naturally occurring Vitamin C found in foods such as citrus, or a synthetic form of ascorbic acid created to be more shelf-stable for skincare products like discoloration repair lotions and creams.
All of the benefits listed above for Vitamin C also apply to Ascorbic Acid, but with its own drawbacks. Ascorbic acid is an unstable compound, meaning it’s affected by light, temperature, and exposure to oxygen. So you have to be very careful with how you store and use creams that include it. Another downside is that this ingredient can irritate many people’s skin.
Tetrahexyldecyl Ascorbate - in addition to being a really fun phrase to say - is actually simply a form of Vitamin C. By synthesizing this chemical from Vitamin C, dermatologists are able to give us all the benefits of Vitamin C in a more shelf-stable form that can also be soluble in oil to make more effective, deeper penetrating skin products. (Herndon 2016)
Tetrahyxyldecyl Ascorbate increases collagen levels to plump fine lines and wrinkles caused by sun damage. It also reduces melanin production and brightens skin - reversing sun spots and melasma. And, like Vitamin C, it creates a barrier to shield skin from free radicals in sunlight and pollution that damage the skin further.
Daily sun damage causes wrinkles, discoloration, and hyperpigmentation on dark skin and light alike. There are many ingredients available over the counter to battle sun damage on the face and neck. The ingredients that will work best for you depend on which symptoms are most prevalent.
For wrinkles and fine lines, ingredients that boost collagen and create a moisture barrier are best, such as Vitamin C or its other forms, ascorbic acid and tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate.
For reducing the appearance of dark spots, sun spots, liver spots, and melasma, look to discoloration repair ingredients like hydroquinone and arbutin. Most dark spot remover ointments will even your skin tone with daily use over a few months.
In general, the best advice is to add sunscreen to your daily skincare regimen and understand how to use products so that they’re most effective. The best way to get a customized skincare routine that will reduce your dark spots and protect your specific skin type from your specific daily routine and environment is to take the Y’OUR Skin Analysis Quiz.
Brenner, Michaela and Hearing,Vincent, The Protective Role of Melanin Against UV Damage in Human Skin. Photochemistry and Photobiology, November 2007.
Gladstone MD et al. Efficacy of Hydroquinone Cream (USP 4%) Used Alone or in Combination with Salicylic Acid Peels in Improving Photodamage on the Neck and Upper Chest, Journal of Dermatological Surgery. December 2001.
Seo, Dong-Ho et al. High-yield enzymatic bioconversion of hydroquinone to α-arbutin, a powerful skin lightening agent, by amylosucrase. Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology, 2012.
Herndon JH Jr, Jiang LI, Kononov T, Fox T, An Open Label Clinical Trial to Evaluate the Efficacy and Tolerance of a Retinol and Vitamin C Facial Regimen in Women With Mild-to-Moderate Hyperpigmentation and Photodamaged Facial Skin.
Journal of Drugs in Dermatology. Apr 2016.