Can You Reverse Sun Damage? Here’s What Derms Say

Photographed by Rockie Nolan.
Summer has come and gone, and just like that, we're wearing jumpers and breaking up with iced coffee (for now). Even though holiday season is over, the months we spent soaking in the sun at the beach and bouncing from brunch to BBQ have left a lasting mark on our skin. We're talking about the lingering sun damage that leaves skin peeling, dry, and uneven after a summer well sunned.
Speaking with dermatologists, the most common forms of sun damage are sun spots, sunburns, and dry skin. The number-one concern being sun spots. "They can happen even to the best of us who wear sunscreen religiously," says dermatologist Estee Williams, M.D. Luckily, there are ways to tackle every sign of sun damage — even dark spots — and the pros are telling us how, ahead.
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Brighten Sun Spots

There are many different types of hyperpigmentation, but sun spots usually appear after hours spent in the sun with little-to-no sun protection. As a natural defence mechanism against UV rays, the body amps up melanin production, which results in brown spots.
You can get sun spots anywhere on the body, but they're more likely to appear in areas that are frequently exposed to the sun (like the face, hands, and arms). You can also tell sun spots from other dark spots because they tend to fade in the winter months. While sunscreen does help prevent sun spots, the effects of sun exposure vary from person to person.
As far as fading sun spots, you can add vitamin C, a clinically proven brightening agent, to your daily skin-care routine. However, it will take at least a month to see any difference. As an alternative, dermatologists recommend looking into lasers, like IPL (intense pulsed light), to reverse this type of sun damage. An IPL treatment transmits bright light — typically through a handheld device — that targets pigmentation. It's rarely painful, but you can feel an uncomfortable zap from the light, similar to laser hair removal. Dr. Williams says it'll probably take two treatments to erase sun spots. IPL is cleared for all skin tones, but one important thing to keep in mind is that your skin should not be actively tanned when getting laser treatments. "If the background of skin is tan, wait it out until your skin is as close to its base colour before pursuing laser," urges Kenneth Mark, M.D. So, early fall — when your Labor Day tan has finally faded — is the perfect time to schedule an appointment.
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Treat A Bad Sunburn

First things first, tanned skin is damaged skin. "UV light exposure revs up pigment production, so having tanned skin means you have been exposed," says Joshua Zeichner, MD, a New York-based dermatologist and director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital. "Even low-grade sun exposure can damage collagen and the DNA of skin cells." And if your skin is burnt and peeling, that's a sign of that the body is ridding itself of damaged skin cells.
Unfortunately, there are no quick remedies to reverse a tan or sunburn; it just takes time. It will take several weeks for skin cells to completely renew. During this time, it's best to stay out of the sun and stock up on moisturising products. Whatever you do, don't pick or exfoliate the skin, especially if it's peeling. "You can scar the skin by peeling it before it's ready to come off. Just let it shed naturally," says celebrity esthetician Renée Rouleau.
It's also important to be mindful of makeup application when you've got a really bad sunburn. Firm brushes or cosmetics with acne-fighting ingredients can further aggravate inflamed skin. This is especially true if your skin is blistering because, with an open wound, makeup can reach the tissues underneath the skin barrier. Go for damp makeup sponges over firm brushes, use lightweight mineral makeup, and stick to a minimal routine until the burn has healed.

Soothe Dry Skin

Even if you don't see sun spots or have a peeling sunburn, exposure to the sun causes skin to gradually lose moisture, making the complexion look dry and dull overall. That's why the pros recommend exfoliating once or twice a week — but only once you're not tan or burnt. "You want to exfoliate to get rid of the dead layer of skin cells," says Dr. Mark, who recommends looking into gentle exfoliants like lactic acids. But don't over-exfoliate. "If you develop dryness, redness, or inflammation then you definitely need to dial it back," says Dr. Mark.
In addition to exfoliating, Dr. Mark recommends adding topical antioxidants to your fall skin-care routine. These antioxidants, like vitamins C and E, can help repair damaged skin cells. But most importantly, it's crucial to continue using sunscreen, even as the temperatures drops, because UV rays are year-round — and your sun care should be, too.
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