Is Sun Damage Reversible? Two Dermatologists Weigh In On Whether You Can Really Undo Your SPF Mistakes

BILOXI, MS - APRIL 16: A woman sunbathes on an uncrowded beach April 16, 2011 in Biloxi, Mississippi. BP says it has made tourism payments of $18 million to Mississippi in an attempt to help draw tourists back to its beaches following the oil spill. April 20th marks the one-year anniversary of the spill, the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. Endangered Sea Turtles and dolphins are still dying in high numbers in Mississippi, which continues to be impacted by tar balls and weathered oil. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Source: Mario Tama/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Unless you happen to have an MD, sun damage can be a bewildering subject to contemplate. The aesthetic signs of sun damage are unmistakable, from a dark spot here to a tan line there, all trophies of a day spent luxuriating in a bath of UV rays. However, the path to rectifying the harm is less clear-cut. When the damage is done and you're left with a hefty handful of dark spots or a painful burn, the question remains: is sun damage reversible? The answer, it seems, is both yes and no. What?

With the abundance of information regarding prevention, it is essentially a cardinal beauty sin to forego sunscreen or spend a session baking your skin bronze in a tanning bed. Nevertheless, repairing sun damage after it has happened remains murky territory. A dose of aloe will calm the irritation of a burn and new treatments are released each day claiming to rid skin of unsightly spots, but a quick dash of lightening serum may not address the deeper cellular impairments resulting from sun exposure. If you have a momentary lapse in judgement and forgot to lather up with your trusty bottle of SPF, it is important to understand how, and indeed if, you can mend your epidermis. Below, dermatologists Dr. Whitney Bowe and Dr. Michael Lin discuss the potential to reverse sun damage.

1. Sun Damage Is Hyper-Aging, So Beware

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At least one facet of sun damage is clear: Continued exposure to UV rays expedites the aging process. "Sun damage is the number one cause of 'extrinsic' aging, meaning things from the environment that cause aging," Bowe explains. In other words, if you're hoping to give your epidermis a delightful, vintage patina, repeatedly scalding it in the sun will do the trick. In addition to accelerating the aging process, UV rays also wreak havoc on skin tone and pigment. "Sun damage can manifest as solar elastosis. This appears as uneven pigmentation and thickened skin. It's caused by the cumulative effects of prolonged and excessive sun exposure," Dr. Lin elaborates. 

2. Spot Treatments Are Usually Only A Visual Fix, But They Do Work

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The second you realize those "freckles" are actually age spots, adults often frantically turn to in-office treatments or store-bought remedies to disguise the outward signs of sun damage. Many products allege to completely detox sun damaged skin, and some do properly target perceptible signs of UV exposure. "[Fade and spot removal serums] do fade dark marks, especially if they contain lightening or brightening ingredients like vitamin C, kojic acid, soy or licorice," Dr. Bowe concedes. "However, most do not repair damaged skin unless they also contain other active ingredients like retinol." Dr. Lin concurs that the use of retinoids may address issues of texture and tone, though he warns that spot treatments are an aesthetic fix rather than a cellular one. "Fade and spot removal treatments often contain ingredients that act as tyrosinase inhibitors. These ingredients work to control the skin's production of melanin and treat hyperpigmentation," Dr. Lin clarifies. "These cosmetic treatments help improve the appearance of the skin, rather than repair damage." Basically, even if you banish all your spots, you should still be getting regular skin checks for cancer hiding underneath the surface.

3. In-Office Laser Treatments Are The Wave Of The Future

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After years of targeting only visible signs of damage, there is finally a treatment that dips below the surface: laser therapy. In-office laser treatments that use light to fix skin anomalies are shaping up to be one of 2015's most promising solutions. 

Both Bowe and Lin agree that in-office treatments are especially beneficial for patients hoping to reduce their risk of melanoma even after substantial sun exposure. Varying procedures have been created to address different skin concerns, but Fraxel Laser and Photodynamic Therapy are both proven methods of mitigating sun damage and pre-cancerous cells. "The Fraxel Dual has been shown to treat pre-cancerous lesions, so it's one of the healthiest things you can do for you skin," Bowe insists. "It also helps with fine lines, brown spots, pore size, tone and texture." If you're looking for a multitasking treatment to remedy your skin from the inside out, Fraxel Dual may be your best bet. 

Dr. Lin cites Photodynamic Therapy as another incredibly advantageous treatment, as the procedure's use of light-activated photosynthesizing agents administered to a patient's bloodstream is a revolutionary and effective manner of squashing cancer cells.

4. DNA Repair Enzymes May Be Your New BFF

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If the steep cost of laser therapy gives you pause, a new wave of products containing what are called DNA repair enzymes may be a more enticing option. "DNA repair enzymes are believed to repair DNA damage caused by environmental factors such as the sun," Dr. Lin says, though he believes more research is required to fully understand and validate their efficacy. Dr. Bowe is more optimistic about DNA repair enzymes and their implications for skin health. "Some of these enzymes have indeed been shown to have promising effects on the skin," she explains. "The enzymes work by cutting out damaged bits of DNA, triggering the body's repair systems. In fact, one study in 2010 JDD by Moy et al found that using a cream with these enzymes significantly reduced precancerous growths in 17 people with sun-damaged skin," Dr. Bowe elaborates. But don't reach for your wallet just yet. Though studies have yielded positive results, DNA repair enzymes are a relatively new concept that requires further inquiry before dermatologists can rejoice in having found a simple, topical solution to UV damage.

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It seems that there is no simple answer to the question of curing sun damage on a deeper, molecular level, but scientists are well on their way to providing solutions for UV damage. "Although you can't completely turn back the clock and erase sun damage, there are definitely things you can do now that can help to heal your skin and your DNA, and put yourself on the road to recovery," Dr. Bowe clarifies. But unless you wish to spend your life savings on laser treatments, spot-fading serums, and DNA repair enzyme formulas while you wait for science to catch up, you might consider simply slathering on sunscreen or wearing a wide-brim hat instead. 

Images: Giphy

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