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Effects of Sun Exposure on Skin & How to Repair Sun Damaged Skin

April 26, 2024 by VitalSkin Dermatology

Peeling sunburned back

The sun is a powerful force. It can be used to warm our planet and make our days brighter, but it can also be damaging if we’re not careful. When you spend time in the sun, harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays penetrate your skin, damaging its cells and breaking down collagen, the protein responsible for skin’s firmness and elasticity. 

Sun exposure can lead to a variety of skin issues, from sunburn and premature aging to more serious conditions like skin cancer. But don’t worry, there are ways to repair sun-damaged skin and undo some of the harmful effects.

Causes of Sun Damage on the Skin

Sun damage occurs when the skin is exposed to the harmful UV rays of the sun. There are two types of UV rays that can cause damage: UVA and UVB. UVA rays can penetrate deep into the skin and are primarily responsible for aging the skin, while UVB rays are responsible for sunburn. Both types of rays can contribute to the development of skin cancer.

Prolonged or excessive sun exposure without protection is the main cause of sun damage. However, it’s important to note that sun damage can also occur on cloudy days or during winter months when the sun’s rays are still present. Additionally, certain medications and medical conditions can make the skin more susceptible to sun damage.

Different Types of Sun Damage

Sun damage can manifest in different ways, depending on the severity and duration of sun exposure. It’s important to understand the different types of sun damage to effectively address and repair the specific issues. Here are the main types of sun damage:

  • Acute sun damage: Acute sun damage refers to the immediate effects of sun exposure, such as sunburn and temporary skin redness. Acute damage can be painful and uncomfortable but generally resolves within a few days with proper care.
  • Chronic sun damage: Chronic sun damage occurs from repeated or prolonged sun exposure over an extended period. This type of damage leads to long-term effects such as premature aging, hyperpigmentation, and an increased risk of skin cancer.
  • Photoaging: Photoaging is the term used to describe the premature aging of the skin caused by chronic sun exposure. It includes the development of wrinkles, fine lines, sagging skin, and uneven skin tone.

Effects of Sun Exposure on Skin

Sun-damaged skin often exhibits specific signs and symptoms that indicate the extent of the damage. Non-cancerous skin conditions can vary depending on the severity of the sun exposure and individual factors such as skin type and genetics. Here are some of the most common conditions related to sun damaged skin.

Hyperpigmentation and Uneven Tone

Dark spots or patches on the skin, known as hyperpigmentation, are a result of excess melanin production triggered by sun exposure. These spots can vary in size and color and are more prevalent in areas exposed to the sun, such as the face and hands. Prolonged exposure can also lead to an uneven distribution of melanin, causing blotchy or mottled skin, making it appear less smooth and vibrant.


One of the most common effects of sun damage on your skin is wrinkles. Wrinkles are caused by a breakdown of the collagen and elastin in your skin, which leads to sagging and lines. The sun’s UV rays can cause this breakdown, as well as other factors like smoking and poor diet. 


Moles can also appear as a result of prolonged sun exposure. Although most moles are benign, they can also be a sign of skin cancer, so it’s important to have them checked by a doctor. To determine if a mole is cancerous you can get a skin biopsy or a mole and skin cancer screening to determine the best treatment for you.

Sun Spots

Another common effect of sun damage on your skin is sun spots. Sunspots are dark patches on the skin that are caused by an overproduction of melanin. They can be small or large, and they can appear on any area of the body that’s been exposed to the sun.


Sagging skin occurs when there is a loss of collagen and elastin fibers, leading to a tired and aged appearance. This phenomenon is often a result of long-term sun damage, which causes the skin to lose its natural support structure, resulting in a sagging and lax appearance. This can be particularly noticeable in areas such as the face, neck, and arms. 

Cancerous Skin Conditions Caused by Sun Damage

One of the more serious effects of sun damage on your skin is skin cancer. Skin cancer is caused by the abnormal growth of skin cells, and it can be deadly if it’s not caught early. The sun’s UV rays can cause this abnormal growth, as well as other factors like genetics and family history. Regularly checking your skin and scheduling annual skin exams with a dermatologist can help detect any potential issues early on. Some of the most common cancerous skin conditions include:

Actinic Keratosis

Actinic keratosis is a precancerous skin growth that typically appears as a scaly, raised, red or brown spot on the sun-exposed skin. It’s important to treat actinic keratosis because it can lead to squamous cell carcinoma.

Actinic Cheilitis

Actinic cheilitis is a common precancerous condition that affects the lips, typically caused by long-term sun exposure. It is characterized by dryness, cracking, and redness of the lips, and can sometimes develop into squamous cell carcinoma if left untreated.

Basal Cell Carcinoma

Basal cell carcinoma is the most common type of skin cancer and is slow growing. It often appears as a small, brown bump or a raised, flesh-colored patch on the skin. While it rarely spreads to other parts of the body, early detection and treatment are crucial to prevent further damage.

Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Squamous cell carcinoma is the second most common type of skin cancer caused by long-term sun exposure. It typically appears as a red, scaly patch or a firm, raised bump on the skin. It can spread to other parts of the body which is why early treatment is key.

Malignant Melanoma

Another of the more serious effects of sun damage on your skin is malignant melanoma. Malignant melanoma is a type of skin cancer that begins in the cells that produce melanin. It can spread quickly and be deadly if it’s not caught early.

How to Repair Sun-Damaged Skin

Repairing sun-damaged skin involves adopting a comprehensive skincare routine and making certain lifestyle changes. By using a combination of home remedies and professional treatments, you can regain healthy skin.

  • Hydrate your skin: Proper hydration is crucial for maintaining healthy skin. Drink plenty of water throughout the day to keep your skin hydrated from within. Additionally, use a moisturizer that is suitable for your skin type to lock in moisture and restore your skin’s natural barrier.
  • Exfoliate regularly: Regular exfoliation helps remove dead skin cells and promotes the growth of new, healthy skin cells. Use a gentle exfoliating scrub or chemical exfoliants containing alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) or beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs) to improve the texture and appearance of sun-damaged skin.
  • Apply antioxidant-rich products: Antioxidants help protect the skin from free radicals caused by sun damage. Look for skincare products containing ingredients like vitamin C, vitamin E, green tea extract, or niacinamide, as they can help repair and rejuvenate sun-damaged skin.
  • Chemical peels: Chemical peels involve the application of a chemical solution to the skin, causing controlled exfoliation and the removal of damaged skin cells. This treatment can help improve skin texture, reduce hyperpigmentation, and promote collagen production.
  • Microdermabrasion: Microdermabrasion is a non-invasive procedure that uses a wand-like device to exfoliate the outer layer of the skin. It can help improve skin texture, reduce fine lines, and fade hyperpigmentation.
  • Laser therapy: Laser therapy uses light energy to target specific skin concerns caused by sun damage. It can help reduce wrinkles, improve skin tone and texture, and even out pigmentation. Laser treatments are often tailored to individual needs and can be performed in sessions.
  • Surgical removal: For individuals with precancerous skin conditions and skin cancer, surgical removal may be the best option. Before committing to surgery, your dermatologist will complete a biopsy to diagnose the cancer. 
  • Practice sun protection: Even when repairing sun-damaged skin, continue to protect it from further damage by wearing sunscreen and adopting sun protection measures. Some of the ways you can protect your skin from sun exposure include seeking shade between 10am and 4pm, and wearing lightweight long-sleeved clothing and wide brim hats.

Sun damage is a significant concern for skin health. Exposure to harmful UV rays can lead to various skin issues, including sunburn, premature aging, hyperpigmentation, and an increased risk of skin cancer. Regular skin checks and consultations with a dermatologist are essential for early detection and treatment of potentially cancerous conditions. By taking proactive measures and caring for our skin, we can minimize the harmful effects of sun damage and maintain healthy, radiant skin. Contact our team of dermatologists today to get a skin cancer screening.

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