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Going outside to enjoy a bright day and blue skies isn’t the only time to shield yourself from the sun’s rays, but it’s one of the most critical times to do so. After all, how often do you usually go outside? Likely once a day.

But did you know that up to 80 percent of visible aging is caused by exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays? Not by aging itself. Not by stress, lack of sleep, or one too many glasses of wine on more weekdays than we’d like to admit. Those fine lines and age spots? They’re likely damage from the sun.

"[If] you’re not protecting against the sun, then no need to look for products to treat age spots and other forms of hyperpigmentation, as you’re fighting a losing battle!" – Dr. David Lortscher

We spoke to Dr. David Lortscher, board-certified dermatologist and founder of Curology, to get this ultimate guide on protecting yourself from those aging UV rays and reversing traces of sun damage from your face.

For any age and time of the year, here are the rules to follow when fending off the effects of sun damage:

Three rules to follow:

  1. Of the UV solar radiation that does reach the earth, up to 95% is UVA, and about 5% is UVB. You need a broad-spectrum sunscreen, every day all year round, to protect against both.
  2. The sun can make acne hyperpigmentation worse; protect your skin to avoid darker marks left behind by acne blemishes.
  3. Some ingredients used to fade dark spots can make your skin even more sensitive to sun damage; be extra vigilant with sun protection while using them.

This doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy time outdoors, whether it’s warm summer days on the beach or the crisp days of winter.

The key is to build a habit and commit to a routine.

Sun damage goes beyond burnsSun damage is below the surface, it’s cumulative, and it’s potentially lethal. It isn’t just about burns. Artificial tanning is officially cancer-causing and sunbathing habits are just as deadly.

We dig into the science behind each rule below.

Up to 95 percent of the rays that makes it to the Earth’s surface — and your skin — are UVA. These rays are undeterred by cloudy skies or glass. So, avoiding the outdoors isn’t really the answer — covering up, especially with sunscreen, is.

FDA recommendationsThe U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends limiting sun exposure “especially between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., when the sun’s rays are most intense,” covering up with clothing, hats, and sunglasses, and of course, sunscreen.

Here’s the truth about sunscreen: You’re statistically not using enough to prevent signs of aging.

In fact, if you’re concerned about fading spots, you need to be extra vigilant! Many acne and scar-fading treatments, whether prescription or over-the-counter (OTC), can make your skin even more sensitive to the sun.

Lortscher recommends at least 30 SPF, and we also recommend applying 1/4 tsp on your face to ensure you’re getting the promised protection on the label.

SPF ratings are based on an application of 2 milligrams per square centimeter of skin. That works out to an average of 1/4 tsp for your face alone. That’s drastically more than people think they need. If you’re not using 1/4 tsp on your face daily, consider measuring it out to see how much you actually need to use.

Not enough vitamin D?If you’re worried that you aren’t getting enough vitamin D without UV exposure, discuss your options with your doctor. “Many people can get the vitamin D they need from foods or vitamin supplements,” explains Dr. Lortscher. Supplements can be a great way to get the vitamin D you need without increasing your risk for skin cancer.

Prevention is easier than reversal when it comes to sun damage, but there are options out there to treat visible aging signs from sun damage, known as photoaging.

The catch is: You have to commit to using serious sun protection before you use them. Otherwise, you’ll be doing more harm than good.

Before you try antiaging treatments for fine lines, rough texture, and hyperpigmentation, ask yourself:

  • Are you avoiding peak sun hours?
  • Are you covering up exposed skin by wearing hats, sunglasses, and the right clothes?
  • Are you regularly using high-SPF broad-spectrum sunscreen every day?

If your answers are yes to all of these, then you’re ready to walk the fine line of reversing sun damage. Here are the star ingredients Curology uses in their custom treatment formulas:

1. Niacinamide

According to Lortscher, “[This] is a potent agent that works to minimize dark spots and hyperpigmentation. Studies have shown that niacinamide can:

  • act as an antioxidant
  • improve epidermal barrier function
  • decrease skin hyperpigmentation
  • reduce fine lines and wrinkles
  • decrease redness and blotchiness
  • decrease skin yellowing
  • improve skin elasticity

“It works by blocking the pigment from surfacing on the outer layer of skin and may also decrease pigment production,” says Lortscher.

Niacinamide is also readily available in many serums and moisturizers, making it an easy addition to your routine.

2. Azelaic acid

“[This] can help reduce marks left by acne,” says Lortscher. “An FDA-approved prescription ingredient works by lightening any dark spots left by acne inflammation or sun exposure by slowing the production of melanin, and by blocking abnormal melanocytes [pigment-producing cells that have gone haywire].”

Azelaic acid is a pretty stellar ingredient for anti-acne and antiaging, but isn’t as well-known as its counterparts like hydroxy acids and retinoids. It has anti-oxidant properties, is less irritating than tretinoin, and it’s anti-inflammatory game is so strong it’s used as a treatment for rosacea.

Products to try:

  • Curology — a number of formulations contain varying concentrations of azelaic acid in combination with other active ingredients.
  • Finacea 15% gel or foam — FDA-approved for the treatment of rosacea.
  • Azelex 20% cream - FDA-approved for the treatment of acne.

3. Topical retinols and retinoids

Vitamin A derivatives work to fade hyperpigmentation by increasing epidermal cell turnover in addition to other mechanisms. They may be available OTC (such as retinol) or prescription (such as the tretinoin available in some Curology mixes.

“Decades of research confirm tretinoin as the “gold standard” in topical treatment for fighting acne and clogged pores, as well as reducing fine lines, unwanted pigmentation, and improving skin texture,” says Lortscher.

Although retinol has become a buzzword in antiaging products, be aware of how much of it is in products you’re eyeing.

Lortscher cautions that OTC retinols are considered by experts to be much less effective than tretinoin. Although strengths can vary, “it’s been observed that retinol is roughly 20 times less potent than tretinoin.”

4. Vitamin C

“[This] is a super ingredient that has antiaging benefits and repairs existing skin damage. It blocks damage before it even happens by neutralizing free radicals. It also helps rebuild your skin’s structure by stimulating collagen production, a protein that makes up your connective tissue and gives your skin its structure,” mentions Lorschter.

Vitamin C can be a great addition to your regimen either in the morning before sunscreen, or at night. It’s also a great sidekick to a strong daily broad-spectrum sunscreen. While it can’t replace sunscreen, it’s a smart way to step up your protection efforts.

5. Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs)

“Alpha hydroxy acids can help reduce hyperpigmentation. It’s recommended to use these in the evening, with a sunscreen used in the morning,” says Lortscher.

“Start just once weekly, gradually increasing the frequency as tolerated. The most commonly used AHAs include glycolic acid (derived from sugarcane), lactic acid (derived from milk), and mandelic acid (derived from bitter almonds).”

Whether you’re looking to reserve signs of photoaging or recover from acne pigmentation, sun protection is the first step.

If you’re still battling new dark spots, you’ll also want to carefully monitor your skin care routine. This discoloration can linger for weeks or even months. It’s called post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation and it’s caused by an injury to the skin, such as a cut, burn, or psoriasis, but acne is the most common source.

Be extra careful if you need to use:

  • Topical treatments. These include glycolic acid and retinoids.
  • Oral acne medications. Doxycycline and isotretinoin (Accutane) can cause “exquisite sun sensitivity and carry a serious warning about sun exposure,” says Lortscher.

While the sun can also cause hyperpigmentation on its own, additional sun exposure can further darken spots. Always check ingredients of new products to see if there are any ingredients that may cause photosensitivity.

When you should and shouldn’t use your products

We’ve got you covered. First no matter what you use, protect your skin with daily, broad-spectrum sunscreen.

1. Should you avoid photosensitizing ingredients when it’s sunny out?

According to Lortscher, no.

Although, applying them at night is a good practice (since certain ingredients may “degrade after exposure to artificial light or sunlight”), applying your products at night won’t negate their photosensitivity properties by morning.

2. Which ingredients do (and don’t) put you at greater risk?

Vitamin A derivatives (retinol, tretinoin, isotretinoin) and AHAs (glycolic acid, lactic acid, mandelic acid) do increase your sun sensitivity. Stick to applying them at night and always follow up with daily sunscreen.

Vitamin C, azelaic acid, and beta hydroxy acids (salicylic acid) don’t increase your sensitivity to the sun. They can be applied during the day but keep in mind they may help to shed the dead, dull upper layers of your skin, revealing smoother and more fragile skin underneath.

We’ve primed you on how to protect yourself, but half the battle of being vigilant with your routine is understanding why.

Sun damage isn’t just about the visible marks, spots, and signs of aging — Lorstcher warns that the rays are carcinogenic. “[They also] suppresses certain activities of the immune system, playing a key role in the development of skin cancer.”

Yes, both UVA and UVB are team cancer, and they’re working both angles to make it happen. While UVB burns your skin, UVA stealthily penetrates deep into your skin with no immediate warning signs.

Skin damages caused by UVA rays:

  • drooping
  • wrinkles
  • loss of skin elasticity
  • thinner and more translucent skin
  • broken capillaries
  • liver or age spots
  • dry, rough, leathery skin
  • skin cancers

Plus, there are damages on a molecular level: Chances are, you’ve heard of free radicals (and the importance of antioxidants) but many people don’t know that UVA radiation creates these damaging free radicals. That means tanned skin is the opposite of healthy skin — it’s injured skin. It’s a sign that your body is trying to protect against further DNA damage.

“Prolonged UVA exposure damages the collagen fibers in the [skin],” explains Lortscher. “It’s not just long days on the beach causing visible aging. UVA exposure happens every time you walk to the car, work outside on cloudy days, or even sit by a window.”

So now you have it — you can reverse visible sun damage with all the science-backed products available, but as Lortscher points out: “[If] you’re not protecting [against the sun], then no need to look for products to treat age spots and other forms of hyperpigmentation, as you’re fighting a losing battle!”


Kate M. Watts is a science enthusiast and beauty writer who dreams of finishing her coffee before it cools. Her home is overrun with old books and demanding houseplants, and she’s accepted her best life comes with a fine patina of dog hair. You can find her on Twitter.