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How to Soothe Sun-Damaged Skin

While you were lying on the beach or golfing this summer, your skin was taking a direct hit from the sun. When summer has faded (and with it your tan), it's time for limited damage control.

That bronzy tan was "the first and most obvious sign of sun damage," says Alexandra Boer Kimball, M.D., assistant professor of dermatology at Harvard Medical School. "Within 24 hours of UV [ultraviolet] exposure, your body produces melanin, a dark pigment that serves as a partial sunscreen against further damage to skin cells."

The second sign of trouble—a post-sunburn peel—is your body's way of shedding damaged cells destroyed by the immune system. Your body also tries to repair UV damage to the collagen, the underlying scaffolding that keeps skin smooth.

But with age and rising UV exposure, destruction outpaces repair, says Dr. Kimball. The more exposure, the more damage.

"By age 30, if you haven't done something to turn the damage-repair imbalance around, wrinkling and sagging will worsen," says Linda K. Franks, M.D., assistant clinical professor of dermatology at New York University Medical School.

Fair-skinned people who have less melanin, outdoor workers, and sunbathers are more likely to have sagging, wrinkling, brown spots and other signs of aging skin. They also are more prone to skin cancer.

Skin cancer, the most common cancer in the United States, results when sun-damaged cells grow uncontrollably. Just one serious sunburn can boost your risk for melanoma later in life by 50 percent. Want to save your skin? The first step is to stop new damage.

"Wear sunscreens all year round, every time you step outside," Dr. Franks says. Pick a sunscreen that shields against UVA and UVB rays. Avobenzone, one good protective ingredient, absorbs UVA light. Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide reflect the UVA rays and are the best UVA sunscreens. Use products with an SPF (sun protective factor) of at least 15.

If you're fair-skinned, you may need products with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, which block UV light and stay chalky white on the skin. You also can buy transparent zinc products. If possible, stay in the shade between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Otherwise, wear a wide-brim hat and dark, tightly woven clothing.

New wrinkles in skin care

These over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription products may help ease the effects of mild to moderate sun damage:

  • Smooth crow's feet and crinkling. Prescription forms of retinoids derived from vitamin A contain tretinoin. They've been shown to block enzymes that break down collagen, smudge fine lines and lighten discolored skin. "After six months of use, your skin will have formed new collagen," says Dr. Franks. To a lesser degree, OTC cosmetics with retinol might prompt similar results.

  • Thicken and strengthen skin. Early studies show that applying antioxidants—notably vitamin C—may help restore skin thickness, rebuild collagen and bring skin into better balance, says Dr. Franks. Look for products with ascorbic acid. Other antioxidants, such as vitamin E, may help stabilize the outer skin by offsetting pollution damage.

  • Enliven leathery skin. Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), such as glycolic or lactic acid, help dissolve dead cells in the skin's upper layer (dermis). That lets fresh cells rise to the surface. The new cells hold onto moisture, giving skin a smoother look. "AHA levels of less than 5 percent are probably ineffective," says Dr. Franks. Apply twice a day for eight weeks. If you don't see results, ask your doctor about a prescription AHA with a higher concentration that also may ease wrinkling and help fix collagen. Products containing AHA will make your skin more sensitive to the sun, so you should avoid exposure to the sun. You also can choose products with salicylic acid, which reaches deeper into pores.

  • Fade freckled skin. Brown age spots (or lentigines) on the face and backs of the hands can lighten slightly if you use AHAs or products with hydroquinone. If fading doesn't follow two months of twice-daily applications, ask your doctor about prescription drugs that contain more hydroquinone, as well as glycolic acid and vitamin C.