You Fried Your Skin Back in the Day. Can You Save It Now?
Even if you slathered on baby oil, baked in tanning beds, and blew off all things SPF, it’s never too late to salvage your skin.
SPF, which stands for “sun protection factor,” hasn’t always been the skincare ground rule it is today. In fact, when tanned skin became the beauty standard for white people in the 1950s, the earliest SPF products were more about tanning than protecting. As recently as the 1980s, companies promoted the false notion that spending time in the sun was key to younger, fresher-looking skin. Such misguided messaging encouraged an entire generation—we’re looking at you, Gen X!—to slather their faces and bodies with baby oil before frying in the sun’s rays. (We can almost hear the sizzle.)
Then, there’s the tanning bed craze that swept this country in the ’70s and ’80s, offering a shortcut from hours of “laying out” to achieve a full-body glow (or should we say burn?) in just 15 to 30 minutes.
That was before it was common knowledge that tanning beds and lamps are carcinogens (just like the sun’s ultraviolet rays), meaning they increase the risk of skin cancer. In addition, research shows that UV light can cause melanoma—the deadliest form of skin cancer—and can increase the risk of a benign mole progressing to melanoma. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, 90% of all skin cancers are associated with exposure to the sun's UV radiation, which is also linked to up to 90% of aging indicators, such as wrinkles and brown spots (also known as sunspots).
“Most people who didn’t protect their skin with sunscreen will have sunspots, broken blood vessels, and wrinkles,” says board-certified dermatologist Debra Jaliman, M.D., who has taught dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City for more than 25 years. “Plus, episodes of severe sunburn raise the risk of developing melanoma.”
If you practiced good sun protection and avoided tanning beds when you were younger, good for you—you’re more likely to boast a youthful complexion and may be better positioned to dodge skin cancer, too. But what if you were in the baby oil or tanning booth brigade? Is it too late to save your skin?
“It’s never too late to save your skin from sun damage,” says board-certified dermatologist Rhonda Q. Klein, M.D./M.P.H., F.A.A.D., partner and co-owner at Modern Dermatology PC in Westport, CT. Start with the expert tips, here.
Reduce Your Odds of Developing Melanoma or Basal Cell Carcinomas
There are different remedies for precancerous damage and cosmetic issues like sunspots, wrinkles, and hyperpigmentation, so it’s important to chat with your derm and know exactly what you’re dealing with. If you want a skin-saver that may also be a life-saver, look no further than to photodynamic therapy (PDT).
Dr. Klein recommends this treatment to medically address precancers (such as actinic keratoses) from sun exposure. “PDT is a multi-use light activated system for destroying abnormal cells,” she explains.
During PDT, a topical photosensitizing solution is applied to the treatment area about an hour prior to treatment. “Unhealthy skin cells absorb the topical photosensitizer, while healthy ones do not,” Dr. Klein explains. “Next, we apply blue light therapy, which activates the topical medication killing the damaged cells—both the visible ones and those that are microscopic and not yet visible at the surface.”
According to the European guidelines for topical PDT, the typical clearance rate for solar keratoses (AK), which are some of the most common skin lesions, is 89% to 92%. And a systematic review found that 62% of patients treated with PDT for actinic cheilitis (AC), a premalignant lesion of the lips that can progress to squamous cell carcinoma, showed complete remission at final follow-up.
Try Cosmetic Solutions for Sun-Damaged Skin
Protecting your skin from cancer is most important, absolutely. But there’s nothing wrong with wanting to improve your skin’s appearance, too. To that end, you’ve got options.
Sunspots and Hyperpigmentation
Sunspots (flat brown spots that sometimes appear on areas of skin that have been exposed to the sun) are noncancerous and don’t pose any health risks. But if you want to remove them for cosmetic reasons, you could start at home with topical vitamin C (ascorbic acid), Dr. Jaliman says. It inhibits melanin production in the skin, which helps to lighten those brown spots, plus it actually helps to repair damage from sun exposure and collagen loss by encouraging healthy cell turnover and regeneration.
Just be aware that everybody’s skin reacts differently to acids, so consult with your derm before you start experimenting.
Many cosmetic laser and light treatments are designed to target hyperpigmentation like sunspots, and they’re getting more popular. According to a 2018 report from the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, laser resurfacing procedures increased by 248 percent between 2000 and 2018.
Dr. Jaliman uses lasers in her private practice for pigmentation as well as uneven redness, broken blood vessels, and fine lines. “Laser therapy can reverse a lot of sun damage because it actually changes the skin," she says. "For sunspots, the laser brings up the brown discoloration then it peels off over the course of one to two weeks.”
Fine Lines and Wrinkles
Laser and light treatments can also help to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. “The laser removes layers of damaged sun-exposed skin,” Dr. Jaliman explains. “They can also stimulate the production of collagen—a type of protein that’s abundant in the body but decreases with age—to minimize fine lines and improve the skin’s glow.”
“There’s great clinical research behind the latest and greatest laser and light therapies at our fingertips,” Dr. Klein says. “That said, every patient responds a little differently, and with lasers a series of treatments is almost always required. A patient’s lifestyle choices (diet, exercise, smoking, etc.) as well as adherence to a solid skincare routine that is restorative and preventative will greatly influence results from laser therapy.”
Dr. Jaliman recommends using over-the-counter retinol or Retin-A on prescription to minimize fine lines. It does this by increasing the production of collagen, but at the same time it also stimulates the production of new blood vessels in the skin, which diminishes age spots and softens rough patches. (Hello, smooth, glowing skin!)
Don’t Ignore Your Diet for Better Skin
What about diet? In an ideal world, what we eat would have the same effect on our skin as pricey laser treatments. Unfortunately, there’s no scientifically established link between a specific diet and fewer wrinkles or diminished sunspots, but refined sugar causes cortisol, the body's stress hormone, to soar, which triggers inflammation, Dr Klein warns. “A diet high in sugar also accelerates the natural process of glycation, which ages the skin,” she says.
In addition, research shows how too much sugar exposure can lead to the accumulation of advanced glycation end products (AGEs), a type of protein or lipid that can cause structural changes in the skin, leading to reduced elasticity.
Dr. Jaliman says there’s a lot of research suggesting that if you eat a diet high in antioxidants, you can have clearer, fresher skin. “It’s best to eat fruits and vegetables that have very vivid colors,” she says. “So choose a pink grapefruit instead of a white grapefruit, because it has more antioxidants. Tomatoes are rich in lycopene, which is a very good antioxidant, and flavonoids—found in green tea and grapes—are also very good for the skin.”
Dr. Klein warns that what constitutes a “good” diet is really patient-specific, but says that overall the goal is to eliminate foods that cause inflammation in the body. Sun damage (whether through tanning or burning) can cause inflammation as the skin works to recover,” she explains. “Inflammation breaks down collagen and elastin, expediting the signs of aging.” Besides refined sugar, other common culprits are dairy and gluten, while eating healthy fats (think avocado, fatty fish, eggs, nuts, and seeds) may benefit the skin.
Protect Your Skin With SPF Products
But the most important thing to do is to wear SPF30 or above—and most people don’t. A 2015 report found that most Americans still don’t use sunscreen regularly, with only 14% of men and 30% of women reporting the regular use of sunscreen on both their face and other exposed skin.
The good news is, it’s never too late to start an SPF habit. “People think that because they have sun damage why bother now to wear sunscreen,” Dr. Jaliman says. “But studies show that by wearing sunscreen you can reverse a lot of the damage that you did in your younger years.”
To that end, one study looked at 32 people who applied a broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 for 52 weeks to the entire face. As early as week 12, they saw an improvement in skin texture, clarity, and discoloration.
Dr. Jaliman recommends picking a sunscreen that has a high concentration of zinc oxide—at least 9% to 10%. “Wear your sunscreen rain or shine, because UV light penetrates the clouds,” she advises. She also suggests using an anti-aging product every night when you sleep, choosing one that’s compatible with your skin. “If you have sensitive skin, go for a vitamin C serum; for hardier skin pick a retinol,” she suggests. Finally, see a dermatologist once a year for a skin check, because the earlier skin cancer is detected, the easier it is to treat.
- Tanning and Skin Cancer: Skin Cancer Foundation. (2021.) “Tanning & Your Skin.” skincancer.org/risk-factors/tanning/
- Topical PDT: Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology. (2013.) “European guidelines for topical photodynamic therapy part 1: treatment delivery and current indications – actinic keratoses, Bowen's disease, basal cell carcinoma.” pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23181594/
- Success of Topical PDT: Dermatologic Surgery. (2015.) “Photodynamic therapy for actinic cheilitis: a systematic review.” pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25627629/
- Laser Therapy for Skin: American Society of Plastic Surgeons. (2018.) “2018 Plastic Surgery Statistics Report.” plasticsurgery.org/documents/News/Statistics/2018/plastic-surgery-statistics-full-report-2018.pdf
- Nutrition and Skin Aging: Dermato-Endocrinology. (2012.) “Discovering the link between nutrition and skin aging.” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3583891/
- Effects of Refined Sugar on Skin: Cancer Prevention Research. (2010.) “Synergistic effects of combined phytochemicals and skin cancer prevention in SENCAR mice.” pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20103723/
- Sunscreen Use in the U.S.: Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (2015.) “Patterns of Sunscreen Use on the Face and Other Exposed Skin among US Adults.” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4475428/
- Reversing Sun Damage With Sunscreen: Dermatologic Surgery. (2016.) “Daily Use of a Facial Broad Spectrum Sunscreen Over One-Year Significantly Improves Clinical Evaluation of Photoaging.” pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27749441/
- UV Light: Skin Cancer Foundation. (2019.) “UV Radiation & Your Skin.” skincancer.org/risk-factors/uv-radiation/