Sun-Damaged Skin

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Very Common
More than 3 million US cases per year

  • Often self-diagnosable
  • Symptoms: Pigment changes, white spots, dry skin, premature aging
  • Color: Typically red, brown or white
  • Location: Anywhere on the skin exposed to the sun
  • Treatment: Tretinoin or strong alpha-hydroxy acids, chemical peels, cryosurgery, laser resurfacing, dermabrasion, injection of botox and collagen

Sun damaged skin has uneven levels of melanin, leading to premature skin aging, irregular skin pigmentation and irregular brown spots. Liver spots may also occur later in the life of adults who were overly exposed to the sun.

The skin produces melanin to protect from sun damage, which creates dark brown pigments. UV light breaks down connective tissue in the skin, causing wrinkles and sagging skin.

Symptoms of Sun-damaged Skin

Sun-damaged skin manifests itself as pigment changes, such as brown spots, freckles, age spots and liver spots. It can also lead to white spots on legs, arms and the back of hands, and redness on the sides of the neck.

These pigment changes, especially moles, can develop into skin cancer. For example, red scaly lesions, like actinic keratosis and cheilitis, can develop into squamous cell carcinoma.

In addition, sun-damaged skin is more susceptible to bruising from minor injury and wrinkle formation. On the back of the neck, forearms and back of the hands, there can be thinning of the skin, and thus fine wrinkles. Another reason for these premature wrinkles is the changes in collagen of the dermis (deep layer of the skin). UV radiation damages structural collagen that hops up the walls of the skin’s blood vessels, making them more fragile and more likely to rupture.

You may also experience dry skin, as the skin loses moisture and essential oils under the sun. In some cases, the skin may even flake off. Other conditions caused by sun damage are sunburn and actinic keratosis.

The painful redness of sunburn will fade within a few days, provided that you do not re-expose your injured skin to the sun without using a sunblock or sunscreen.

What can I do?

There are many other conditions caused by sun damaged skin, and the best way to avoid them is to limit exposure to the sun. Use SPF 30+ sunscreens and cover up your body as much as possible under the sun.

Examine your entire skin surface thoroughly every one to two months. Check for patches of discolored or scaly skin, moles, small pearly nodules, sores and other skin abnormalities on all parts of your body. Be sure to consult a healthcare professional about risks and benefits for any cosmetic treatment.

If you skin is damaged by sun exposure, try using moisturizer with glycerin, urea, pyroglutamic acid, sorbitol, lactic acid, lactate salts or alpha-hydroxy acids. Avoid hot baths or showers and use unscented soap instead. For a painful sunburn apply cool compresses and spray cool water on it. Over-the-counter pain medication can also reduce the discomfort.

Should I seek medical care?

Because actinic keratosis has a similar appearance to that of sun-damaged skin, a biopsy may be needed to rule out the possibility.

Also, some sun damage can be permanent. In this case, you may need prescription medicine to heal your skin.

Treatment for Sun-damaged Skin

Although it is not possible to reverse all of the effects of long-term sun damage, tretinoin or strong alpha-hydroxy acids, chemical peels, cryosurgery, laser resurfacing, dermabrasion, injection of botox and collagen may help.



American Society for Dermatologic Surgery. Sun-damaged Skin. Available at: Sun-Damaged Skin. Available at:


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