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How dermatologists treat sun-damaged skin

Spending time outdoors without protecting your skin from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays can add years to your looks. Fortunately, there are ways to erase some of this damage.

Woman before and after treatment for sun-damaged skin

A) Before treatment
B) Three months after laser resurfacing performed by a board-certified dermatologist
C) 25 months later

Woman before and after treatment for sun-damaged skin

Do you have sun-damaged skin?

Every time you go outdoors without sun protection or use a tanning bed, ultraviolet (UV) light damages your skin. With time, this damage builds up and you see changes to your skin, which can make you look years older than you naturally would.

These changes include:

  • Wrinkles

  • Age spots

  • Loose skin

  • Spider veins

  • Blotchy or ruddy complexion

If you use tanning beds, you’ll notice these changes quickly — often in a few years. Some people who use tanning beds see signs within a year or even sooner.

The medical term for these changes is “photoaging.” You may also hear the terms “premature aging” or “sun-damaged skin.”

As the damage builds, you may see deep lines or dry, scaly patches called actinic keratoses (AKs). An AK is a pre-cancerous skin growth. Sun damage can also lead to skin cancer. And sometimes an AK turns into a type of skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma.

Treatments that can give you younger-looking skin

While much of the damage is permanent, treatment can reduce some signs of sun damage that are making you look older.

To treat signs of aging, board-certified dermatologists often use more than one type of treatment. This helps to treat the different signs of aging. It also helps to give you a natural and healthy appearance, so you don’t look like you’ve had “work done.”

The following lists the different types of treatments that dermatologists use to reduce signs of sun-damaged skin.

Illustration of woman with wrinkled skin


  • Moisturizer
  • Prescription retinoid you apply to your skin
  • Injectible fillers and botox
  • Chemical peel
  • Microdermabrasion
  • Laser resurfacing

Illustration of woman with age spots on her face

Age spots

  • Prescription retinoid you apply to your skin
  • Intense-pulsed light
  • Laser resurfacing
  • Microdermabrasion
  • Chemical peel
  • Cryosurgery (freezing)

Illustration of woman with loose skin under her eyes

Loose skin

  • Prescription retinoid you apply to your skin
  • Fillers
  • Ultrasound (to tighten skin)
  • Non-invasive radiofrequency (tightens skin)
  • Growth factors and peptides you apply to your skin
  • Laser treatments

Illustration of woman with spider veins on her cheeks

Spider veins

  • Intense-pulsed light
  • Laser treatments

Illustration of woman with red blotchy cheeks

Blotchy or ruddy complexion

  • Prescription retinoid you apply to your skin
  • Microdermabrasion
  • Intense-pulsed light
  • Laser treatments

Sun protection is also essential

Although treatment can reduce signs of aging on your skin, you’ll also need to start protecting your skin from the sun. If you use tanning beds, you’ll have to stop.

Without protection from harmful UV rays, you may:

  • Develop side effects from treatment

  • Fail to get the results you seek

  • Continue to damage your skin

Sun protection can also help prevent, slow down, and even reverse signs of sun damage. To be effective, you must use sun protection every day — even when it’s overcast or cold outside.

You’ll find out how to protect your skin from the sun at, How to prevent skin cancer.

The benefits of choosing a board-certified dermatologist for treatment

Your results depend largely on the skill and knowledge of the person performing your treatment. Not everyone who offers these treatments is a doctor.

When you choose a board-certified dermatologist, you work with a doctor who:

  • Has in-depth medical training in treating the skin. After graduating from medical school, a doctor who wants to become a dermatologist must continue on in medical school, studying for 3 to 5 more years. During those 3 to 5 years, a doctor receives in-depth training in diagnosing and treating conditions that affect the skin, hair, and nails. This medical training means that a board-certified dermatologist knows how to evaluate the condition of your skin, your skin type, and your health before choosing your treatment. This helps give you the best results and reduces your risk of developing a complication.

  • Performs your treatment in a medical office or surgical suite. This helps ensure your safety.

  • Checks for skin cancer before treating you. Dermatologists are the skin cancer experts. Someone who doesn’t have this in-depth knowledge could mistake a skin cancer for an age spot. Treating a skin cancer as an age spot allows the cancer to spread.

To help you find a doctor who is qualified to perform your treatment, the AAD created this list of questions that you should ask before having any cosmetic treatment at Who should provide your cosmetic treatment?

Related AAD resources

Image used with permission of Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology: J Am Acad Dermatol 1999;40:401-11.

American Academy of Dermatology:

  • “Act your age when it comes to skin care” (news release issued Nov. 1, 2016)

  • “Dermatologists’ tips to reduce the signs of aging” (news release issued Aug. 14, 2012)

  • “New study evaluates effectiveness of vitamins for the treatment of sun-damaged skin” (news release issued Apr. 12, 2010)

Cohen JL. “Facial rejuvenation.” In: Hirsch RJ, Cohen JL, et al. Aesthetic rejuvenation: A regional approach. McGraw Hill Medical, New York, 2009: 54-63.