Ask the Dermatologist: Sun Damage Tips and Tricks
Learn which lasers, supplements, peels, sunscreens and more might be right for you.
We’ve all heard the warnings, advice, and admonitions: Limit your sun exposure! But let’s be honest — we live in the La Jolla area for, among other reasons, the weather. We travel to Hawaii and other tropical places to soak up the sunshine. But we also know about the sun’s potential for leaving cosmetic traces behind, not to mention it also boosts our risk for skin cancer.
So the question, then, is how we can prevent and manage sun damage safely?
We checked in with board-certified dermatologist Dr. Susan Stuart, who specializes in such questions at La Jolla Skin, for some answers.
Table of Contents
- 1. What is the simplest thing people can do to reverse or prevent sun damage?
- 2. Because it happens: What is the best way to treat a sunburn?
- 3. Are there lasers that can remove sun spots and other sun damage?
- 4. If you do opt to treat sun damage with lasers, what is the downtime, and what else should you know?
- 5. With Fraxel lasers, how much peeling happens when people do larger areas such as the entire face?
- 6. When is the right time for a chemical peel and when one would do a laser?
- 7. What are your favorite sunscreens for the face and body?
- 8. Wrinkles often result from sun damage. How safe is BOTOX® Cosmetic? Is it something that you can do every so often for special occasions, or is it a long-term commitment?
- 9. Are there supplements that can help skin become more resistant to the sun? What about foods we eat?
- 9. Are you a fan of retinol creams? Which ones?
1. What is the simplest thing people can do to reverse or prevent sun damage?
First off, pay attention to the clock. If you’re outside between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m., that’s when the sun’s rays are strongest, so make an effort to stay in the shade. There’s also the 15-minute test. If you’re planning to be out longer than that, apply sunscreen. It’s as simple as that.
In fact, I encourage all my patients to get in the habit of applying sunscreen every day as part of their morning routine, no matter what their plans for the day are. There are a lot of great sunscreen options out there now that double as moisturizers. Apply right after your morning shower, before you put on makeup, and you’ve already taken a good step to protect yourself.
Plus, my other favorite tip right now: Wear a hat! I love that wide-brimmed hats are in style now.
2. Because it happens: What is the best way to treat a sunburn?
The most important thing is to stay hydrated. Drink lots of water, apply moisturizing lotion liberally to the affected area, and protect it zealously from any further sun exposure until it heals. And whatever you do, don’t pick at it or scrub it.
3. Are there lasers that can remove sun spots and other sun damage?
Yes, there are actually quite a few options on the market now for laser skin resurfacing, both for a broad area like the full face and chest or just for targeting certain spots. At La Jolla Skin, we offer multiple types of laser treatments to address everything from hyperpigmentation to wrinkles. For sun damage, we offer the Fraxel® laser treatment. It’s safe for use on most areas of skin that have been exposed to sun damage. The face, neck, chest, and hands are among the most common areas.
4. If you do opt to treat sun damage with lasers, what is the downtime, and what else should you know?
The Fraxel laser treats the skin in pinpoint columns of energy rather than a solid beam, leaving columns of skin untouched and intact. That approach results in very minimal downtime, while still encouraging skin to repair and renew itself. Many patients go about their day as normal after a treatment, but some decide to take the rest of the day to go home and relax.
Once the treatment is complete, the patient will need to do a few extra things for the first week or 2, such as applying an ice pack (to minimize the appearance of swelling), drinking lots of water, and using a moisturizer with sunscreen on the affected area. It’s also critical to avoid direct sun exposure for several weeks because the skin is highly sensitive to UV rays as it rebuilds itself.
5. With Fraxel lasers, how much peeling happens when people do larger areas such as the entire face?
When working with a larger area such as the entire face, some flaky peeling is not uncommon after Fraxel laser treatments. If peeling occurs, you would begin to see it after about 48 hours, and it would be gone within 5 to 10 days.
(Note: I had a partial thyroidectomy and my scar was drastically, drastically improved by just one Fraxel laser session. I went in early to have my neck numbed and experienced no pain or peeling but it was a small area.)
6. When is the right time for a chemical peel and when one would do a laser?
The biggest advantage of a laser treatment is precision. Your doctor can adjust the laser to a specific depth for any given point on the face, targeting even fine lines and generating the desired results by stimulating new collagen. The other major advantage of laser treatment is that it works equally well for people of any skin pigment, and it also has little downtime because of the pinpoint way the laser works, rather than using a solid beam.
A chemical peel, on the other hand, can work well for erasing wrinkles in people with the right skin pigment. It’s also typically a more affordable option. But because it is brushed onto the skin, the doctor can’t really adjust the depth of the treatment for different parts of the face. The entire surface of the skin is affected, and the goal is for it to all peel away, unlike with a laser.
It’s crucial to find a skilled, board-certified dermatologist. He or she can guide your decision by assessing your skin and explaining the results you can expect from each treatment type.
7. What are your favorite sunscreens for the face and body?
My favorite sunscreens are the ones that patients will reliably use. In other words, the brand matters much less than finding a sunscreen you like, because you’re much more likely to apply it before you go out and reapply later. That said, we are big fans of the MDSolarSciences™ line at La Jolla Skin.
It’s essential that any sunscreen you choose offers broad-spectrum protection, which means that it guards against both UVA (which ages your skin prematurely) and UVB (which burns your skin) rays. One other thing to consider: If you have dry skin, it’s probably best to go with a cream or lotion, rather than a spray.
8. Wrinkles often result from sun damage. How safe is BOTOX® Cosmetic? Is it something that you can do every so often for special occasions, or is it a long-term commitment?
BOTOX is very, very safe for reducing the appearance of wrinkles. It was first approved by the FDA in 2002 for improving the wrinkles between the eyebrows, and it has gradually gained approval for other areas of the face, such as laugh lines and crow’s feet.
As we generally explain to our patients, results from a single treatment will be visible within 3 to 5 days and can last up to 3 months. If you’re looking to maintain results beyond that, it would require additional treatments. People use it different ways that suit their lifestyles. Some people just get it every so often for certain events, and some people make regular appointments so they never see those wrinkles return between treatments.
9. Are there supplements that can help skin become more resistant to the sun? What about foods we eat?
There are a few supplements out there that have been shown to add UV protection in recent studies. Citrus extract and rosemary extract, in particular, increased the amount of UV exposure needed to cause a sunburn by 56%.
A word of caution on supplements, though: It’s very important to do your homework and make sure what’s in the bottle is actually what the manufacturer says it is. A recent exposé showed definitively that there’s reason to be skeptical because supplements require minimal FDA oversight.
When it comes to your diet, antioxidant-rich foods are the key. Brightly colored fruits and vegetables are always a safe bet.
Still, although it’s great to support your skin with a healthful diet and certain supplements, that doesn’t mean you can slack on the sunscreen.
9. Are you a fan of retinol creams? Which ones?
Retinol is great for anti-aging — when it’s used correctly. Anything you put on your skin that contains retinol should only be used at night. Period. That’s because retinol (which is the chemical name for vitamin A) breaks down very rapidly when exposed to sunlight, and that can actually advance aging because it will make your skin more susceptible to sun damage.
Stick to night-time products that can offer real results. We offer the SkinMedica® line at our practice, and we’re also happy to recommend other brands backed by real science, but the key is to just do your homework before starting a product. I urge people to read reviews online and, most importantly, check with their dermatologists.
La Jolla Skin
9850 Genesee Avenue #480
La Jolla, CA 92037
Dr. Susan M. Stuart (www.lajollaskin.com) is a board-certified dermatologist offering laser skin care, skin cancer therapies, laser hair removal, and other skin rejuvenating procedures alongside her husband and practice partner, triple board-certified plastic surgeon Dr. Richard Chaffoo. After receiving her MD from Tulane University School of Medicine, Dr. Stuart completed a competitive internship at Mercy Hospital Center in San Diego followed by a residency and fellowship in dermatology. Dr. Stuart is highly respected as a faculty member at UCSD Medical Center, has held numerous prestigious professional appointments, and has been selected as one of America’s Top Physicians in dermatology.