Too Much Sun? How to Minimize Wrinkles and Cancer Risks

I got way too tan on a recent vacation, so I asked a dermatologist for ways to reverse the damage.

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I consider myself pretty careful when it comes to using sunscreen; I apply it religiously whenever I head outdoors for activities, even in the early evening. Yet on a cruise last week—despite my best efforts—I developed a dark tan, the kind I'm worried will lead to wrinkles and raise my risk of skin cancer. In hindsight, perhaps lounging around every day in the mid-afternoon sun wasn't such a great idea. But now that I've got my tan, is there anything I can do to minimize the damage to my skin?

Yes and no, says Jennifer Stein, an assistant professor of dermatology at New York University Langone Medical Center. "The body can repair some of the DNA damage caused by excess sun exposure on its own," she says. That means I shouldn't be too concerned about elevated skin cancer risks from one bout of tanning. On the other hand, she adds, studies have linked habitual tanning to a greater risk of skin cancer, so I should take care to avoid prolonged sunbathing in the future. Ditto for tanning beds, which the World Health Organization has added to its list of carcinogens.

To be on the safe side, she also recommends that I check my skin every few months for new spots, moles that bleed, or growths that have changed in shape, color, or size. Not only do these checks help catch skin cancer early, but they can also help spot precancers, which can be removed before they turn malignant. "[Suspicious] growths tend to look rough, scaly, and pink," says Stein.

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Minimizing wrinkles after a suntan is possible. "Use topical therapies daily consisting of retinol and other antioxidants," says Ariel Ostad, a New York City-based dermatologist. Antioxidant-laden wrinkle creams can help neutralize free radicals, harmful molecules produced by the sun's ultraviolet rays that damage skin cells and cause wrinkles. The $9 drugstore moisturizer that I apply each morning contains vitamins C and E (two antioxidants) as well as sunscreen; the nighttime eye cream I use has retinol, so my bases are covered there.

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Stein says exfoliating before bed with a facial sponge or scrub is a good way to slough off dead skin cells and rejuvenate skin to minimize the effects of tanning. Exfoliation also encourages new production of collagen and elastin to help keep skin supple and prevent wrinkle formation. I could also try lotions with alpha-hydroxy acid, which peel off the top layer of skin. The trouble with those, however, is that they make skin more sensitive to UV rays and more prone to sunburn, which would ultimately leave me worse off. The Food and Drug Administration recommends that alpha-hydroxy users take care to wear a wide-brimmed hat or strong sunscreen to prevent excessive sun damage. An effective sunscreen, says Stein, is one that blocks both UVA rays, which cause tanning, wrinkles, age spots, and skin cancers, as well as UVB rays, responsible for burns and skin cancers. She recommends using a cream that contains zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, which effectively block both types of UV rays.

The single best thing I can do now to protect my skin? "Try to prevent further damage down the road," says Stein by using an effective sunscreen, reapplying it every couple hours while I'm outdoors, and making more of an effort to wear a hat and seek out shade. Here are more sun protection do's and don'ts.