Sunlight aging, or photoaging, refers to visible signs of skin aging that occur due to UV light. These signs can include sun spots, loss of elasticity, and wrinkles.

A person’s skin does not have to burn to indicate sun damage. The signs of sunlight aging appear over time. In some cases, exposure to UV light can cause more serious skin changes, such as cancer.

The article discusses the link between sunlight and aging, the signs of photoaging, treatments that may help, and prevention.

a woman is looking out of a sunny windowShare on Pinterest
Olga Rolenko/Getty Images

Sun aging, or photoaging, is when radiation from the sun causes visible signs of aging in the skin. This occurs due to UV light.

UV light is a type of radiation present in sunlight. In small amounts, UV from the sun can be beneficial, as this is how humans get much of their vitamin D.

However, UV light can also cause skin damage that can result in visible changes over time. This occurs due to oxidation, which is the process through which cells repair themselves.

When cells are under too much oxidative stress, their DNA becomes damaged, affecting their ability to reproduce and function as they should. In the skin, oxidative stress may lead to a loss of skin elasticity as UV radiation breaks down elastin fibers, which give skin its structure.

UV damage can also lead to rough skin, uneven skin tone, and redness or visible blood vessels.

Yes, there is evidence that the sun causes most signs of skin aging in those with lighter skin.

An older study involving 298 white women ages 30–75 years concluded that exposure to the sun may cause around 80% of visible skin aging.

It is unclear how this compares to photoaging in darker skin, as no studies have evaluated this. However, darker skin is generally less vulnerable to photoaging than lighter skin because it contains more melanin. Melanin is the pigment that gives skin its color. It also provides some protection from UV light.

It is important to note that photoaging still affects people with darker skin, but they may be more prone to changes in skin color and sun spots rather than wrinkles, according to a 2021 research review. If wrinkles do develop, they may become apparent later in life.

Sunlight aging can show up in many ways. A person may develop:

Depending on the person, their skin tone, and the amount of sun exposure they get, these signs may be more or less visible. However, it is important to remember that not all sun damage shows up on the skin’s surface.

Even if a person appears to have no signs of sun aging, excessive UV light exposure with no clothing or sunscreen protection can eventually damage the skin.

The visible signs of skin aging can be similar no matter what the cause, but there are a few distinctions between photoaging and regular aging.

Intrinsic or chronological aging happens naturally as a person gets older and affects the whole body. On the skin, signs may develop evenly in all locations, causing a general loss of elasticity, lines and wrinkles, or skin that feels thinner or more fragile than before.

In contrast, photoaging is extrinsic, meaning it occurs due to an external factor. It may only affect parts of the body that have had frequent sunlight exposure, such as the face, neck, or hands. Photoaging can also cause some specific symptoms, such as sun spots, that chronological aging may not.

The damage that UV light does to deeper layers of the skin is not always reversible. However, there are ways to reduce the visible signs on the surface of the skin. This may include topical treatments, or cosmetic procedures, depending on the person’s goals.

A dermatologist may suggest:

While it is possible to reverse some of the signs of photoaging, prevention is usually easier and less expensive. This means protecting the skin from UV damage wherever possible.

Here are some recommendations to consider to help prevent photoaging:

  • stop or avoid using tanning beds
  • avoid going outside at the brightest times of the day as much as possible
  • use sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher before going outside
  • cover the skin with clothing while in the sun
  • wear a wide-brimmed hat to provide shade to the face
  • tint windows in vehicles and buildings

Anyone who receives treatment for photoaging must also continue to protect their skin from the sun going forward. This is especially important for those using treatments, such as retinoids and acids, that increase the skin’s sensitivity to UV.

Even if a person avoids the sun, chronological aging will still occur naturally over time. There are other environmental factors that can cause visible aging, including smoking and air pollution.

In some cases, sun damage to the skin can lead to serious conditions, such as skin cancer. If a person notices any of the following, it is important that they speak with a doctor immediately:

  • unusual growths
  • rashes that do not get better
  • pale, waxy, or scaly patches
  • scabs or sores that do not heal
  • new red or flesh-colored moles
  • changes to existing moles or dark spots, such as an increase in size

Be advised that some of the descriptive skin situations above that can indicate serious skin conditions may look different on darker skin tones.

While everyone’s skin ages naturally as they get older, sunlight speeds up the process and damages tissues, which can result in sun spots, loose skin, broken capillaries, and wrinkles.

While a small amount of sunlight is necessary for people to get enough vitamin D, it is important to take precautions to protect the skin from UV damage. People can do this in a variety of ways, including wearing sunscreen and seeking shade when outside.

Treatments, such as skin peels, laser resurfacing, and retinoids, are available to help reduce the visible signs of sunlight aging. People can talk with a dermatologist regarding which options are appropriate for them.