Photoaging: Effects on Your Skin and How to Protect From It

Written by Donika Vata | Last updated on August 4, 2023

Do you know that sun exposure is the primary cause of up to 90 percent of visible signs of aging and more than 90 percent of skin cancers?

It sounds scary, right? Age spots, wrinkles, fine lines, hyperpigmentation, loss of skin elasticity, uneven texture, and its dangerous link with skin cancer are some of the side effects that you should definitely be aware of!

In this article, we'll dive deeper into the science behind photoaging and everything that you need to understand on how to protect your skin whilst keeping it youthful and flawless.

Keep reading for more! 

What is Photoaging?

When exposed to the sun’s rays for prolonged periods of time without adequate protection can result in deleterious complications for your skin. 

man with photoaged skin

Sunburn, which is one of the first symptoms of photoaging, manifests with immediate pain and discomfort which prolongs for 2-3 days. Those were the short-term effects, what about the long-term ones? 

Unfortunately, this manifestation is only the tip of the iceberg.

The long-lasting effects of sun exposure can alter cellular structures leading to premature aging of the skin also called photoaging.

Healthcare professionals often refer to this as solar damage, photodamage, or even simply sun damage. 

Photodamage occurs when skin is exposed to UV light without sunscreen protection.

This leads to damage and mutation in DNA by typically manifesting years after being inflicted along with also increasing the potential risk of developing melanoma or other skin cancers later in life. 

What Are The Causes of Photoaging?

strong sunlight

When discussing hazards to our skin's health, few are as alarming as ultraviolet radiation. 

This hazardous factor is capable of inflicting serious harm on a microcellular level meaning that it affects from surface-layer injuries in the epidermis layer of the skin to internal damage deep in the dermis layer. 

What makes this particularly frightening is that every part of the skin is vulnerable even vital structures like elastin fibers and capillaries are not immune. 

When exposed to UVA and UVB light our skin's outermost layer becomes sensitive to harmful environmental effects like air pollutants or smoke, proceeding to a new window of further infection and inflammation. 

Fortunately, UVC rays don’t constitute much of a health risk because the ozone layer absorbs it all.

UV radiation also generates free radicals which completely disturb the balance by damaging the cells and contributing to collagen and elastin fibers breakdown [1].

Genetics and lifestyle changes (smoking, unhealthy diet, alcohol consumption) have a significant impact on this process by making the skin more predisposed to photoaging genetically or by contributing to immune system suppression.

Who is More Prone to Photoaging?

Photoaging affects everyone but in different ways depending on varied aspects such as how frequently you expose yourself to unprotected sunlight, location and climate conditions.

People who have fairer skin complexion have a higher probability of developing skin cancer and photoaging compared to those who have darker skin tones [2]. 

Although that does not completely eliminate the possibility for individuals with darker pigmentations to develop melanomas or sun damage. 

In that case, an uneven discoloration condition known as melasma is a common outcome. 

The Fitzpatrick’s Scale

The Fitzpatrick’s Scale is an important tool for dermatologists to determine skin type and potential photodamage risks for patients individually. 

fitzpatrick scale

By using this scale, patients can be assessed based on their skin color, hair color, and their eye color.

Type 1 - patients have pale skin, light-colored eyes, and often have blond or red hair. They always burn in the sun and do not tan whatsoever.

Type 2 - patients have fair skin and light-colored eyes, they may burn easily but can possibly get a tan.

Type 3- patients have medium light skin that initially burns and then tans.

Meanwhile, Type 4 patients have light brown skin that tans quite easily with minimal burning or discomfort.

If you fall under skin Type 5, your chances of getting sunburnt are rare owing to your medium-brown skin.

Similarly, if you have a Type 6 skin shade which lies on the darker side of brown and black, tanning quickly won't be a problem for you. 

Your skin tone will probably never burn due to its natural pigmentation. Although that doesn’t mean that you can neglect the skin protection steps. 

Effects of Photoaging

Excessive UV exposure causes molecular and genetic changes in the skin structure that can appear in a variety of ways including:

  • Lines and wrinkles
  • Pigmentation
  • Dark or discolored spots
  • Appearance of blood vessels (telangiectasia)
  • Freckles
  • Uneven skin tone and texture
  • Thinning of the skin
  • Actinic Keratosis (precancerous spots that are rough and scaly in appearance)
  • Skin cancer

Fine lines and wrinkles rank as one of the top effects caused by photoaging which comes in varying degrees depending on one's individual genetic makeup coupled with their unique skin type. 

Over time, frequent exposure to UV rays breaks down vital proteins called collagen and elastin fibers that are responsible for providing structure in our skin.

If you think laying out in the sun every day or visiting tanning booths regularly is harmless, you have to think again.

Overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays from these sources can lead to thickened and leathery textured skin that looks aged beyond its years.

Furthermore, chronic UV contact is also known to cause chronic inflammation in affected areas resulting in splotchy redness along with darker patches or spots where pigmentation has gone awry.

Which areas are most affected?

Sun damage most commonly affects on skin areas that are most exposed to UV exposure which include the face, neck, upper chest (décolletage), arms, hands, and legs. 

The areas like the buttocks, genital area, and upper arms are typically the least affected areas by photodamage. 

How can you prevent photodamage?

It's never too late to be mindful about preventing photodamage caused by unprotected exposure to sunlight and the recommended course of action prescribed by dermatologists which includes using broad-spectrum sunscreens that block both UVA and UVB radiation wavelengths. 

sunscreen and hat

When purchasing a sunscreen product, always choose products with an SPF rating of no less than 30.

Swimmers are encouraged to go for water-resistant formulations that will provide persisting coverage under rigorous aquatic activities and sunscreen reapplication every two hours retains maximum benefits.

UV radiation emanating from sunlight is most intense during peak daylight hours of 10 am. to 4 pm, which presents an increased risk for potential skin harm if left unprotected so try to avoid these hours or at least be protected whilst exposed.

Staying out of direct sunlight when possible is one way to simply mitigate these concerns or just by sporting broad-brimmed headwear and glasses reduces exposure which blocks out some incoming light.

Consumption of a nutritious diet comprising fruits, vegetables, whole grains rich in antioxidants, and quitting smoking are proven to shield the skin from harsh environmental agents and UV radiation damage.

Try to include anti-aging skincare products containing components like vitamin C, retinol, and niacinamide in your skincare routine because they can boost collagen synthesis whilst also reducing wrinkles formation. 

Can the Damage be Reversed?

Unfortunately, there is no way to completely reverse photoaging, but there are several treatment options that can rejuvenate the skin (minimizing the cosmetic effects of sun damage). 

Before considering any treatment individuals with moderate to severe photoaging should be examined by a healthcare professional to ensure their safety because certain treatments may not be suitable for all skin types, and in some cases, may even exacerbate the sun damage.

Here are some of the most effective options to treat different severity levels of photoaging:

Light Photoaging

For individuals with early signs of photoaging (typically in their early 20’s), topical treatments containing retinoids or retinol, vitamin C, and alpha hydroxyl acid may be powerful enough to provide noticeable results. 

To simplify it retinoids, for example, work by stimulating collagen production which helps to improve skin elasticity, reduce fine lines and wrinkles, and generally improve overall skin texture. 

Vitamin C is a potent antioxidant that protects the skin by fighting free radical damage caused by UV exposure whilst alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) function by exfoliating the superficial layer of dead skin cells revealing brighter and smoother skin beneath. 

Moderate Photoaging

Patients that struggle with moderate skin damage from the sun which does not respond to the topical treatment can go for more intensive dermatologic procedures which include chemical peels, Fraxel laser resurfacing, or microdermabrasion. 

Fine lines and wrinkles can also be treated using Botox, Voluma, Juvederm, or other dermal fillers.

Chemical peels function by using a chemical solution on the skin from a dermatologist, which helps remove the superficial layer of damaged skin resulting in a smoother and more youthful-looking complexion.

Fraxel laser resurfacing is a noninvasive treatment that uses laser technology to stimulate collagen production and improve skin texture whilst microdermabrasion uses a minimally invasive device to exfoliate the top layer of dead surface skin cells.

Severe Photoaging

If there is severe facial photo-aging the final treatments which you may benefit most from are a facelift, neck lift, brow lift, or other plastic surgery procedures. 

Surgical intervention may be the only way to counteract deep wrinkles, sagging skin, and an extreme loss of skin elasticity, but please note that these procedures are more invasive and come with greater risks than non-invasive treatments mentioned beforehand. 


Sun exposure is the leading cause of visible aging signs and skin cancers and prolonged exposure to UV radiation alter cellular structures leading to the process of photoaging which can potentially develop into fatal skin cancer like melanoma. Fair-skinned people have higher chances for skin cancer and photoaging compared to those with darker skin tones [2]. 

The Fitzpatrick’s Scale helps medical professionals or dermatologists assess a person’s skin type and evaluate the potential photodamage risks.

Excessive UV exposure can cause a conglomerate of skin changes including lines, wrinkles, pigmentation, uneven skin tone, and skin cancer. 

Please, always protect the skin with broad-spectrum sunscreens with an SPF rating of no less than 30 to prevent photodamage and the before-mentioned long-term effects.


1. Effect of the sun on visible clinical signs of aging in Caucasian skin. Retrieved from

2.Radiation: Ultraviolet (UV) radiation and skin cancer. Retrieved from

About the author 

A Medical Doctor with a rich experience for 5+ years in Medical Writing/Researching along with patient care. Collaborated with more than 10 companies, leveraging my skills to create high-quality content in various formats, including books, blog posts, articles, research papers, and social media medical content.

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