You're a pro when it comes to protecting against sun damage. You've got sunscreen on your keychain, in your lip balm, and all over your skin. But you could still have plenty of sun damage left over from your youth. (Remember squirming away from your mom as she tried to coat you with sunblock?)
Unfortunately, sun damage isn't only skin-deep. UV radiation alters the actual DNA of your skin cells, causing lines, wrinkles, discoloration, and even cancer. "There's a meter in your skin. Every minute you're out in the sun, your body registers it," says Neal Schultz, M.D., a cosmetic dermatologist based in New York City and creator of DermTV.com.
But here's a ray of (UV-free) light: You can reverse the damage. "Whenever you start protecting yourself from the sun, you will stop the process of additional damage and start to reverse, to some extent, what you've already accumulated," Schultz says. Throw in this four-step treatment, and you are well on your way to some serious skin recovery.
Step 1: Exfoliate the right way
You want to smooth your skin to create brightness and luster, and chemical exfoliation is the best way to do just that, Schultz says. Chemical exfoliation dissolves dead skin cells instead of scrubbing them off (usually unevenly) the way buffers and granule cleansers do.
When choosing a chemical exfoliant, opt for a product with a 5 percent to 8 percent concentration of glycolic acid, like BeautyRX Daily Exfoliating Therapy Serum ($65, drugstore.com). The active ingredient is vital in removing the extra layers of dead cells that are holding all of the brown pigment that has clumped and accumulated over the years. And whichever exfoliant you choose, follow the directions!
Step 2: Beat brown spots
The next step is to rid yourself of those brown splotches. While the product you need is commonly called "skin bleach," there's nothing bleachy about it. It will have the end effect of lightening the brown areas of your skin, but it will do so by stopping the skin's uneven production of melanin (brown pigment) that your skin churns out when it tries to fight UV radiation. Look for a bleach, like Murad Age Spot & Pigment Gel ($60, sephora.com) with a 2 percent concentration of hydroquinone (the active ingredient), and apply it two to three times a day on the darkened areas.
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Bonus points If you followed step 1 before jumping to step 2 — exfoliation actually helps the hydroquinone work better by allowing it to better penetrate the skin.
Step 3: Burn no more
To maintain your improvement, use sunscreen every day to prevent additional damage. New FDA recommendations emphasize using sunscreen labeled as broad spectrum (meaning it protects against both UVA and UVB rays) with SPF values of 15 or higher. While new sunscreen label regulations won't take full effect until summer 2012, some are already broad-spectrum now. Try MDSolarSciences Mineral Screen Gel ($30, mdsolarsciences.com). To maximize the sunscreen's protection, apply it 30 minutes before exposure and reapply at least every two hours. "The amount of sunscreen that you need to use for your entire body, assuming you're at the beach and you're just wearing a bathing suit, is about an ounce in order to get the actual SPF value," Schultz says. Not too good at ounces? It's a shot glass's worth.
Step 4: Arm yourself with antioxidants
Schultz recommends nightly use of antioxidant-rich topical creams. Antioxidants help protect the skin's DNA to prevent cancer while also protecting the collagen and elastic tissue from free radicals that can cause wrinkles and sagging skin. Though eating antioxidant-rich foods is important, you should also apply creams and serums, like BeautyRX Protective Vitamin C Rescue Serum ($85, beautyrx.com), with additional antioxidants that the skin can absorb directly. Vitamin C-based antioxidants are best for reducing uneven brown pigmentation, but you can't go wrong with any type of antioxidant, Schultz says. And since antioxidants won't do dead skin cells any good, follow step 1 and exfoliate. (Sorry — we just had to say it again!)
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