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Health A-Z

Medical Content Created by the Faculty of the
Harvard Medical School

Treatment

The type of treatment depends on the form of sun damage:

  • Dry skin Try using a moisturizer that contains at least one of the following ingredients: glycerin, urea, pyroglutamic acid, sorbitol, lactic acid, lactate salts or alpha-hydroxy acids. Avoid using alpha-hydroxy acids or other acids on any sunburned skin. Avoid hot baths or hot showers, because these can make your sun-damaged skin even drier. Wash only with warm or cool water, using unscented soap that either has a high fat content or contains glycerin.

  • Sunburn For painful sunburn, try applying cool compresses (such as a cool, wet cloth) to your injured skin, or mist the area with sprays of cool water. If your discomfort continues, take a nonprescription pain medication such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or aspirin, as long as you do not have a health problem that has caused your doctor to advise you against taking these medications. Your doctor may prescribe stronger anti-inflammatory medication if you have extensive sunburn with severe blistering and pain.

  • Actinic keratosis The type of treatment that will work best for you depends on many factors, including the number, size and location of your actinic keratoses. Options include:

    • Topical fluorouracil The anticancer drug 5-fluorouracil (5-FU) is applied directly to the skin to eliminate the actinic keratosis.

    • Topical imiquimod This topical treatment up-regulates your own body's defense mechanisms to react against the actinic keratosis.

    • Topical diclofenac sodium gel This topical anti-inflammatory gel is applied twice daily for three months to treat the actinic keratosis.

    • Cryotherapy The actinic keratosis is frozen with liquid nitrogen.

    • Chemical peels A strong chemical solution is used to remove the top layer of skin, with the anticipation that normal skin will grow back later.

    • Laser resurfacing This works in the same way as a chemical peel to remove the top layer of skin, but it uses a laser beam instead of a chemical solution.

    • Shave excision The doctor carefully shaves away the area of abnormal skin. The skin shavings can also be used as a biopsy specimen to check for cancer.

    • Photodynamic treatment (PDT) A light-sensitizing solution is absorbed by the actinic keratosis and then "activated" by light, destroying the actinic keratosis.

    Also, because an actinic keratosis is a sign that you are at increased risk of skin cancer, your doctor will schedule regular follow-up skin examinations to check periodically for new areas of abnormal skin.

  • Photoaging and other collagen changes Although it is not possible to reverse all of the effects of long-term sun damage, your doctor may be able to improve the appearance of your skin by prescribing tretinoin (a derivative of vitamin A) or strong alpha-hydroxy acids that you can apply directly to the skin. Other options include chemical peels; cryosurgery; laser resurfacing; or dermabrasion, in which the outer layer of skin is rubbed away with a special rotating brush or wheel. This allows new skin to grow in place of the old, sun-damaged skin. Your doctor may also be able to inject botulinum toxin (Botox) or fillers such as Restylane, Juvederm or collagen to temporarily reduce wrinkles. As with any cosmetic treatment, discuss risks and benefits with your physician. Although botulinum toxin (Botox) is a drug approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), substitute forms of the drug have been found in some U.S. clinics, leading to lawsuits and safety concerns.

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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