What are the Best Creams for Sun-Damaged Skin?

Personal/Inspirational, Skin Care

Submitted via the FutureDerm.com Facebook page via private message:

Hi I was wondering if you could recommend a good cream to help reverse/repair sun damaged skin? Thanks in advance! -Elizabeth H.

Dear Elizabeth,

Sun-damaged skin is no illusion.  After years of sun damage, the skin’s pigment-producing cells, called melanocytes, lose their ability to distribute pigment evenly.  As the damage progresses, your face shows it in the form of freckles, sunspots, blotches, uneven pigmentation, blood vessels, a duller complexion, and wrinkles.

UV portrait
Wood’s lamp photos show cumulative UV damage in the forms of freckles on the face.  (Photo credit: Mr Jon Ardern Esq.)

If you are curious about how much sun damage you have accumulated, you can use a Wood’s lamp, which projects a long wavelength of ultraviolet light deeper into the skin than visible light.  If you have significant sun damage, it will show up as heavy freckling all over.

To fight these signs, we recommend the following:

Fight Fine Lines and Wrinkles and Sagging Skin with Retinol 6x per Week, AHAs 1x per Week

As Dr. Ranella Hirsch, former president-elect of the American Society of Dermatologic Surgeons, once said: “We have beautiful, profound data that shows if you use [retinoids] for 20 years, you’re going to look a lot better than someone who doesn’t.” Retinoids are considered by many dermatologists to be the gold standard of anti-aging, as it has been proven to do the following:

We, of course, recommend our FutureDerm Time-Release Retinol 0.5 ($54.95, FutureDerm.com; $39.95 until September 19, 2012).  It has 0.5% retinol in a time-release, microencapsulated formula.  It is also a lightweight gel, which makes it easy to apply immediately after cleansing, and to use in conjunction with hydroquinone, vitamin C, or niacinamide (all mentioned below).

Once per week, in place of retinol, we recommend a 10% glycolic acid treatment like Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Peel Pads. We don’t like using retinol and glycolic acid together because retinol requires activation of enzymes that work best at a neutral (not acidic!) pH.

Once per week, in place of retinol, we recommend using an alpha hydroxy acid treatment, such as a 10% glycolic acid.  The reason we do not recommend using alpha hydroxy acids and retinoids together?  Retinol requires the activity of enzymes called retinyl ester hydrolases, which operate best at a pH of 4.5-7 (a neutral pH). (Biochim Biophys Acta, 2002).  Alpha hydroxy acids are obviously, well, acids, meaning that there is not optimal activity for retinoids at that pH.  Once per week, I use Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Peel Pads ($72.00, Amazon.com) in place of retinol, so I can get the full benefits of both.

Fight Age Spots and Hyperpigmentation with Hydroquinone and Kojic Acid in 4-Month Cycles

Many dermatologists recommend using hydroquinone in four-month cycles, alternated in the off months with other milder tyrosinase inhibitors, such as azelaic acid, kojic acid, and arbutin.

We really like PCA Phaze 13 Pigment Gel for those with fair to medium skin tones. It has hydroquinone, which is a potent tyrosinase inhibitor. (Tyrosinase is the enzyme required to produce skin pigment, melanin).

For hydroquinone, I recommend PCA pHaze 13 Pigment Gel ($39.95, Amazon.com), followed by your favorite moisturizer.  Despite controversy over hydroquinone, the vast majority of studies show that it is safe.  As Dr. David J. Goldberg, M.D., a clinical professor of dermatology at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine states, “Over 100 scientific articles confirm hydroquinone is a safe topical for humans; no independent studies prove the opposite.

Still, if you have darker skin, it may be advisable to avoid hydroquinone, as it has been associated in rare cases with reflux hyperpigmentation (ochronosis) in those with darker skin tones.  While this occurs in less than 1% of cases, Exuviance Optilight Tone Corrector may be a better choice for those with darker skin tones, with vitamin C and retinol.  While I estimate the vitamin C to be less than Skinceuticals CE Ferulic and the retinol to be less than 0.5%, it is a solid combination treatment that is great for those who can’t use hydroquinone.

For the four months you use kojic acid or other brighteners instead, I personally recommend Cape Fear Naturals Kojic Acid Cream Skin Brightener ($11.95, Amazon.com) with 4% kojic acid, the highest concentration available on the U.S. market without a prescription.  Another great line is the Lumixyl line ($120.00, Amazon.com), a complex of oligopeptides developed through Stanford University.  The peptides have been found to significantly inhibit tyrosinase, the rate-limiting enzyme in melanin production (The Journal of Drugs in Dermatology, 2009).

Fight Dullness and Sagging Skin with Vitamin C or Niacinamide

It’s no secret around here: We love Skinceuticals CE Ferulic!

I recommend vitamin C as L-ascorbic acid in a treatment like Skinceuticals CE Ferulic ($109.00, Amazon.com).  Though there are a number of vitamin C derivatives that are more stable than L-ascorbic acid in the presence of light and air, research has shown vitamin C needs an acidic base to be delivered into the skin (Journal of Biochemistry, 1993).  For you ultra-scientific types, the ideal pH is less than 4.2.

Why Vitamin C?

According to the International Journal of Pharmaceutics, vitamin C has many favorable aspects for the skin, including:

Why niacinamide?

Likewise, niacinamide has been associated with all of the following, according to research published in a review in the journal Dermatologic Surgery:

  • Reduces fine lines and wrinkles
  • Reduces hyperpigmented spots
  • Takes down red blotchiness
  • Brightens skin sallowness (yellowing)
  • Increases elasticity

I recommend niacinamide in the Olay ProX line ($37.59, Amazon.com).  Alternatively, there is also nicotinic acid, another derivative of vitamin B3.  I find nicotinic acid to be a little harder on the skin than niacinamide, so which to choose depends on your overall skin sensitivity and skin type.  If your skin is dry, I recommend the Olay ProX line with niacinamide.  If it is more oily, then you may love the NIA 24 products with nicotinic acid.

Bottom Line:  Your Ideal Regimen for Fighting Sun Damage



As always, for a targeted regimen, speak to your dermatologist.  Treatments like lasers and in-house LEDs are amazing for sun-damaged skin as well.

Hope this helps,

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  • kandyce

    Olay Regenerist or Olay Pro-X? What’s the real difference???

  • jeff

    but not vita C and retinol together?

  • Great post, and so exciting to see your FutureDerm Retinol! Congratulations on it’s release!

  • Claire

    You’re welcome! Can I ask, I’ve been using elemis tri-enzyme programme for a while and wondered how it compared / where it would fit with the above (if you know the product). I love trying new things and am always in search of THE product but most of all I love learning as much as I can! X

  • @Claire – So glad you liked the post! 🙂 One of my friends is a social media consultant, and she viewed the site yesterday and made that very suggestion. Amazing you noticed! Very glad you liked it!

  • Claire

    Just brilliant advice! Lots of the science and then a simpler breakdown… the perfect mix x

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