What Are The Best Skincare Products For Sun-Damaged Skin?

by Gio

the best skincare products to treat sun damage

Remember the old days, when we used to spend entire summers in the sun without sunscreen, or slathered our bodies in oil to top up our tans? Little did we know then there would be hell to pay now. *sighs*

Wrinkles, sun spots, dull and rough skin, sagginess… these are just some of the “presents” the sun’s kiss has left on your skin. Now, you want to return them. ASAP!

I have good news and bad news for you:

Bad news first: there’s no quick fix to reverse the premature signs of aging.

Good news: there are lots of ways you can fight wrinkles and dark spots these days. You just need the right allies. But, where to find them?

I’ve got you covered. Here are the best skincare products for sun-damaged skin:

1. Retinol: Fights Wrinkles, Sagginess, And Dark Spots

According to dermatologists, retinol is the gold standard for antiaging. Retinol (just like all the other forms of vitamin A) is one of the few ingredients that can reverse – not just prevent – wrinkles. It works just as well for dark spots too. Here’s how:

The catch?

There are a few:

  • Sun-sensitivity: retinol makes skin more prone to sun damage (ironic, isn’t it?). Use it at night only.
  • Irritation: if you’ve never used retinol before, it may irritate your skin. To avoid that, start with a small concentration once or twice a week and, as your skin is getting used to it, gradually increase concentration and frequency.

WARNING!

The more you use retinol, the faster it’ll work. If you’re a retinol pro, you may switch to a 1% concentration now. If not, be patient. I know you want your flawless skin back, but rushing into a retinol treatment can make your skin look way worse, not better.

Best Products With Retinol:

Related: What Strength Of Retinol Should You Use?

2. Glycolic Acid: Fights Dull Skin, Discolourations, And Sagginess

Glycolic acid belongs to the Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs) family, a group of exfoliants. Other notable members of the family are lactic acid and malic acid. Glycolic acid beats them all by far when it comes to treating sun damage. Here’s why:

  • It dissolves the glue that holds skin cells together, helping dark spots fade faster, wrinkles look smaller and skin glow
  • It boosts collagen production, keeping skin firm.

The Catch?

Same as retinol:

  • Sun-sensitivity: anything that exfoliates the skin thins it, making it more prone to sun damage. Use it at night.
  • Irritations: using it too much, too often can irritate skin. Start with a small dose twice a week and work your way up gradually.

WARNING!

Don’t use 20% or higher glycolic acid peels at home. Those are for professional use only! Without proper supervision, they can destroy your skin.

Best Products With Glycolic Acid:

  • Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum ($90.00/£76.00): available at Cult BeautySephora and SpaceNK
  • Paula’s Choice Skincare Resist Weekly Resurfacing Treatment with 10% Alpha Hydroxy Acid ($35.00/£34.00): available at Feel Unique and Paula’s Choice
  • The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution ($6.80): available at Beauty Bay and Cult Beauty

Related: The Complete Guide To Glycolic Acid: What It Is, What It Does & How To Use It

the ordinary glycolic acid toning solution

3. Hydroquinone: Fights Dark Spots

Hydroquinone is to dark spots what retinol is to wrinkles: their worst enemy. It works in two ways:

The catch?

P.S. The rumours that hydroquinone is carcinogenic are false (phew!).

Best Products With Hydroquinone:

Related: 7 Ways To Treat Hyperpigmentation

Retinol, glycolic acid, hydroquinone, vit C & niacinamide: the superheroes that fight sun damageClick to Tweet

4. Vitamin C: Treats Dullness, Sagginess, And Dark Spots

Vitamin C is one of the most powerful antioxidants out there. It comes in many forms. Some are more powerful than others, but they all have similar benefits. They can:

FYI, Vitamins C and E work even better when used with ferulic acid, an antioxidant that fights three types of free radicals! The best products with vitamin C contain all three ingredients.[/su_note]

The Catch?

  • Sun sensitivity: yep, like all the best antiaging superstars, it makes skin more susceptible to sun damage. Use it with sunscreen only.*
  • Irritations: it can irritate skin, especially it’s sensitive.

*I usually recommend you apply anything that increases sun sensitivity at night. But, vitamin C boosts the protection of your sunscreen so it makes sense to use it in the morning.

Best Products With Vitamin C:

Related: Types Of Vitamin C Used In Skincare

paula's choice 10% niacinamide booster 01

5. Niacinamide: Treats Dark Spots, Dullness, And Sagginess

The underdog of the antiaging world, niacinamide is a stable form of vitamin B3. It’s super versatile, too. According to a 2006 study, it can do all this:

  • It improves skin’s elasticity.
  • It brightens skin and reduces sallowness (yellowing).
  • It fades dark spots.
  • It reduces the appearances of wrinkles and fine lines.

Bonus points: niacinamide is a lot gentler than all the other ingredients above put together. It won’t irritate your skin or pull any other tricks. Yay!

Best Products With Niacinamide:

Related: Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Niacinamide

6. Sunscreen: Prevents Damage From Returning

None of the steps above will help you if you don’t wear sunscreen every single day. Think about it. It’s UV rays that are giving you those deep wrinkles, unsightly sun spots and sagging skin. Even if you manage to fix them, how long will it be before they come back if you don’t address the cause?

UV rays are sneaky. UVA, the main culprit for premature aging, are around from the time the sun comes up to the time it goes down. They can penetrate through the darkest of clouds and be reflected on snow, too. Don’t let them get you. Wear your sunscreen 365/7.

My fave sunscreens have zinc oxide, a white mineral that can literally save your skin:

  • It protects – on its own – from the entire UV range
  • It’s super gentle – it very rarely causes irritations

PRO TIP: Zinc oxide can leave a white cast behind. If you don’t fancy the pale look, go for a tinted sunscreen.

Best Products With Zinc Oxide:

Related: Why Zinc Oxide Is The Best Sunscreen Ingredient Ever

Confused about how these ingredients fit into your skincare routine? Click the image below to subscribe to my newsletter and download the “Best Skincare Routine For Sun-Damaged Skin” cheatsheet and find out:

Best Skincare Routine For Sun Damaged Skin

Don't know how to best actives for sun-damaged skin fit in your skincare routine? Get the cheatsheet and find out!

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What are your favourite products to treat sun-damaged skin? Share them in the comments below.

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44 comments

Laurie August 7, 2015 - 1:41 pm

Great post! I have alot of experience in this area, since malasma appeared on my forehead, and a little bit on my cheekbones, about ten years ago. Although I use glycolic acid, I have found that BHA (salycylic acid) has made a huge difference in getting that pigment to budge. I tried chemical peels and prescription lighteners; neither worked on me. BHA (I use Paula’s Choice) has made the difference.

Also — and I know this is controversial — the use of a Clarisonic twice a week has also helped diminish the pigment. I went back and forth on this for years, due to the expense, but the Nordstrom’s Half-Yearly Sale made me cave. 😉 It really has helped my complexion. But the key is not to overdo it — I never use it on the same day as an exfoliating acid.

Just my experience — I’d be interested to hear what others have tried.

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Laurie August 7, 2015 - 3:57 pm

Oh, and one more thing . . . I am absolutely religious about SPF every day, because sun exposure seems to bring that pigment right back!

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Gio August 8, 2015 - 10:09 am

Laurie, thank you for sharing your experience. I’m sorry you have to deal with melasma, but glad you’ve found something that works for you. I’m surprised that salicylic acid works better than glycolic for you, but it just goes to show that we are all different, and you never know what works for you until you try it.

I think the problem with the Clarisonic is that, because it is marketed as a cleanser rather than the exfoliant it is, too many people abuse it. Used carefully like you do, it can be a great help. 🙂

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Laurie August 8, 2015 - 1:27 pm

Yes, the salesperson at Nordstrom’s told me that it’s not an exfoliator, but I know better! 🙂

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Gio August 8, 2015 - 2:51 pm

It’s incredible how little they know, isn’t it? 🙂

Janessa August 8, 2015 - 7:38 am

I’ve tried Future Derm’s retinol product and I loved it. I very slowly increased the application frequency and only used a tiny bit each time and didn’t experience any irritations plus the product sunk in almost instantly. I’ve wanted to repurchase it but I didn’t want to shell out $55 again when I want to try other products. I’ve been using PC’s Skin Recovery Super Antioxidant Serum With Retinol now (on my third tube). I don’t feel like I need a hardcore retinol product so I’m using that and really liking it since it locks moisture in my skin (after my shower) with its heavier silicone and oil consistency.
I do have a glycolic which I will use twice or sometimes just once a week at night. It’s an acne treatment using 2% glycolic as the weapon of choice and so I treat it as an exfoliator as opposed to acne control. I don’t break out very often and if I do, it usually goes a way in a few days.
I don’t use any hydroquinone as I’m not looking to lighten my skin or any dark spots. I have naturally pale skin (NC15 right now with a bit of summer color) and don’t care to lighten it.
I struggle to know when to incorporate niacinamide since I don’t want to mix it with my ascorbic acid in the morning.
Perhaps I should combine it at night with my antioxidant serum though the only product I own with niacinamide is a sunscreen I didn’t check thoroughly for the ingredients. I tend to use that if I need to reapply during the day and have wiped my face with a cotton pad and toner.
And sunscreen is evidently crucial to this regime or the UV rays will continue to cancel out the benefits.
I say lots of love and care should be given to sun-damaged skin and while these ingredients won’t reverse all damage, it’ll allow the skin to heal its best. Love because you should love and appreciate yourself every bit of the way (to being or in this case looking your best).

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Gio August 8, 2015 - 10:18 am

Janessa, you’re so young, you don’t need any hydroquinone or strong retinol serum. What you’re already using is enough to help you age more slowly. 🙂

You can still use that sunscreen in the morning. Just wait 30 minutes for ascorbic acid to fully penetrate skin, and then apply niacinamide. That way, the two won’t get into contact with each other and you’ll get the best of both worlds.

If that’s too long for you, use niacinamide at night. Both Olay and Paula’s Choice make some nice moisturizers with niacinamide, and they are all reasonably priced. 🙂

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Janessa August 8, 2015 - 4:51 pm

Ooo okay. Some rare days I do have thirty minutes though most days not. Thanks for all your help!

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Gio August 8, 2015 - 7:15 pm

My pleasure! 🙂

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Lancy August 12, 2015 - 7:14 am

Much needed post for me Gio! 🙂 I love how Retional based products work on my skin. They make my skin smooth faster. I’ve also stocked up few hydroquinone creams to reverse my swimming tan (which is uneven). The thing is, I need to be extra careful with the sunlight after using such creams since they make my skin more photo-sensitive.

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Gio August 12, 2015 - 5:06 pm

Lancy, glad you enjoyed the post and have found some products that work so well for you. And thank you for the remainder. All these ingredients are good, but they will only do so much if we don’t wear sunscreen daily. 🙂

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Mauree August 14, 2015 - 8:03 pm

I have so many of those products and I get so confused as to when to use what when! Could you lay out a routine for a 57 year old trying to get rid of a few sun spots? Sensitive skin but not overly so. Thanks

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Gio August 15, 2015 - 6:03 am

Mauree, we have so many options these days, it can get so confusing, can’t it?

Sure. Start by cleansing your skin. Then, in the morning, apply an antioxidant serum (choose one with both vitamins C and E and ferulic acid) and either a cream or serum. with hydroquinone. Order of application depends on the texture. Apply the most lightweight product first. Then, slather on moisturizer, and finish off with mineral sunscreen.

At night, after cleansing, you can alternate between an exfoliant with glycolic acid (or, if your sensitive skin can’t tolerate it, lactic acid) and a serum or moisturizer with retinol. If a serum, apply a moisturizer next.

Hope this helps

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Maureen August 15, 2015 - 4:17 pm

Thank you so much for the reply! My problem is that I have gone a little crazy buying so many products in each category. I have overwhelmed myself! lol. I use and love the Timeless Vit C serum-a fraction of the cost of Skinceuticals.
The one thing I could use is a serum with hydroquinone. Do you have any recs?

I am going to use up what I have -may take until Xmas!
Thanks again for laying it out so clearly. I really enjoy your blog and reviews!

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Gio August 15, 2015 - 6:57 pm

Maureen, lol! Just use them one at a time, and, before you know it, you’ll have none left.

I love the Timeless serum too. So effective, and you can’t beat the price! My favourite hydroquinone serum is Paula’s Choice RESIST Triple-Action Dark Spot Eraser 7% AHA Lotion. It contains AHAs too, so it performs a double lightening action, and it is reasonably priced.

My pleasure, and thank you for your support. I’m glad you’re enjoying my blog. 🙂

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Keri June 7, 2016 - 3:35 am

Hi!
I wanted to see if you could point me in the right direction.
I’m 34 with some sunspots, wrinkles with combination skin I use a spf moisturizer before I put on makeup but that’s it. I’m trying to improve my skin and help any more damage. There is so much out there I really don’t know where to start. Could you help me?!

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Gio June 10, 2016 - 1:23 pm

Keri, I’d love to, but your question is very generic. Is there anything in particular you want to know?

By the way, moisturizers with Spf don’t provide adequate protection, so you may want to add a sunscreen to your routine.

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Mom In Nevada July 17, 2016 - 6:21 am

Hello!

I am new to caring for my skin and coming late to the party at almost 38 years old. I am overwhelmed with what to use and when from cleansers to anti aging products to moisturizer. Thanks for your articles! I have a lot to learn!

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Gio July 31, 2016 - 7:25 pm

Mom In Nevada, hello! It is never too late to learn how to take care of your skin. I hope these articles are helping you, but if you have more questions, don’t hesitate to get in touch. 🙂

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Mom In Nevada July 17, 2016 - 6:23 am

Question about hydroquinone. … does it lighten the entire face or only the dark spots somehow?

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Gio July 31, 2016 - 7:26 pm

Mom In Nevada, for best results, hydroquinone should be applied only on the affected areas. 🙂

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eliza November 3, 2016 - 9:02 pm

Best I have ever used is Monsia

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Gio November 12, 2016 - 9:18 pm

Eliza, thanks for sharing.

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anna January 9, 2017 - 7:15 am

I am looking to find creams for my face to repair my acne scars and sensitive skin. I am a 27 year old female and I have started noticing some wrinkles forming in addition my adult acne! I started using retinal this week, but am hesitant about everything else. I’m also terribly allergic to SPF 🙁 do you have a remedy I can try?

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Gio January 9, 2017 - 11:17 am

Anna, I think you should see a dermatologist. Usually, I would suggest glycolic acid peels, but you mentioned that you are already on retinal and your skin is sensitive, so adding anything else at this time may do more harm than good. If you really want to use anything else, you need to consult a dermatologist to make sure it won’t interfere with your medication or worsen your condition. Sorry I can’t be of more help.

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Jenny March 19, 2017 - 3:56 am

Hi gio,

I am very late to the party, only just found your website. I have terrible pigmented spots on both my cheeks which I am terribly embarrassed off. Too ashamed to even take photos of myself. I do cleanse and tone, etc but these sunspots just make me look hideous. A couple of times, I looked at the mirror and cried. So, I am desperate. Please help and kindly recommend a genuine product. There are some websites that are sponsored and they only recommend sponsored products. I have combination skin, I don’t have much wrinkles just bad sunspots. Thank you so much.

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Gio March 22, 2017 - 12:59 pm

Jenny, sorry to hear about your problem. There are several things you can try, but let’s start with the basics. Are you using a vitamin C serum and a glycolic exfoliant? Those should help a little.

Also, remember you are not hideous. Everyone develops dark spots at some point. They are normal. More importantly, you are NOT your dark spots. You are an amazing and beautiful human being. You have an incredible personality and skills and gifts that are unique to you. There’s no one like you out there and your loved ones love you because of who you are inside. The dark spots will never change that. 🙂

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Jenny March 22, 2017 - 8:25 pm

Hi Gio,
Thank you so much for replying to my query.
No one has said such kind words about me before. I am tearing up and thank you from the bottom of my heart.
I live in New Zealand. The sun effects here, I think is the worst in the world.
I read just about eveything I could find on your website, so I am learning a lot. 2 months ago, I ordered some ‘glycolic acid pads’ from Peter Thomas Roth and they have really smoothened the texture of my skin. I am pleased with their products. I have just ordered ‘Timeless’ C E Ferulic acid serum, they are on its way.
Could you please kindly recommend a good sunblock, the ones sold here in New Zealand are so thick and cloggy.
Is there a ‘spot brighthening’ product you can recommend too?
I look forward to hearing from you and thank you again.

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Gio April 7, 2017 - 8:45 pm

Jenny, hi. My pleasure. I truly mean it. 🙂

Have you tried sunbumbra? Their sunscreens provide excellent protection and don’t clog the pores. Skinceuticals does a mineral sunscreen that’s very good too.

You can find my fave skin-brightening products here: http://www.beautifulwithbrains.com/7-ways-to-treat-hyperpigmentation/

Hope this helps.

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Tipene April 22, 2017 - 7:05 am

Dermatologist recommended dermalmd lightening serum as an effective over the counter fade cream for old sun damage. I have been using it for two weeks and do see a difference. Will continue its use until the brown areas have faded to the degree I want

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Gio April 29, 2017 - 1:26 pm

Tipene, that’s great! Thanks for sharing.

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paula May 12, 2017 - 4:49 am

Hi!! i just discovered your blog and i love all the information.
I am 27 years old and have dark sports from sun damage.

What do you recommend as a routine to get rid of them?
which product use first, second…?

Thanks!

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Gio May 14, 2017 - 3:46 pm

Paula, so glad you’d like it. I would start with a retinol serum twice a week. Once your skin has gotten used to it (no peeling, stinging etc), you can increase frequency. Also, after a month or so, you can start exfoliating with glycolic acid a couple of times a week to speed up the process.

If after a couple of months you still don’t see any results, it’s time to bring in the big guns and go with hydroquinone.

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Ida June 28, 2017 - 2:29 pm

Hi Gio,
I really enjoy your blog!
I’m only 26 and now my skin is acting up. I get big acne-like spots on my chin area and have a lot of small bumps (kinda like blackheads) on my cheeks along with some redness, so I look really uneven.
I’m not the best at applying sunscreen, but I’m getting better. I have both glycolic acid and salycilic acid at home, but this doesn’t do much. Can you renomme me a routine?
Thank you

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Gio July 7, 2017 - 10:15 am

Hi Ida, what salicylic acid product are you using? Maybe you simply need a higher dose. I wouldn’t use the glycolic, it doesn’t do anything for acne.

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Yetunde September 11, 2017 - 3:35 am

Hi Gio,
I want to say thank you for all your recommendations. My case is rather peculiar, i have all the problems mentioned above, due to mixing of creams by every Nigerian lady, i live in the USA but a lady lured me into using a mixed cream by quakes which has messed by whole body, leaving dark circles, patched skin, wrinkled under eye, sun damage but to mention a few. The worst is that the mixed body cream also left behind stretch marks as a pay back for destroying my skin. I need your help . I know that i have done much damage, im naturally light skinned but the mixed cream has turned me into a coat of many colors. My question is; what are the best products in body/face cream, body /face soap, and the best routine to erase my foolishness. My body is soooooo dry that i dont admire my own skin , let alone a guy or my husband admiring it.

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Gio September 17, 2017 - 9:17 am

Yetunde, so sorry to hear about your problem. I would use an azelaic acid cream (The Ordinary makes a good one) followed by a vitamin C serum in the morning and a retinol cream followed by a niacinamide moisturiser at night.

Use vitamin C and retinol only a couple of times a week at first and build up frequency gradually.

Also, introduce only one new product at a time. Start with, let’s say, azelaic acid. Use it for 3 weeks or so and, if you don’t experience any problems, go in with the retinol. These ingredients are powerful so if you want to give your skin time to get used to them and not overwhelm it with too many actives at once. Hope it helps.

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Yetunde September 11, 2017 - 3:37 am

Please i will appreciate your kind gestures in helping me. Makeup looks ugly on my face no matter how perfectly done. Thanks in advance ma’am.

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Gio September 17, 2017 - 9:20 am

Yetunde, hope the tips above help. But with or without makeup, with pigmentation or without it, you are still a beautiful woman. 🙂

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Kat March 14, 2018 - 4:11 pm

I have sun damage on my neck and it is very red. Is there any product I can use to minimize the damage and make my neck look better?

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Gio March 23, 2018 - 6:47 pm

Kat, what do you mean with very red? Is that a sign of irritation? If so, just cleanse and moisturize until it goes back to normal. Paula’s Choice Calm Redness Relief can also help as it’s especially formulated for this type of skin.

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Jolade August 26, 2019 - 2:24 pm

Hey!, thanks for for the post
Please I am an Albino with few dark sun spots, very dry scaly & rough skin with wrinkles & fine lines on my forehead & neck & Am just 26, Though am now on sunscreen daily but need a skin care routine that could probably reverse those sun damaged areas, thanks

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Claudia September 8, 2019 - 11:49 am

Hi Gio, thanks for another great blog. The price of the SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic is actually $166,00 instead of $16,00 (at least that is what it says on the sites you mention) so that’s a big difference ;-).

I’ve tried vitamine C for the first time a few weeks ago, I applied it PM, and altered it with retinoid (also for the first time). The result after 2 weeks was that I couldn’t stay 10 minutes in the sun anymore, not even with SPF 50, or in the shade, without getting burnt. So I will skip that in summertime. Instead I use The ordinary’s Pycnogenol 5 % as an alternative, do you have any other recommendations?

My husband has very dry, sensitive skin and his doctor has advised him to use vaseline/cetamacrogol cream for that. It’s a great moisturiser for a very good price and I was wondering if you think it is as good as all the moisturising serums out there or that the serums do something extra? Thanks!

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Gio September 15, 2019 - 7:40 pm

Claudia, oops I guess that was wishful thinking! 😳 I’ve fixed it, now, thank you.

Have you been using sunscreen during the day? Both ingredients make you more susceptible to sun damage, so reapply sunscreen during the day is a must. Pycnogenol is a great alternative, and so is Ferulic + Resveratrol from The Ordinary.

It’s a good cream and basic cream for sensitive skin, so definitely make him use it.

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