Age spots, lentigines, sun spots, liver spots—no matter what you call them, we’re likely all on the same page when it comes to those dark splotches that tend to appear on our face, arms, and hands as we age. That increased pigmentation isn’t exactly a welcome addition to our skin’s appearance.
Along with wrinkles and rough skin texture, age spots are a major symptom of sun damage and generally appear on the parts of your skin that get the most UVA/UVB exposure. Ranging in size from small freckles to circles spanning one centimeter in diameter, they can be brown, black, or even grey.
While not dangerous, age spots certainly aren’t the most attractive things out there. With the right care, it’s possible to avoid getting age spots in the first place…but let’s be honest, we’re not all that lucky. If they’ve already made an appearance on your skin, not all hope is lost—there are a number of treatments out there that can help decrease their appearance.
Age Spots vs. Moles
As we mentioned already, age spots are harmless blotches caused by too much sun exposure. While they’re related to moles—which are also caused by the sun—they aren’t the same thing; moles are raised spots ranging in color from white, to brown, to black, and can appear anywhere on the skin.
Unlike those harmless age spots, some moles can be cancerous and a sign of malignant melanoma. Since early detection of skin cancer is so important, you should have your dermatologist examine any new age spots or moles as soon as possible (especially if you notice them changing color, shape, or size).
How Age Spots Form
Sun exposure, age, skin color, and genetics all contribute to how you’re affected by age spots. When your skin absorbs too much sun, it produces extra melanin—the pigment that gives skin its color and produces tans—to protect itself; in time, all this melanin can clump up and form those dreaded age spots.
Although the spots can form on people of any age, they tend to be most common in people over 40. Why? Older people have accumulated more sun exposure over the years, and some people simply just produce more melanin as they age.
How to Prevent Age Spots
The best way to prevent age spots occurring from sun damage is through sun avoidance and protection. Try to limit sun exposure between the hours of 10am and 4pm—when the sun’s rays are strongest—and wear long sleeves and pants for even greater protection.
Of course, when the temperatures soar, the thought of wearing all that clothing likely sounds like the last thing you’d ever want to do. On days like those, a sunscreen will provide your uncovered skin with the sun protection it needs. Apply broad-spectrum sunscreen 15 minutes before sun exposure to give it enough time to absorb, and choose one with SPF 15 or greater to help protect against both UVA rays (which cause burning) and UVB rays (which cause aging and skin damage).
How to Cure Age Spots
There’s good news! The appearance of age spots can be treated in a variety of ways. While some are on the more expensive end and require in-office visits, there are also several over-the-counter treatments available.
- Lasers. Laser treatments work by gradually destroying the extra melanin in age spots over the span of a few weeks or months. It often requires two or more sessions and can be expensive, but most people say the treatment is painless (although everyone has a different tolerance for pain).
- Medications. Prescription medicines like bleaching creams containing hydroquinone and retinoids can help reduce the appearance of age spots, showing results after several months of regular use.
- Freezing. Also known as crynotherapy, this treatment involves applying liquid nitrogen (or other freezing agents) to the age spots to destroy that extra pigmentation. The downside? There’s a risk of permanent scarring or discoloration.
- Dermabrasion. A process that requires sanding off a layer of skin to remove age spots, this is one of the most painful treatment options available. After dermabrasion, redness and scabs may appear before the skin heals to reveal a new, spot-free layer.
- Chemical peel. During a chemical peel, acid is applied to the skin to burn away the outer layers and reveal fresh skin without spots as those layers are peeled away. Several visits are required before the effects of these superficial chemical peels are noticed.
- Over-the-counter treatments. Lightening lotions are available at drug stores and online, and many contain lower concentrations of the ingredients found in prescription treatments. These typically show results after weeks or months of regular use, but keep in mind that prolonged use can cause skin irritation. Reach for lotions containing hydroquinone, deoxyarbutin, glycolic acid, or kojic acid as these tend to work best in reducing the appearance of age spots.
No visible age spots yet? Take a minute to consider yourself lucky, then focus on prevention (especially if other members of your family have them). Reducing sun exposure and wearing sunscreen are your best weapons against the visible signs of sun damage, although this is equally important even if you already have age spots since taking these steps can help you avoid getting more.