Sunspots: What Are They and Can You Get Rid of Them?
These marks are also known as “age” or “liver” spots.
I remember the skin of my youth: it was clear and blemish-free, despite the fact that my skincare routine consisted of haphazardly scrubbing my body with whatever soap I could find. But with age comes acne, freckles, and stubborn brown marks known as sunspots — also called age or liver spots. Sunspots appear on areas of the body that the sun’s ray’s often hit, like the face, hands, shoulders, and arms. They’re most common in fair-skinned adults over age 50, though younger people who spend enough time in the sunshine can get them, too.
To find out whether those marks on your skin are indeed sunspots, if they’re dangerous or simply part of the natural aging process, and whether you can get rid of them, we consulted three dermatologists. Read on for their expert insight into these pesky little areas of hyperpigmentation.
What are sunspots?
Sunspots (or age/liver spots) are small, flat, skin lesions darker in color than the rest of your skin, also known as solar lentigines. “They’re caused by ultraviolet (UV) light exposure, which then causes pigment-producing cells, or melanocytes, to multiply locally,” says Dr. Tiffany Libby, Board-Certified Dermatologist and Mohs Surgeon. “What’s seen is an increase of pigment in the skin cells.”
According to Dr. Rachel Westbay, Board-Certified Dermatologist at Marmur Medical, sunspots usually occur more frequently with age, but they are still a direct result of the sun’s penetrating rays. “[Since] they tend to present only after a cumulative amount of sun exposure has been acquired, they can, in some way, be considered to be related to age,” she explains.
Dr. Westbay confirms that the term “liver spots” came to be applied to these marks because they were once mistakenly thought to be a sign of a malfunctioning liver. “The term ‘liver spot’ is a complete misnomer, as they have absolutely nothing to do with the liver or its functional status,” she says. So don’t assume your spots have anything to do with liver health.
Are they different from freckles?
Like sunspots, freckles are most commonly located where your skin gets exposed to the sun — but they’re usually smaller than 2mm and can be red or brown, whereas sunspots are larger than 2mm and darker in color. Freckles typically appear in clusters (for example, you’ll get a constellation across the bridge of your nose), but age spots tend to present as a single spot, or in close proximity to one or two others. Freckles may also fade with age or seasonal changes, yet age spots will linger once you have them.
“While freckles have a relatively normal number of melanocytes and simply an increased amount of melanin pigment within them, lentigines (sunspots) have an increased number of melanocytes,” explains Dr. Westbay. “Furthermore, while freckles will increase in number and darkness with sunlight exposure and fade in the wintertime, lentigines stay stable in their color regardless of sunlight exposure and persist in the absence of ultraviolet stimulation.”
Are sunspots dangerous or a sign of skin cancer?
While our dermatologists agreed that sunspots themselves are not harmful, they should still be regularly checked. “Lentigines are not inherently precancerous or ‘dangerous,’ but I (and most derms) consider them to be an indirect marker of an increased risk of skin cancer, as their presence dictates a certain degree of cumulative sun exposure over one’s lifetime,” says Dr. Westbay.
“Some may mimic skin cancers like melanoma,” Dr. Libby adds. “Get them checked out by a dermatologist if there are changes in color, if it has irregular borders, is black, begins to bleed, or increases in size.”
What can you do to get rid of sunspots?
Though sunspots will fade somewhat over time, they likely won’t disappear completely because the skin has been permanently damaged. However, there are several treatments that can help diminish their appearance for cosmetic purposes. Available in-office procedures include cryotherapy (or liquid nitrogen), chemical peels, and laser treatments. To be more specific, Dr. Westbay clarifies that age spots “can be lasered off with devices like fractionated ablative and non-ablative resurfacing lasers, pigment targeting lasers like the PiQo laser or Q-switched Nd:YAG laser, as well as with light-based pigment targeting devices like IPL (Intense Pulsed Light).”
Read more about these professional treatments below, courtesy of Healthline.com:
- Laser resurfacing: During laser resurfacing, a wand-like device is used to deliver beams of light that remove sun damaged skin layer by layer. New skin is then able to grow in its place. Laser resurfacing on the face can take anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours depending on how many sunspots are being treated. Healing typically takes anywhere from 10 to 21 days.
- Intense pulse light (IPL): IPL uses pulses of light energy to target sunspots on the skin. It does this by heating and destroying the melanin, which removes the discolored spots. An IPL session usually takes less than 30 minutes and causes little to no pain. The number of sessions needed varies from person to person.
- Cryotherapy: Cryotherapy removes sunspots and other skin lesions by freezing them off with a liquid nitrogen solution. Nitrous oxide may be used (instead of liquid nitrogen) for the treatment of superficial dark spots, such as sunspots, because it’s not as aggressive and is less likely to cause blistering. Cryotherapy takes just a few minutes and is generally well-tolerated.
- Chemical peels: This procedure involves applying an acid solution to skin, which creates a controlled wound that eventually peels off, making way for new skin. Chemical peels can be painful and cause a burning sensation that lasts a few minutes, but this can be treated with cold compresses and over-the-counter pain medication.
Are there products for treating sunspots?
Topically, Dr. Libby recommends you use retinoids like Differin (adapalene 0.1%), though it may take months before you see results. “In-office procedures are the best definitive modalities to remove these lesions, and then maintenance with sunscreen and retinoids are helpful,” she adds.
Dr. Lily Takakob, Board-Certified Dermatologist and Founder of Derm to Door, suggests two must-have products for sunspots: Skinceuticals Discoloration Defense Serum, which contains tranexamic acid that inhibits the production of melanin, and Skinkure Vitamin C serum, which contains Arbutin, Emblica, and Bearberry to help brighten the skin. “As always, however, a UVA/UVB protectant sunscreen is the best prevention of sunspots,” she concludes.
For more sunspot prevention tips and information on related topics, check out these Woman’s World articles on getting rid of age spots, a serum that can help fade age spots, and six ways to make age spots on your hands less noticeable.
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