Sunspots on the Skin

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Sunspots are dark spots on the skin that are usually harmless. They are also known as age spots, hyperpigmentation, liver spots, or solar lentigines and most often appear in middle age, although they can occur at any time. 

Skin gets color from melanin, which is made by specific cells in the skin. When too much melanin is produced by these cells, your skin darkens. Sunspots are very common, especially in people more than 50 years old.

sun spots on hands of older woman

 Jeffrey Coolidge / Getty Images

Symptoms of Sunspots

  • Sunspots are one type of hyperpigmentation that is caused by UV exposure. They are usually:
  • Oval in shape
  • Flat
  • Range from tan to brown or black
  • Vary in size from that of a freckle to about ½ an inch

When several sunspots group together, it can appear as a larger spot.

They typically appear on areas of high sun exposure such as:

  • Face
  • Hands
  • Back
  • Chest
  • Shoulders
  • Arms

Causes


The most common cause for sunspots on the skin is lifetime sun exposure or artificial UV exposure from tanning beds or gel lacquer-curing nail salon lamps that use UV. Although the exact reasons why some people are more likely to develop sunspots is unknown, genetics may play a role.

The UV light exposure that occurs over your lifetime can result in sunspots later in life. However, some younger people who tan may see them before middle age.

Those with light hair and eyes, individuals who tan or do not wear sunscreen or protective clothing are more susceptible to sunspots.

Experiencing sunburns, especially severe ones, also increases your likelihood of developing sunspots.

Sunspots are most often harmless, but sometimes they can be cancerous. Some medications can also cause spots.

Diagnosis

Your doctor or dermatologist can likely diagnose sunspots through a routine exam.

If one or more of the spots looks suspicious, you may get a biopsy.

Sunspots do not require medical care normally, but if you notice any of the following changes in a spot’s appearance, be sure to see your doctor:

  • Increase in size
  • Turns black
  • Irregular border
  • Bleeding
  • Unusual color combination

Treatment

Sunspots that don’t look suspicious require no treatment and don’t cause any symptoms. If you don’t like the way they look, there are ways you can diminish their appearance at home or through professional treatments.

At-Home Treatments

There are products available for lightening sun spots at home. These products typically need several months of use to be effective, and results might be temporary. Look for those including ingredients such as: 

  • Glycolic acid
  • Hydroxy acid
  • Aloe vera
  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin E

Professional Treatments

A dermatologist can perform professional treatments to lighten sun spots. Risks come with treatments and may not be appropriate for those with sensitive skin. It would be best if you discussed your options with your doctor. 

  • Microdermabrasion: Physically erodes the surface skin cells.
  • Chemical peels: Salicylic acid and glycolic acid treatments that remove the top layer of the skin.
  • Laser treatment: Uses concentrated light energy to remove top layers of skin, essentially burning off the dark spots
  • Intense pulsed light (IPL) therapy: Targets melanin granules and melanin-producing cells to lighten the skin without damage to the skin’s surface.
  • Cryosurgery: Uses liquid nitrogen to freeze sunspots causing the darkened skin to peel away.

Prevention

You cannot prevent sunspots from past UV exposure from forming, but you can prevent future sun spots and old sunspots from getting darker after you’ve lightened them. Steps you can take include:

  • Use SPF with a minimum factor of 30 every day, 15 minutes before sun exposure, and reapply every two hours
  • Wear protective clothing such as a long-sleeved shirt and pants
  • Wear a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses
  • Consider clothing with ultraviolet protective factor (UPF) of 40 or 50
  • Try to keep to shady areas on sunny days

A Word From Verywell

Although developing dark spots on your skin may be frightening, they are often harmless. Be sure to talk to your doctor if you are concerned or notice any changes in the spots. If you do not like the appearance of sun spots, try at-home treatments or talk to a dermatologist about which options are best for you.

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Article Sources
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