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 they 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

Sunspots are one type of hyperpigmentation that is caused by ultraviolet (UV) exposure. They are usually:

  • Oval in shape
  • Flat
  • Tan to brown or black in color
  • The size of a freckle to about one-half inch

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

Sunspots typically turn up 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 salon nail polish lamps that use UV light. Although the exact reasons why some people are more likely to develop sunspots is unknown, genetics may play a role.

Lifetime UV light exposure can result in sunspots in middle age and beyond. However, some younger people who spend time tanning may get them before middle age.

People with light hair and eyes, individuals who spend long periods of time in the sun, and those who do not wear sunscreen or protective clothing are more susceptible to sunspots.

Having a history of sunburns, especially severe ones, also increases your likelihood of developing sunspots.

Sunspots usually are harmless, but sometimes they can become cancerous. Some medications, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), antimalarials, and tetracyclines, 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 need a biopsy.

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

  • Increase in size
  • Turning 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, you can diminish the spots' 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 may be temporary. Look for ingredients such as: 

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

Professional Treatments

A dermatologist can perform professional treatments to lighten sunspots. Risks come with treatments and may not be appropriate for those with sensitive skin. It would be best to discuss your options, which include the following, with your doctor: 

  • Microdermabrasion: Physically erodes the top layer of skin cells
  • Chemical peels: Salicylic acid and glycolic acid treatments that remove the top layer of 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 damaging the skin’s surface
  • Cryosurgery: Uses liquid nitrogen to freeze sunspots, causing the darkened skin to peel away

Prevention

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

  • Using sunscreen with a minimum sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 every day, applying 15 minutes before sun exposure and reapplying every two hours
  • Wearing protective clothing, such as a long-sleeved shirt and pants or clothing with an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) of 40 or 50
  • Wearing a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses
  • Keeping to shady areas on sunny days

A Word From Verywell

Although the dark spots that develop on your skin may be concerning, they are often harmless. Be sure to talk to your doctor, though, if you notice any changes in the spots. If you do not like the appearance of sunspots, 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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