Age spots — also called liver spots and solar lentigines — are flat tan, brown, or black spots. They vary in size and usually appear on the face, hands, shoulders, and arms — areas most exposed to the sun. Age spots are very common in adults older than age 50, but younger people can get them too, especially if they spend a lot of time in the sun.
Although age spots can look like cancerous growths, true age spots are harmless and don’t need treatment. For cosmetic reasons, age spots can be lightened with skin-bleaching products or removed. However, preventing age spots — by avoiding the sun and using sunscreen — may be the easiest way to maintain your skin’s youthful appearance.
Age Spot Characteristics
Age spots typically develop in people with a fair complexion, but they can be seen in those with darker skin. Age spots have the following characteristics:
- Are flat, oval areas of increased pigmentation
- Are usually tan, brown, or black
- Occur on skin that has had the most sun exposure over the years, such as the backs of hands, tops of feet, face, shoulders, and upper back
Age spots range from freckle-size to more than 1/2 inch (13 millimeters) across and can group together, making them more prominent.
When to See a Doctor
You may not like the way they look, but age spots are usually harmless and don’t require medical care. However, it’s best to have any new skin changes evaluated by a doctor, especially if a spot or lesion has the following characteristics:
- Is darkly pigmented
- Is rapidly increasing in size
- Has an irregular border
- Has an unusual combination of colors
- Is accompanied by itching, redness, tenderness, or bleeding
Causes of Age Spots
Age spots are caused primarily by years of exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun. The use of commercial tanning lamps and tanning beds can also contribute to the development of age spots.
The pigment in the upper layer of skin (epidermis) that gives your skin its normal color is called melanin. UV light accelerates the production of melanin, creating a tan that helps protect deeper layers of skin from UV rays. On areas of the skin that have years of frequent and prolonged sun exposure, age spots appear when melanin becomes “clumped” or is produced in particularly high concentrations.
Although anyone can develop age spots, you may be more likely to develop the condition if you have the following:
- Light-colored or fair skin
- History of frequent or intense sun exposure or sunburn
If you’re unhappy with the appearance of age spots, treatments are available to lighten or remove them. Since the pigment is located at the base of the epidermis — the topmost layer of skin — any treatments meant to lighten the age spots must penetrate this layer of skin.
Age Spot Treatments
- Medications – We use the prescription bleaching creams Epionce MelanoLyte Tx and MelanoLyte Pigment Perfecting Serum (which work in the deep layers of skin to inhibit excess melanin production) (which works on the surface to lighten and gradually fade the spots over several months). Use of a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30 is strongly recommended.
- Lasers and Intense Pulsed Light Therapy – Laser and intense pulsed light therapies destroy melanin-producing cells (melanocytes) without damaging the skin’s surface. Treatments with a laser or intense pulsed light typically require several sessions. After treatment, age spots fade gradually over several weeks or months. Laser therapy has few side effects, but it may result in slight discoloration of the skin. Sun protection is also necessary after laser or intense pulsed light therapy.
- Microdermabrasion – This procedure consists of sanding down (planing) the surface layer of your skin with a rapidly rotating brush. This procedure removes the skin surface, and a new layer of skin grows in its place. Temporary redness and scab formation can result from this treatment.
- Chemical Peels – A chemical peel involves applying an acid, which burns the outer layer of your skin, to the age spots. As your skin peels, new skin forms to take its place. Several treatments may be necessary before you notice any results. Sun protection is strongly advised following this treatment. Temporary irritation is likely, and there is a slight risk of discoloration.
Avoiding Age Spots
To avoid age spots, follow these tips for limiting your sun exposure:
- Avoid the sun between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Because the sun’s rays are most intense during this time, try to schedule outdoor activities for other times of the day.
- Use sunscreen. Apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen that provides protection from both UVA and UVB light 15 to 30 minutes before going outdoors. Use sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30. Apply sunscreen generously, and reapply every two hours — or more often if you’re swimming or perspiring.
- Cover up. For protection from the sun, wear a broad-brimmed hat, which provides more protection than a baseball cap or golf visor, and tightly woven clothing that covers your arms and legs. You might also consider wearing clothing designed to provide sun protection. An ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) of 40 to 50 provides the best protection.