Have you ever wondered what the difference is between age spots, sunspots, or liver spots? Essentially, they are the same spots by a different name. Also referred to as solar lentigines, these flat areas of discoloration can vary from light to dark brown and even grayish, and they become increasingly common after the age of 40. Age spots most often crop up on the face, hands, arms, chest, and shoulders, as these are areas commonly exposed to the sun.
What Causes Age Spots?
For the most part, age spots are caused by long-term exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays, such as those produced by the sun. Age spots, therefore, can be exacerbated by the use of tanning beds. Beyond that, age spots simply occur in skin over time, as a part of the natural aging process. People with fair skin experience them more often than those with darker skin.
How Do Age Spots Form?
Melanin is the pigment in the skin’s outer layer (the epidermis) that gives it its color. As the skin is exposed to UV rays, the upper layers become darker, or tanned, protecting the deeper layers from damage caused by UV ray exposure. Over time, the melanin can form in small clusters that give more of a patchy appearance than an even, overall tan. These small patches do not disappear over time like a tan, and, instead, take on a spotty appearance.
Are Age Spots Dangerous?
Skin spots in and of themselves are not dangerous. What can cause concern, however, is when a pre-cancerous or cancerous spot is mistaken for a harmless skin spot and left untreated. If a spot is new or causing you concern, it is best to be safe and have it checked by a dermatologist. If your physician is concerned, he or she will biopsy it. In general, if a spot has an asymmetrical shape or irregular border, or if it is multicolored or changing, it should be checked.
What Are the Best Skin Care Strategies to Treat Age Spots?
The best treatment for skin spots is prevention. Wearing sunscreen and/or protective clothing and avoiding peak sun (generally 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily) can help to slow the development of age spots.
If you are bothered by the age spots you already have, however, there are treatments. Bleaching creams can be prescribed that will fade age spots over the course of several months. If you are following a bleaching regimen, it is imperative to use sunscreen at all times along with the treatment. More aggressive treatments are also available. Spots can be removed through cryosurgery (freezing) or laser application, or by removing the top layer of skin through chemical peel or dermabrasion (sanding)—the latter two of which expose the new skin layer underneath.