Age Spots

Written by Rose Kivi and Elizabeth Boskey, PhD | Published on July 16, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

What are Age Spots?

Age spots are flat, brown, gray, or black spots on the skin. They usually occur on areas that have been exposed to the sun. Age spots are also called liver spots, senile lentigines, solar lentigines, or sun spots,

What Causes Age Spots?

Age spots are caused by an excess production of melanin. Despite the name, doctors don’t always know why age spots develop. They may be caused by skin aging, sun exposure, or other forms of ultraviolet light exposure, such as tanning beds. You are most likely to develop age spots on the areas of your skin that receive the most sun exposure, including:

  • your face
  • the back of your hands
  • your shoulders
  • your forearms

Who Is at Risk for Age Spots?

People of any age, sex, or race can develop age spots. However, age spots are more common in people with certain risk factors. These include:

  • being older than 40 years old
  • having fair skin
  • having a history of frequent sun exposure
  • having a history of frequent tanning bed use

What are the Symptoms of Age Spots?

Age spots:

  • range from light brown to black in color
  • have the same texture as the rest of your skin
  • are painless
  • are usually on sun-exposed areas of the skin

How are Age Spots Diagnosed?

Your doctor will usually diagnose age spots by looking at your skin.

If your doctor is worried that a dark area is not an age spot, he may perform a biopsy. A small piece of skin will be removed and checked for cancer or other abnormalities.

How are Age Spots Treated?

Age spots are not dangerous and do cause any health problems. Treatment is not necessary. However, some people want to remove age spots, because they do not like the way they look. Age spot treatments include:

Prescription Medications

Your doctor may prescribe bleaching creams to fade the age spots gradually., These usually contain hydroquinone, with or without retinoids such as tretinoin, Bleaching creams usually take several months to fade age spots. You will need to wear sunscreen at all times during treatment. Bleaching and tretinoin creams make your skin more sensitive to UV damage.

Medical Procedures

There are several medical procedures that can treat age spots. Each medical procedure carries a risk of side effects. Ask to your dermatologist or plastic surgeon about which treatment is the most appropriate for your skin. Medical procedures for age spots include:

  • laser treatment to destroy the cells that produce melanin
  • chemical peels to burn the outer layer of your skin, allowing new skin to grow in its place
  • dermabrasion, which sands off the outer layers of the skin so new skin can grow in its place
  • cryosurgery, which freezes age spots with liquid nitrogen

Always wear sunscreen after treatment to protect your healing skin from UV damage.

Home Treatments

There are many over-the-counter creams available that are marketed for removing age spots. These creams are not as strong as prescription creams. They may or may not effectively remove your excess skin pigmentation. If you want to use an over-the-counter cream, choose one that contains hydroquionone, deoxyarbutin, glycolic acid, alpha hydroxy acid, or kojic acid.

Cosmetics do not remove age spots. Instead, they cover them when applied. Ask your dermatologist, plastic surgeon, or makeup counter salesperson to recommend brands that effectively conceal age spots.

Prognosis of Age Spots

Age spots are changes to the skin that are harmless and do not cause pain. On rare occasions, age spots can make skin cancer more difficult to diagnose. The appearance of age spots can cause emotional distress to some people. They can often be removed or reduced with treatment.

Preventing Age Spots

Age spots cannot always be prevented. However, you can reduce your chances of getting them by doing the following:

  • Avoid the sun between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. when the sun’s rays are most intense.
  • Wear a sunscreen every day. It should have a sun protection factor (SPF) rating of at least 15 and contain both UVA and UVB protection.
  • Apply sunscreen at least 30 minutes before sun exposure. Reapply every two hours, more often if swimming or perspiring.
  • Wear protective clothing such as hats, pants, and long-sleeved shirts. These help protect your skin from UV rays. For the best protection, wear UV-blocking clothes with an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) of at least 40 or 50.
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