What are age spots?
Age spots are flat brown, gray, or black spots on the skin. They usually occur on sun-exposed areas. Age spots are also called liver spots, senile lentigo, solar lentigines, or sun spots.
Age spots are the result of an excess production of melanin, or skin pigment. Doctors don’t always know why age spots develop. Skin aging, sun exposure, or other forms of ultraviolet (UV) light exposure, such as tanning beds, are all possible causes. You’re 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 upper back
- your forearms
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
Age spots range from light brown to black in color. The spots have the same texture as the rest of your skin, and usually appear on sun-exposed areas. They do not cause any pain.
Your healthcare provider will usually diagnose age spots by looking at your skin.
If they’re worried that a dark area isn’t an age spot, they may perform a biopsy. They will remove a small piece of skin and check it for cancer or other abnormalities.
Age spots aren’t dangerous and don’t cause any health problems. Treatment isn’t necessary, but some people want to remove age spots because of their appearance.
Your healthcare provider 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.
Bleaching and tretinoin creams make your skin more sensitive to UV damage. You will need to wear sunscreen at all times during treatment and continue to wear sunscreen, even on cloudy days, after fading the spots.
There are several medical procedures that can remove or reduce age spots. Each medical procedure carries a risk of side effects and complications. Ask your dermatologist, plastic surgeon, or skin care professional about which treatment is the most appropriate for your skin.
Medical procedures for age spots include:
- intense pulsed light treatment, which emits a range of light waves that passes through the skin and targets melanin to destroy or breakup the spots
- chemical peels, which remove the outer layer of your skin so new skin can grow in its place
- dermabrasion, which smooths off the outer layers of the skin so new skin can grow in its place
- cryosurgery, which freezes individual age spots with liquid nitrogen
Always wear sunscreen after treatment to protect your healing skin from UV damage and to prevent the reoccurrence of the spots.
There are many over-the-counter creams available that are marketed for removing age spots. However, these creams aren’t 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 hydroquinone, deoxyarbutin, glycolic acid, alpha hydroxy acid, or kojic acid.
Cosmetics don’t remove age spots. Instead, they cover them. Ask your dermatologist, plastic surgeon, or makeup counter salesperson to recommend brands that effectively conceal age spots.
While you can’t always prevent age spots, there are several ways you can reduce your chances of developing them:
- Avoid the sun between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., when the sun’s rays are most intense.
- Wear sunscreen every day. It should have a sun protection factor (SPF) rating of at least 30 and contain both UVA and UVB protection.
- Apply sunscreen at least 30 minutes before sun exposure. Reapply every two hours, and 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.
Age spots are harmless changes to the skin and don’t cause pain. On rare occasions, age spots can make skin cancer more difficult to diagnose. The appearance of age spots can cause emotional distress for some people. You can often remove or reduce them with treatment. Speak with your healthcare provider or a dermatologist about the best treatment options for you.