Lentigo, or lentigines in the plural, is the medical term for a skin condition commonly known as liver spots. These are flat spots on your skin darker than your usual skin tone. They’re not itchy, painful, or dangerous.
Although these spots can resemble certain types of skin cancer, lentigo is noncancerous.
Lentigo spots don’t need to be treated, but cosmetic treatments are available if you want to remove them.
In this article, we explore what lentigo spots look like (and how to tell them apart from skin cancer), as well as causes, risk factors, and what you can do to lessen their appearance.
As you get older, you might notice spots on your skin that are darker than your natural skin color. These spots are especially common on sun-exposed areas like your face and the backs of your hands.
Multiple spots are called lentigines. The condition got its name because the spots can resemble lentils in color. They’re also called liver spots or age spots.
A lentigo can grow very slowly over many years, or it can appear suddenly. They may have rounded or uneven edges. Lentigines can appear in different areas of your body, depending on their cause. Some types of lentigo can disappear on their own over time, but most don’t go away. Other types can only be removed with treatment.
Although lentigo spots are often caused by sun damage to your skin, they’re not cancerous or harmful and don’t require treatment. Some people choose to have lentigines removed because they dislike how they look on their skin. This is a cosmetic choice and not a medical choice.
Lentigo doesn’t cause any symptoms other than the spots themselves. They’re not itchy or painful. They won’t cause irritation on your skin.
How to identify lentigo
Lentigo can look like other dangerous skin conditions. This includes melanoma, basal cell carcinoma, and other skin cancers. We’ve included a gallery below to highlight the difference between lentigo and skin cancer. It may help to know that as a rule, lentigo spots are flat and evenly colored.
Skin cancer tends to produce spots that are raised, painful, itchy, grow rapidly, have uneven borders, and have multiple colors. If you have a spot or mole with any of those characteristics, it’s always best to see a doctor as soon as possible.
This image gallery shows what lentigo looks like, compared to freckles and basal cell carcinoma (a type of skin cancer).
Lentigo is primarily caused by sun exposure. The sun’s UV radiation causes skin cells called melanocytes to produce more pigmentation in your skin. This is why people tan, burn, or freckle after spending time in the sun.
Over the years, damage from UV radiation can cause pigmentation deposits in your skin. These deposits can build up and form lentigo.
Who gets lentigo?
Anyone can get lentigo. Lentigo is primarily caused by sun damage, and that means that anyone of any age, gender, or race who spends time in the sun is at risk. But like many other sun damage-related skin conditions, some people are at a higher risk. Risk factors include:
- having fair skin
- having a lot of sun exposure, or sunburns
- indoor tanning
- phototherapy or radiation therapy
In other cases, an inherited syndrome can cause lentigines. These conditions are rare and are generally present at birth or from early childhood. It’s important to note that lentigines are a symptom of these conditions. Developing lentigines can’t lead to developing one of these conditions.
- Bannayan-Riley-Ruvalcaba syndrome: This condition causes a larger-than-normal head, noncancerous tumors, and dark spots on the genitals.
- Cowden syndrome: This disorder causes many noncancerous growths called hamartomas to form on the body.
- Noonan syndrome: This condition causes lentigines to form on many different parts of the body.
- Peutz-Jeghers syndrome: This condition causes noncancerous growths to form in the stomach and intestines. People with this condition have a higher risk of developing cancer in their lifetimes. Children with Peutz-Jeghers often get small dark spots on their faces, as well as spots on their lips, hands, feet, genitals and the inside of the mouth. It’s common that these spots will fade with age.
- Xeroderma pigmentosum: This syndrome makes people extra sensitive to UV rays from sunlight. Anyone with this syndrome will also have a greatly increased risk of developing skin cancer.
There are a few different types of lentigines. These types are based on the cause and where they appear on your body:
- Lentigo simplex: The the most common type of lentigo. The spots appear on your trunk, arms, and legs. Lentigo simplex often starts at birth or during childhood. The spots can go away in time.
- Solar lentigo. This is caused by exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun. This type is common in people over age 40, but younger people can get it, too. It happens when UV radiation causes pigmented cells called melanocytes in the skin to multiply. Solar lentigo appears on sun-exposed areas of the body, like the face, hands, shoulders, and arms. The spots may grow over time. Solar lentigines are sometimes called liver spots or age spots.
- Ink spot lentigo. This appears after a sunburn in people who have lighter-pigmented skin. It appears as a dark spot that resembles back ink.
- PUVA lentigo. This starts after psoralen and ultraviolet A (PUVA) therapy, which is used to treat conditions like eczema and psoriasis.
- Tanning bed lentigo. This appears after exposure to an indoor tanning bed. It’s similiar to ink spot lentigo in appearance and behavior.
- Radiation lentigo. This happens in areas of the skin that have been exposed to radiation — for example, from cancer treatment.
Although lentigines are usually harmless, they’re worth getting checked out by a dermatologist to make sure you don’t have skin cancer.
Sometimes, lentigo and skin cancer are hard to tell apart. Diagnosis of lentigo will normally be done based on the appearance of the spot or spots. In most cases, your doctor will be able to tell if your spot is lentigo or skin cancer by examining your skin.
Occasionally, a visual examination won’t be enough, and you’ll need further testing to make sure the spots aren’t cancer. In this case, you might have a biopsy.
During this test, your doctor will numb the affected area of the skin and then remove a small piece of the spot. The tissue will go to a lab to be checked for cancer and other skin conditions.
Lentigines are not a cause of medical concern, so they don’t need to be removed. But some people may choose to lighten or remove lentigines for aesthetic reasons.
It’s a good idea to look into your options before you decide on removal methods. There are treatments that can remove or lessen the appearance of liver spots, but some of these treatments can also leave your skin red, irritated, and peeling. Most treatments also work gradually, and you might need to have multiple sessions before you see the results you want.
You can work with a dermatologist to remove lentigo. If you choose clinical treatments, it’s a good idea to ask how many treatments you’ll need and what kind of results to expect. Your dermatologist might recommend one of these treatments:
- medicines like bleaching creams containing hydroquinone or retinoids (tretinoin)
- chemical peels
- skin resurfacing
- laser or intense pulse light therapy to destroy melanocytes
- freezing (cryotherapy) to destroy melanocytes
You can also try at-home treatments. Options include:
Ordering products online
Remember to use caution ordering any products for lentigo online. You’ll likely see creams and other products for sale that promise dramatic results. Often, these products rarely live up to the hype. Sometimes these products are dangerous and can potentially damage your skin.
It’s always a good idea to talk with a doctor or dermatologist before you use any cream or lotion.
To prevent lentigo, try to avoid sun exposure, especially during the peak sun hours between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. When you do go outside in the sun, always wear sunscreen with UVA/UVB protection. It’s best if you choose a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 and reapply it every 2 hours.
It’s also a great idea to wear sun-protective clothing and a wide-brimmed hat.
Lentigo spots (liver spots) are not cancer and are not dangerous.
You can choose to have them removed for cosmetic reasons, but they’re not harmful. It’s safest to have a doctor look at your spot if you’re not sure if it’s a lentigo or another skin condition. They can make sure your spot is lentigo and not skin cancer.
In most cases, lentigo is caused by repeated sun exposure. You can prevent lentigo by taking steps to keep your skin safe from safe UV rays, like always wearing sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 and wearing sun-protective clothing.