How to Treat Existing Age Spots & Stop New Ones From Forming
What Are Age Spots?
Age spots, also known as liver spots or sun spots, are lentigines; darkly pigmented spots that result from years of accumulated sun exposure. Age spots are flat and can be round, oval or jagged in shape and are brown, gray, or sometimes black. The term liver spot is probably due to the fact that they are often the brownish shade of liver, but they have nothing to do with liver disease.
Symptoms and Appearance of Age Spots
Age spots typically appear on the areas of the skin most exposed to the sun over the years, such as the face, backs of hands, shoulders, upper back, arms and the tops of feet. They are more common in older adults, starting from middle-aged and on, but might also appear in younger adults, particularly if they have a history of excess sun exposure or exposure from tanning beds. If exposed to the sun, melanin is produced in higher concentrations. The spots vary in size from small and freckle-like to a little larger and sometimes clump together making them more noticeable.
What Causes Age Spots
In addition to being caused by photo-aging, the natural process of aging can contribute to the extra production of melanin, which is why lentigines are also referred to as age spots. Genetics can have a role in ones’ susceptibility to developing age spots. Those with light or paler skin and Asians are more likely to develop age spots.
Age Spot Prevention
The best approach to prevent age spots from forming is to avoid frequent and prolonged sun exposure. Use sunscreen and wear protective clothing.
Treatment of Age Spots
Age spots can either be faded or lightened with skin bleaching agents, or they can be removed.
Skin lighteners – Prescription bleaching creams such as hydroquinone or hydroquinone in conjunction with retinoids (tretinoin) or a mild steroid can be used to gradually fade spots over several months. Treatment to lighten age spots needs to penetrate the base of the epidermis where the age spot is located.
Drawbacks: These treatments can cause temporary itchiness, redness, dryness and sometimes a burning sensation of the skin. An SPF of 30 or even higher needs to be used on the treated skin to prevent further skin damage and hyperpigmentation.
Laser therapy – Laser therapy is used to destroy the melanocytes (melanin-producing cells) without damaging the skin surface. After treatment, the spots gradually fade over several weeks or months.
Drawbacks: This is not a good option for the skin of color because it can result in skin discolorations.
Cryotherapy – A freezing agent such as liquid nitrogen is applied to age spots to destroy the extra pigment. As the area heals, the skin appears lighter. This is used on single or small groups of age spots.
Drawbacks: This can irritate the skin, and there is the risk of scarring and discoloration.
Dermabrasion – In dermabrasion, a rotating brush is used to sand down the surface layer of the skin. As the top layer of skin is removed, a new layer of skin grows in its place.
Drawbacks: There can be temporary redness and scab formation, making it a poor choice for darker skin tones.
Chemical peels – An acid peel using salicylic, glycolic or lactic acid is applied to age spots to burn the outer layer of skin. As the skin peels, new skin forms. Several treatments are usually needed.
Drawbacks: It causes temporary irritation, and for the skin of color there is the risk of discoloration.
When to Consult a Doctor
Age spots are harmless and also don’t need medical care, but they can sometimes resemble cancerous growths. Have age spots evaluated by a doctor or dermatologist if there is a change in appearance or the spot rapidly increases in size, has an unusual combination of colors (age spots are uniform in color), or are itchy, red, tender or bleeding because it can be a sign of melanoma. A medical professional will take a biopsy of the skin for analysis.