What are age spots?
Age spots are also known as liver spots, sun spots or solar lentigines (lentigo for only one). They are flat marks that develop on the skin. They appear in different shades of brown, tan, or black. Age spots are harmless, but it is important to see your doctor to confirm that they are not cancerous moles.
Age spots usually develop later in life on areas of the body that have had a lot of sun exposure, such as:
- Face and neck
- Back of the hands
- Upper back
- Tops of the feet
How common are age spots?
Age spots are extremely common, especially in people with lighter skin who are over the age of 50.
Who is affected by age spots?
Age spots can affect anyone who has had prolonged sun exposure. While they usually happen to older people, age spots can appear on children and young adults if they have spent a lot of time in the sun or in a tanning bed or even after a single significant sunburn. Women are slightly more likely to develop age spots than men, though both men and women can be affected.
Age spots are more likely to develop on people over age 50 who have:
- Spent a lot of time in the sun or tanning beds
- Fair skin
- Family history of age spots
Symptoms and Causes
How do people get age spots?
Prolonged sun exposure causes age spots to develop. UV light from the sun speeds up the skin’s production of melanin (the skin’s natural pigment). When more melanin forms in a particular area, the skin has more pigment and becomes darker. This is known as hyperpigmentation.
What are the symptoms of age spots?
So-called liver spots can develop over time or appear suddenly. These age spots are not painful. Symptoms include:
- Brown, tan, or black patches of skin that may get darker after spending time in the sun
- Discolored areas of different sizes, from the size of a tiny freckle up to an inch in diameter
- Flat patches that appear on their own or clustered in a group
- Dark spots on the skin with sharply defined edges or borders
Diagnosis and Tests
How are age spots diagnosed?
A dermatologist can usually identify an age spot by looking at its color, size, and shape. Your doctor will examine your skin and feel for any raised areas. If the spot is raised rather than flat, it may be another type of benign growth called seborrheic keratosis.
Your doctor may decide to test a sample of the age spot by taking a skin biopsy. A skin biopsy takes a few minutes and can be done right in your doctor’s office. Using a local anesthetic, your doctor will remove a small piece of the age spot and send it away to a lab for testing.
How do I know if I have age spots?
If you have dark spots on your face or other parts of your body that have been exposed to the sun, they may be age spots. You should see your doctor to confirm that they are not cancerous lesions, especially if you are older or you have a history of sun exposure or sunburn.
Management and Treatment
What are the treatments for age spots?
Though age spots do not require treatment, some people choose to treat them for cosmetic purposes. Many of these treatments are effective at fading the spots or making them disappear. Options include:
- Topical creams: Skin-lightening creams (such as hydroquinone) and tretinoin (retinoic acid) can be applied to the age spot daily and are available with and without a prescription. Used together, they gradually lighten the age spot over a few months. Make sure that you are not using a product that contains mercury.
- Skin resurfacing: A dermatologist uses a laser (laser resurfacing) or a chemical solution (chemical peel) to remove the upper layers of the skin. About a week after treatment, the skin peels off, revealing skin that has a more even tone and fewer wrinkles.
- Cryosurgery: Using liquid nitrogen, a dermatologist freezes the age spot. This treatment causes the skin to peel away, and the age spot fades.
- Dermabrasion: A dermatologist uses an instrument to sand off and smooth away the age spot. New skin grows in about a week.
What are the side effects of the treatments for age spots?
Sensitivity to the sun is the most common side effect for all of the treatments for age spots. After undergoing any procedure to remove age spots, avoid sun exposure while the new layer of skin grows. It is essential to wear sunscreen while using topical creams because the skin will be more sensitive to the sun.
In addition to sensitivity to the sun, specific side effects for each treatment are as follows.
- Topical creams: Common side effects from skin lightening creams and tretinoin include:
- Burning and stinging
- Dry skin
- Laser resurfacing: Skin will peel for 5-7 days after treatment. Side effects include:
- Pain and itching
- Temporary darkening or discoloration of the age spot
- Chemical peel: Blisters will form and crust over, and then the skin peels and flakes off for 3-7 days. Side effects from chemical peels include:
- Pain in the treated area
- Changes in skin color
- Cold sores on and around the lips
- Cryosurgery: Side effects of this procedure include:
- Pain, redness, and crusting or a blister/blood blister where the age spot was frozen
- Swelling that lasts 3-4 days
- Dermabrasion: Side effects vary depending on how much skin the doctor removes. They include:
- Flaky skin for 3-5 days after treatment
- Pain in the treated area
- Scarring and loss of skin pigmentation
What are the complications associated with age spots?
Age spots are not harmful, but you should visit your dermatologist, who can examine them and monitor your skin for any changes.
Your doctor will check for a lentigo maligna, which looks like an age spot but is actually a warning sign for melanoma (skin cancer). A lentigo maligna can grow in an age spot you already have. It is important to see your dermatologist regularly to monitor age spots.
What can I do to help relieve symptoms of age spots?
Age spots get darker when they are exposed to the sun or UV light from a tanning bed. By wearing a hat, protective clothing, and a broad-spectrum sunscreen, you may be able to prevent age spots from getting darker.
How can I prevent age spots?
To prevent age spots from developing, you can:
- Wear a sunscreen with SPF of 30 or higher every day. The sunscreen should be broad spectrum, meaning it protects against UVA and UVB rays.
- Cover up with a hat and clothing whenever you are outside.
- Stay out of the sun when it is the strongest — between 10:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m.
- Avoid tanning beds.
Outlook / Prognosis
What is the prognosis (outlook) for people who have age spots?
Age spots are not harmful, but they can be unsightly. Most people with age spots do not choose to have them treated. If age spots are unusually large, dark, or noticeable, they can be lightened or removed.
When should I call my doctor about age spots?
While age spots are not skin cancer, it’s important to have a doctor check your skin to make sure your age spots aren’t dangerous. You should visit your doctor if you notice new spots or spots that:
- Are very dark or have red or bluish spots or specks in them or are multicolored
- Change shape or appearance over time
- Have an irregular border
- Bleed, itch or feel irritated
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