What are liver spots?
Liver spots are patches of darker skin. They vary in size from about a tenth of an inch (one-quarter centimeter) to half an inch (one centimeter) across. They often show up on skin areas that have sun exposure, such as your face, hands or arms.
Although they are called liver spots, these skin patches have nothing to do with your liver except for having a similar color, which may be tan to dark brown. Other names for liver spots include age spots, sun spots and solar lentigines (len-TIJ-a-neez).
Who can get liver spots on their skin?
Liver spots are more common in adults over 50. But anyone can get them. You're more likely to get liver spots if you:
- Have fair (light) skin.
- Have a history of severe sunburns.
- Spend a lot of time in the sun.
- Use tanning beds.
Symptoms and Causes
What causes liver spots on your skin?
Liver spots appear in areas where melanin has gathered or clumped. Melanin is the substance that gives your skin pigment.
When ultraviolet (UV) light hits your skin, it speeds up melanin production. Over time, this process may lead to sun spots. You may also develop liver spots after medical treatments such as radiation therapy.
What do liver spots look like?
Liver spots may:
- Appear on your face, hands, neck or arms.
- Be dark brown or tan.
- Group in one spot, similar to a patch of freckles.
- Look like flat, circular or oval patches.
- Range from the size of a freckle to about half an inch (13 millimeters) wide.
Liver spots don’t cause any uncomfortable physical symptoms such as pain or itching. The primary symptoms have to do with appearance.
Diagnosis and Tests
How are liver spots diagnosed?
Your healthcare provider can usually identify liver spots by looking at them. If there is any concern that a dark skin patch may be cancerous, your provider can perform a skin biopsy.
During a biopsy, your healthcare provider removes a small skin sample. Then your provider sends the skin sample to a lab for evaluation. By looking at your skin under a microscope, healthcare providers can identify or rule out skin cancer and conditions such as infections.
Management and Treatment
How are solar lentigines treated?
You usually don’t need treatment for solar lentigines. But you may want to lighten their appearance for cosmetic reasons.
Liver spot treatment might include:
- Topicals: You may use over-the-counter or prescription creams, lotions or gels to lighten the skin. Common options include hydroquinone (Eldoquin®, Lustra®, Melanex™), corticosteroids (Dermovate®) or retinoids (Retin-A®, Atralin™, Renova®).
- Chemical peels: This treatment uses a chemical solution to safely remove your outer skin layer. Your dermatologist may recommend chemical peels along with microdermabrasion or cryotherapy for maximum results.
- Cryotherapy: Your dermatologist freezes age spots to damage the melanin-producing cells. Cryotherapy works quickly, but it may be uncomfortable.
- Dermabrasion: Your dermatologist uses an exfoliating agent such as a device or scrub to smooth age spots away. Dermabrasion takes longer to see results, but it works. One study found that for 2 in 5 patients who had the treatment twice a week for 16 weeks, sun spots disappeared.
- Laser resurfacing: Lasers can destroy melanin-producing cells or safely remove your top layer of skin. Many people only need one or two laser therapy sessions to get rid of dark spots.
What skin lightening treatments should I avoid?
Some skin lightening products can come with serious side effects. If a skin lightening cream contains mercury, it could damage your kidneys or nerves.
Always ask your dermatologist for recommendations before using a new skin care product. When buying skin care products, look for ingredients that could indicate mercury, including:
- Hydrargyri oxydum rubrum.
- Ingredients that contain the words “mercury” or “mercuric.”
Are age spots dangerous?
True age spots don’t lead to dangerous symptoms. Because age spots can look similar to certain types of skin cancer, it’s important to see a dermatologist (doctor specializing in skin) for diagnosis. If you have age spots that darken or change, see a dermatologist right away.
How can I prevent liver spots on my skin?
The most effective way to prevent liver spots is to protect yourself from UV light and sun damage. You should:
- Apply broad-spectrum sunscreen of at least SPF 30 every day and reapply every two hours.
- Avoid the sun from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., when its rays are the most intense.
- Refrain from using tanning beds under any circumstances.
- Wear protective clothing such as a broad-brimmed hat, long sleeves or pants.
Outlook / Prognosis
Do age spots usually return after treatment?
Some people develop age spots again after treatment. You are more likely to get new age spots if you don’t protect your skin from UV light.
When should I see my healthcare provider?
Schedule an appointment with your healthcare provider if you have a liver spot that is:
- Changing in color, darkening or turning black.
- Developing an irregular border.
- Growing larger.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Liver spots are flat, dark patches of skin. They are not dangerous or uncomfortable. But you may want treatment for cosmetic reasons. Your dermatologist can recommend creams, lotions, gels or in-office procedures to lighten skin. Skin lightening treatments are effective, but it may take a few months to see results. You can lower the chances that age spots will return after treatment by protecting your skin from UV light.
- American Academy of Dermatology Association. Skin Lightener Containing Mercury Can Cause Serious Health Problems. (https://www.aad.org/public/cosmetic/age-spots-marks) Accessed 9/2/2021.
- American Osteopathic College of Dermatology. Lentigines. (https://www.aocd.org/page/Lentigines) Accessed 9/2/2021.
- DermNet NZ. Bleaching cream. (https://dermnetnz.org/topics/bleaching-agents/) Accessed 9/2/2021.
- Merck Manual (Consumer Version). Hyperpigmentation. (https://www.merckmanuals.com/home/skin-disorders/pigment-disorders/hyperpigmentation) Accessed 9/2/2021.
- National Health Service UK. Skin lightening. (https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/cosmetic-procedures/skin-lightening/) Accessed 9/2/2021.
- World Health Organization (WHO). Mercury and health. (https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/mercury-and-health) Accessed 9/2/2021.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 08/17/2021.