Also called solar lentigines or liver spots, age spots are flat, gray, brown or black spots that commonly appear on a person’s face, hands, shoulders, and arms; these areas have the most exposure to the sun’s harmful rays. Age spots are more commonly seen in adults who are older than 40 years of age, although they can affect younger people as well.
Age spots are usually harmless and will not need any kind of treatment, but they can look like cancerous growths. The age spots can be lightened with skin-bleaching products or removed for cosmetic purposes, to improve the appearance of the patient’s skin. However, prevention is the key to avoid having age spots problems, and this can be done successfully by avoiding the sun and using sunscreen.
Age Spots Symptoms
Age spots are flat, oval areas that are characterised by increased pigmentation; these spots are usually brown, black, or gray in colour. Age spots occur on parts of the skin that have the most exposure to the sun, such as the face, backs of hands, upper back, tops of feet, and shoulders. These spots usually develop in people with fair complexions, but can also be seen even in individuals with darker skin.
Age spots range from freckle-size to more than a centimeter across and can group together, making them more prominent. Often, age spots are accompanied by other signs of sun damage to the skin, including:
- Rough and dry skin
- Deep wrinkles on the face
- Fine red veins on your nose, cheeks, or ears
- Skin that looks more translucent or thin
What Causes Age Spots?
The sun’s Ultraviolet (UV) rays help accelerate the production of melanin, which is the dark pigment in the epidermis that gives the skin its normal color. The extra melanin that is produced to protect the deeper layers of the skin is what produces the color of a tan. Age spots develop when the extra melanin becomes “clumped” in specific areas of the body, or when the melanin is produced in concentrations that are higher than the normal levels.
Age spots usually need years of sun exposure to occur, and they typically develop very slowly with the passage of time. Exposure to commercial tanning lamps and tanning beds can also result in the development of age spots, especially in those areas that are more exposed to the UV light.
The natural ageing process can also cause additional production of melanin on the skin, which can cause age spots to develop. A person’s genes play a key role in how susceptible he or she will be to the eventual development of age spots.
Age Spots Treatment Options
Laser therapy – Laser therapy effectively destroys the extra melanocytes that create the skin’s dark pigment without damaging the skin’s surface. Laser treatments for age spots are usually done over several sessions. The age spots are expected to fade over a few weeks or months after the laser therapy.
Medications – Age spots can gradually fade over several months with the help of prescription bleaching creams (hydroquinone) used alone, or with retinoids (tretinoin) and a mild steroid. Over-the-counter (nonprescription) fade creams containing kojic acid or glycolic acid may slightly improve the appearance of the age spots. It is highly recommended to use protection from the sun’s harmful rays (or to stay away from direct sun exposure) when using these medications.
Dermabrasion – Dermabrasion involves the sanding down or planing of the surface layer of the skin with a rapidly rotating brush. This procedure removes the surface of the skin, and encourages a new layer to grow to take its place.
Freezing (cryotherapy) – Cryotherapy involves the application of liquid nitrogen or another freezing agent to the age spots to destroy the extra pigment; when the area heals, the skin will appear lighter. Freezing is usually used on a single or small grouping of age spots. Though effective, this procedure poses a slight risk of permanent scarring or discoloration.
Chemical peel – Age spots can gradually be faded with the help of a light or medium chemical peel, but several treatments are necessary before visible results can be seen. A chemical peel involves the application of an acid to the age spots; the acid will burn the outer layer of your skin. As the skin peels, new skin (without the age spots) will form and take the place of the layer that has been burned by the acid.
When to Seek Medical Attention
Age spots are usually harmless and will not require medical attention – even if they look unattractive on your skin. However, your doctor should thoroughly check spots that are dark or have changed in appearance because these can be signs of melanoma -a serious form of skin cancer.
It is best to have any new skin changes evaluated by a doctor, especially if a spot or lesion:
- Has an irregular border
- Is darkly pigmented
- Has unusual colours
- Is rapidly increasing in size