Those pesky flat brown, gray or black spots on your skin, otherwise known as “age”, “sun” or “liver” spots can sneak up on us - seeming to appear out of nowhere! Doctors sometimes call them “solar lentigines”, and in reality, they’ve been building up for some time, while you were enjoying the sun.
As it turns out, “age” spots aren’t about aging; they are the product of excess melanin (or skin pigment), usually caused by sun damage. Depending upon your skin type and how much sun exposure you have had, they can show up as early as your 20’s and 30’s! But, they tend to appear at 40 years plus because it takes extended exposure for the spots to develop.
Hyperpigmentation is the official condition associated with dark spots; where patches or spots of skin become darker than the surrounding normal skin. Hyperpigmentation can affect people of any skin type or race. Larger patches of darker skin are usually associated with “melasma”, a condition where patches of skin change color due to hormonal changes often from pregnancy or sometimes from taking oral contraceptives. Typical dark spots are usually associated with sun exposure (even exposure to artificial light from things like tanning beds); although there is a new study that shows air pollution may also cause them.
Dark spots vary in size and tend to show up on your face, shoulders, décolleté and hands (areas most exposed to sun). True age spots are uniform in color and well defined; usually, these types of dark spots are not harmful and do not need treatment. However, if you have a dark spot that is raised or changes in size or shape, you should go to your dermatologist and have it checked out.
Preventing Dark Spots
Just like all aging of the skin, the biggest way to prevent dark spots is to limit sun exposure by:
- Wearing sunscreen of 30 SPF or higher (don’t forget your hands! - see our post on 5 Tips for Beautiful Hands)
- Covering areas with clothing during long sun exposure times
- Wearing a hat to shade your face and neck
Getting Rid of Dark Spots
If you already have spots that you’d like to try to get rid of, typical methods include:
Over the Counter Creams
These products work to lighten the appearance of dark spots and even skin tone without going to see the dermatologist. Look for one with natural ingredients such as soy or licorice, kojic acid (derived from mushrooms) retinol (vitamin A) or formulas that combine vitamin C or E or alpha hydroxy acid. Be careful with hydroquinone, an ingredient often used in tone repair and dark spot correcting products, many studies link it to various skin conditions.
Dermatologist Office Treatments
If you have a lot of hyperpigmentation or want a stronger or more immediate solution, head to your doctor. Options include prescription creams, chemical spot or laser treatments and light therapy.