Age spots: What you need to know

Skin Care

by Baylor Scott & White Health

Aug 7, 2021

Are you only halfway through your 30s and already noticing the same small darkened skin spots you remember seeing on your grandmother growing up?

Say hello to age spots, also known as sunspots, liver spots and solar lentigines.

What are age spots?

Age spots are common tan, brown or black spots on the skin. While they can appear anywhere, they usually show up on sun-exposed areas like the face, upper chest, back, arms and hands.

These sharply defined flat patches usually happen due to overactive pigment cells. Ultraviolet (UV) light speeds up the production of melanin, a natural pigment that gives skin its color.

Age spots are most common in adults over 40 and younger people who spend a lot of time in the sun.  Those at greatest risk for developing age spots include people with fair skin, outdoor occupations, or a history of tanning, radiation or light therapy.

What are the symptoms of age spots?

Age spots look like oval or round flat brown, tan or black splotches on the skin. They are usually smooth to the touch and uniform in color. They vary in size from a few millimeters to two centimeters. Some patients have just a few, while others may have hundreds on their skin.

Why are they called liver spots?

They may be called liver spots because they were once thought to be a sign of a malfunctioning liver, but we now know that is not the case.

Do age spots run in families?

Your genetic makeup, including your skin color, does influence your ability to develop age spots. But remember, like so many other skin disorders, a combination of genes and the environment contribute.

Do they require treatment?

Sunspots don’t require treatment. If you don’t like the way they look, many options are available to lighten or remove them.

Treatment options include skin-lightening creams, freezing with liquid nitrogen, laser therapy, dermabrasion or chemical peels. Many of these are office-based treatments and often require more than one treatment session to see a significant improvement.

Each therapy has its own pros and cons that you can review with your dermatologist. The associated costs should also be discussed, as insurance companies usually consider sun spots cosmetic problems that are not covered.

The best treatment, however, is often preventative. Opt for wide-brimmed hats, clothing covering your arms and legs, and sunscreen to help prevent age spots, particularly during the peak sunlight hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

What else do I need to know about age spots?

Though you may not like how they look, sunspots are not cancerous and won’t hurt you. Still, it’s always a good idea to ask a dermatologist to evaluate if you’re unsure.

An annual visit to the dermatologist is a great way to keep your skin healthy and uncover early signs of a more serious condition. Other skin entities that look like age spots range from simple moles to melanoma, a serious form of skin cancer that can be deadly.

If you have a new spot, get it checked out, particularly if it:

  • Grows
  • Changes color
  • Has irregular borders
  • Has multiple colors
  • Begins to itch or bleed

Performing monthly self-exams and regular skin exams by your dermatologist can help catch any suspicious spot before it becomes a problem.

Your dermatologist may ask about your sun exposure and family or personal skin cancer history and then conduct a visual exam. Though rare, your dermatologist may perform a skin biopsy.

Need a spot check? Find a dermatologist near you.

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