table of contents
If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
Your skin is your largest and most visible organ, so most of us would agree that taking care of our skin correctly is extremely important. Every year, Americans spend over $43 billion on skincare doing just that. This includes spa treatments, topical creams, and Botox (Neill, 2012).
One of the most commonly treated cosmetic skin conditions is sunspots. These are permanent darkened brown spots that are harmless but can be lightened if you don’t like their appearance.
Here’s a look at what sunspots are, what causes them, and how you can treat and remove them.
What are sunspots?
Sunspots are flat, brown pigment changes on the skin that show up in response to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. UV radiation causes melanin to accumulate in the skin cells, leading to darkening of the skin (Scarcella, 2018).
The most common areas of your skin for this hyperpigmentation are your hands and face, but they can also appear on your back, chest, arms, feet, and shoulders (Scarcella, 2018).
Sunspots can go by many names. The following common and medical terms all refer to the light brown to black discoloration of various sizes that typically develop in chronically sun-exposed skin (Choi, 2017):
- Age spots
- Solar lentigines
- Lentigo senilis
- Liver spots
Sunspots are harmless. They aren’t skin cancer and can’t become skin cancer. However, the same chronic UV light exposure that can cause sunspots over time can also increase your risk of developing skin cancer in other areas of your skin (Choi, 2017).
If you have a spot on your skin that is growing, changing, itching, bleeding, or has irregular borders, you should see a healthcare provider. These aren’t typical signs of a sunspot and could be something more serious.
What causes sunspots?
Researchers don’t exactly know what causes sunspots. They do know that UV rays cause melanin to accumulate in the skin, but they don’t entirely understand how it works. They think that various types of growth factors, inflammation, and decreases in the removal of melanin are all involved (Choi, 2017).
Sunspots can happen to anyone, but they are more common in people with a fair skin tone or red hair and people over the age of 40. Frequent UV exposure, including tanning beds and a history of bad sunburns, are risk factors for developing sunspots.
Genetics may also play a role. If you have a family history of sunspots, you’re more likely to get them as well.
Can you prevent sunspots?
The only way to prevent the appearance of sunspots is to limit your exposure to ultraviolet light. This means that you should:
- Limit your exposure to the sun: Stay out of the sun’s rays as much as possible or wear a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, and other protective clothing, even if you’re only out for a short period.
- Wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen every day: Make a moisturizer or foundation with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 to 30 a part of your daily routine.
- Skip the tanning bed: Tanning beds damage your skin and accelerate the signs of aging.
How do you treat sunspots?
Actual sunspots don’t require any professional treatment. You can use treatments to fade or remove them if you want to, but leaving them won’t harm your health.
Hyperpigmentation: what is it, causes, and how to get rid of it
Treatment for sunspots is generally safe and effective, but there is always some risk. Always speak with a healthcare provider before using any skin treatments.
A chemical peel, also known as chemical exfoliation, is a procedure where an acidic substance is applied to the skin. This causes controlled destruction of the upper layers of your skin, promoting skin regeneration. Dermatologists use chemical peels to treat skin conditions such as acne, sun damage, and scars by themselves or in combination with other treatments (Samargandy, 2021).
The most common chemicals used for peels are alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) derived from fruits. Some common AHAs used are glycolic acid from sugar cane, lactic acid from milk, and citric acid from citrus fruits (Samargandy, 2021).
Microdermabrasion is a minimally invasive skin resurfacing procedure that can treat uneven texture, sunspots, melasma, or acne scars. It is one of the most common nonsurgical cosmetic procedures performed in the United States. Any trained clinician can perform microdermabrasion in a dermatology office or med spa (Shah, 2021).
During a microdermabrasion procedure, abrasive crystals are propelled against the skin and removed by a handheld vacuum. The crystals cause a gentle mechanical abrasion which removes the top layers of the skin. New skin will form in their place. The procedure takes about an hour. Your skin might be pink afterward, but it shouldn’t be painful (Shah, 2021).
Laser treatments are an effective treatment for sunspots. Different types of lasers that emit specific wavelengths can be used to remove sun-damaged skin layers. The melanin in the sunspots transforms the energy it absorbs from the laser to create heat that destroys the skin pigmentation. New skin grows in its place (Scarcella, 2018).
Laser resurfacing treatments for sunspots often only require one or two treatments. Sessions last anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on how many sunspots are being treated. Healing typically takes anywhere from 10 to 21 days (Scarcella, 2018).
Intense pulsed light treatment
Intense pulsed light (IPL) treatments are a safe and effective way to treat vascular lesions, unwanted hair, and sunspots. Similar to laser treatments, IPL uses pulses of light energy to heat and destroy the melanin in the sunspot (Goldberg, 2012).
IPL treatments take longer to have an effect than laser treatments. A session usually takes less than 30 minutes. However, you will typically need three to six treatments, three to four weeks apart, to see benefits. More extensive or darker spots may take longer (Goldberg, 2012).
Cryotherapy is a quick and effective procedure where a liquid nitrogen solution is used to freeze off sunspots or other lesions. Nitrous oxide can be used instead of liquid nitrogen to treat superficial dark spots because it’s gentler and less likely to cause blistering. Cryotherapy takes just a few minutes in a dermatologist’s office and is generally well-tolerated.
The most common topical treatments for sunspots are retinoids or retinoid combinations. Retinoids are derived from vitamin A. They’re used to treat dark pigmented areas on the skin, such as sunspots, helping dark spots fade away over time. Retinoid creams can cause redness and irritation for some people (Sarkar, 2013).
Retinol: what is it, uses, benefits, results
Many natural treatments have been used for removing sunspots. Some are more effective than others, but none are considered totally proven to lighten sunspots. These include (Sarkar, 2013):
- Vitamin E
- Grape seed extract
- Orchid extract
- Aloe vera extract
- Marine algae extract
- Cinnamic acid
- Green tea extracts
- Mulberry extract
- Soy (glycine soja)
- Licorice extract
When to see a healthcare provider
Sunspots on your skin are considered a natural and harmless part of aging, so there’s generally no medical reason to see a healthcare provider if you’re sure you have sunspots. Still, you should have the spot examined if you aren’t sure what it is or if it’s changing in some way.
Some people do choose to see a dermatologist to talk about treatment options for getting rid of sunspots. They can assess your skin, educate you on the procedures available, and help you choose the best option for minimizing your sunspots.
- Choi, W., Yin, L., Smuda, C., Batzer, J., Hearing, V. J., & Kolbe, L. (2017). Molecular and histological characterization of age spots. Experimental Dermatology, 26(3), 242–248. doi: 10.1111/exd.13203. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5342934/
- Goldberg, D. J. (2012). Current trends in intense pulsed light. The Journal Of Clinical And Aesthetic Dermatology, 5(6), 45–53. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3390232/
- Neill, U. S. (2012). Skin care in the aging female: Myths and truths. The Journal Of Clinical Investigation. 122(2):473-477. doi: 10.1172/JCI61978. Retrieved from https://www.jci.org/articles/view/61978
- Samargandy, S. & Raggio, B. S. (2021). Skin resurfacing chemical peels. [Updated Jul 25, 2021]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Retrieved on Oct. 4, 2021 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK547752/
- Sarkar, R., Arora, P., & Garg, K. V. (2013). Cosmeceuticals for hyperpigmentation: What is available? Journal of Cutaneous and Aesthetic Surgery. 6(1), 4-11. Retrieved from https://www.jcasonline.com/article.asp?issn=0974-2077;year=2013;volume=6;issue=1;spage=4;epage=11;aulast=Sarkar;type=3
- Scarcella, G., Dethlefsen, M. W., & Nielsen, M. C. E. (2018). Treatment of solar lentigines using a combination of picosecond laser and biophotonic treatment. Clinical Case Reports. 6(9). Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ccr3.1749
- Shah, M. & Crane, J. S. (2021). Microdermabrasion. [Updated Jul 18, 2021]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Retrieved on Oct. 4, 2021 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK535383/
Dr. Steve Silvestro is a board-certified pediatrician and Senior Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.