Age spots are rounded, flat parts of the skin with a light brown to black color that have sharply defined borders. Also called liver spots, they commonly occur on the face and back of the hands but can be found on any part of the body.
Age spots are formed by a concentrated increase in pigment in an area of the skin. As their name suggests, age spots are more common on those of us more advanced in years. They can occur on people of any age though, including children. Age spots are more prevalent on people who have spent a lot of time in the sun and are mainly caused by exposure to UV rays. This exposure can also come from prolonged use of tanning beds, which have been tied to an increased risk of skin cancer. Although age spots are harmless, they are sometimes found along with signs of cancer or pre-cancer since both can be the result of spending a lot of time in the sun.
Age spots are also called liver spots or solar lentigines. UV rays accelerate the production of melanin – the pigment in your skin that gives it color. This increase in melanin is your body’s way of trying to protect your skin. If melanin starts to group together in your skin it will cause a specific area to darken, causing what we call age spots. So the easy answer to what causes age spots is sun exposure. Fair-skinned individuals are more likely to be affected by UV rays and this makes them more susceptible to sun damage and getting age spots.
Can age spots be harmful?
Age spots are not harmful and they are mainly a cosmetic concern. They can, however, sometimes be confused with other kinds of skin growths including moles and even skin cancer. Remember that whenever you get a tan or sunburn it means your skin has been damaged. This sun damage can lead directly to age spots and other signs of premature aging.
It is good to learn how to check yourself for skin cancer so that you know what could be harmful. Regular full body screenings for skin cancer with your dermatologist are important but between appointments you can help by performing A-B-C skin checks in the mirror.
How can age spots be prevented?
Many of the same recommendations for preventing skin cancer apply to age spots as well. When going out in the sun, always wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen and reapply regularly. Avoid the sun when it is strongest in the afternoon and wear protective clothing, including a broad-brimmed hat.
A dermatologist will look at your age spots and ask you some questions about your skin. If your dermatologist is not able to tell immediately what kind of growth you have, a test may be performed to be certain before starting treatment.* After a visual inspection, a biopsy may be performed, which involves taking a small piece of the growth and sending it to be examined microscopically. If you do have age spots, there are different options including over-the-counter medication and treatments done in our Fullerton office.
*Disclaimer, results may vary from person to person.