What are Sunspots?
Causes of Sunspots
Sunspots result from overactive melanin, a pigment in the skin that gives it its color. Ultraviolet light from the sun causes the body to produce more melanin and prolonged sun exposure results in high melanin concentrations. But instead of spreading evenly, the pigment collects on certain areas of the skin, resulting in sunspots.
Risk Factors for Sunspots
People of all genders, backgrounds, lifestyles and ages are prone to sunspots. However, there are several factors that increase the risk of developing sun-related discoloration.
Individuals with fair skin are more likely to suffer from sun-related skin damage because they have less melanin, which helps protect the skin from ultraviolet rays. However, even though the risk is lower, people with darker skin are still at risk for sun damage.
Individuals older than 55 years are at a higher risk of getting sun spots and other forms of UV-related skin damage because the skin becomes more fragile with age. The blood vessels that transport nutrient-rich blood to the skin surface weaken and the layer of fat beneath the skin thins out. This increases the risk of skin damage.
The active ingredients in certain medications increase the skin’s sensitivity to the sun, which leaves people more prone to sun-related skin damage. Some of these medications treat acne, pain and allergies. Several cosmetic products are used to enhance the skin’s appearance and reduce signs of skin damage. But they also increase the risk of developing sun spots if they contain alpha hydroxy acid (AHA). According to the United States Food and Drug Administration, individuals who continuously use AHA creams are 18 percent more sensitive to sunlight.
Weakened Immune System
If the immune system is weak or compromised by chronic diseases like HIV/AIDS, then the skin cannot effectively resist and repair damage, which causes fine lines, sun spots, wrinkles and other signs of aging.
Sunspots may also result from commercial tanning beds and lamps. Indoor tanning can age the skin, causing wrinkles, loss of elasticity and age spots.
Other Types of Skin Spots
Freckles are areas with extra melanin pigment, like sun spots, but they are smaller. They are hereditary, meaning infants can carry the gene at birth, but they appear with exposure to sunlight. Freckles become less noticeable as people age. Though they are not dangerous, they may indicate that the skin is sensitive to UV light and a risk for sun damage.
Physicians can usually diagnose sunspots by simply examining the skin visually, especially if the patient shows other factors like age and frequent sun exposure. But sometimes the physician will perform a biopsy and remove a small piece of the spot to evaluate it for abnormalities and rule out skin cancer.
When to See a Doctor
Sunspots are harmless and usually do not need medical attention. However, people should seek medical care if the spots change in appearance. These changes could be signs of a severe form of skin cancer known as melanoma.
Dark pigmentation or unusual colors
Change in size
Itching, tenderness, swelling or bleeding
Change in texture
Sores that don’t heal
Treatment for Sunspots
Sunspots usually don’t require any treatment. But there are options available if the patient wants to make them less noticeable.
Topical creams and lotions can help lighten sun spots gradually over time. However, patients should consult a doctor or a dermatologist to choose a treatment. Skin lightening creams can irritate the skin and even contain mercury, which is damaging to the skin.
There are several cosmetic procedures that a dermatologist can perform to remove sun spots. Some of these procedures include:
Laser treatments fade spots quicker than topical treatments and have longer results. They have a few side effects. The treatment may cause the spots to darken temporarily and may cause the skin to crust.
In this procedure, a doctor applies liquid nitrogen to the sunspots to freeze them and destroy the cells.
This procedure is a non-invasive treatment that smooths away age spots by removing the dead surface layer of the skin. It may cause red or flaky skin for a few days. Microdermabrasion is often combined with a chemical peel for better results.
A chemical peel uses a chemical solution to exfoliate the skin and remove dead skin cells.
Any of these procedures can cause scarring and increase sensitivity to sunlight. Sunspots can also return, so it’s important to protect the skin after treatment.
People can prevent sun spots by limiting their exposure to UVB and UVA rays. Sunspots can be prevented by:
Avoiding tanning beds
Applying sunscreen with at least SPF 30 every two hours
Choosing lip balm with SPF 30
Avoiding the sun during the hottest hours of the day, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Covering the skin with hats, sunglasses, long sleeves and long pants
Supplements for Skin Health
Aloe Vera Extract Powder
Green Tea Extract
Apple Cider Vinegar
Used in skincare and aromatherapy, sandalwood can help moisturize, heal and brighten the skin.
The Bottom Line
Sunspots are a common sign of skin damage that results from exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays. They are small, dark-colored spots that appear on the areas of the skin most exposed to the sun, such as the face, hands, arms, lips and shoulders. When the skin is exposed to sunlight, the body produces more melanin to protect against UV rays. Sunspots form when melanin concentrates in certain areas instead of distributing across the skin.
Sunspots usually do not require any treatment. However, some treatment procedures can help to make the spots less noticeable. If sunspots change shape, size, color or texture, they could be a sign of more serious skin damage or skin cancer. The best way to prevent sunspots is to protect the skin from sun damage with SPF and proper coverage. Supplements can also boost skin health.