Age spots are marks on the surface of the skin that are brown, black, or even gray in color, and range from freckle sized to larger than a centimeter across. They may appear in a cluster, or alone. They are also known as liver spots, and more scientifically, solar lentigines. As this last term implies, these spots are usually caused by sun exposure. They commonly appear on areas of the body that have received prolonged sun exposure, such as the hands, face, shoulders, and arms. Age spots are most common in people over 40, but depending on the amount of sun exposure received over a period of time, they may also appear in younger individuals.
A medical physician, such as a dermatologist, can verify whether a spot on the skin is an age spot, or a more serious mark. An age spot is simply an area of increased pigmentation in the skin, and is usually flat and oval shaped. More serious marks might be raised, irregularly shaped, and multi-colored. A physician can determine whether a spot on the skin presents a health risk, such as a skin cancer, or whether it is a harmless spot. A physician may take a biopsy of the skin to rule out cancer, a procedure that entails the removal and testing of a small piece of the skin where the spot has formed.
Sunscreens are very helpful in preventing age spots all together. This is because sunscreens help to block ultraviolet rays produced by the sun. When skin is unprotected, UV rays accelerate the production of melanin in the skin. Melanin is the dark pigment in the epidermis that gives skin its color. An increase in melanin production is one of the skin’s own natural defenses against harmful UV rays. This increase in melanin production is what causes the skin to tan in the sun. But when abnormally high concentrations of melanin become clumped together, a dark spot forms on the skin.
Age spots, while they are most commonly caused by skin exposure, can also appear due to the increased melanin production associated with aging. Genetics also contribute to the development of age spots. A person with fair skin or freckles may be more susceptible to developing them, as lighter skin typically has less melanin, and therefore less natural protection from the sun’s rays.
Although age spots are harmless, many people find them unsightly, and opt to remove them via numerous treatments. Treatment options include bleaching, dermabrasion, cryotherapy, chemical skin peels, and laser removal. These treatments can often be expensive and physically unpleasant, so skin specialists usually recommend proactive prevention as the first step in avoiding these blemishes. This includes the use of broad-spectrum sunscreens, as well as avoiding sun exposure during high intensity hours, when damaging UVA and UVB rays are strongest.