- Sunspots are dark spots on the skin caused by long-term exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays.
- Although they indicate long-term sun damage, these spots are not a cause for concern.
- Treatments include over-the-counter topical products, prescription medications, professional procedures and home remedies.
- Sunspots can be prevented with daily use of a high SPF sunscreen, sun-protective clothing and limited exposure to the sun.
Sunspots are a sign of skin damage caused by chronic exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays. Also called age spots, liver spots, or solar lentigines, they are not cancerous but they can be aesthetically unappealing. If you would like to know how to get rid of sunspots, you have several treatment options.
Options include OTC topical products, prescription medications and professional procedures such as dermabrasion or chemical peels to fade or eliminate them altogether.
What Are Sunspots?
Sunspots are small areas of darkened skin that develop on those areas of the body that are most frequently exposed to the sun such as the face and back of the hands. They can also appear on the shoulders, chest and upper back. Most spots do not develop until after the age of 40; by 50, more than 90% of people will have at least one.
While these dark patches are not a cause for concern, they can be unsightly. They typically appear with well-defined borders and range in color from yellow to dark brown.
Sunspots result from long-term ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. Repeated use of tanning beds can also produce the same negative results. These lesions form when the skin produces melanin—the pigment that colors the skin as well as hair and eyes—in response to UV exposure.
The deepening of color, or tanning that results, is designed to protect the epidermis, the upper layer of skin, from the sun’s rays. However, repeated tanning causes melanin to build up on the epidermis. It’s this accumulation of melanin that comprises a sunspot.
Sunspots vs. freckles
It’s easy to confuse sunspots and freckles but there are distinctive differences between the two. Freckles are much smaller and lighter than sunspots and tend to fade during the periods of the year when there’s less sunlight.
Sunspots, on the other hand, range in size from 1–3 centimeters and most are dark brown or tan. Once formed, they are permanent; they will not fade or go away without treatment.
Can You Get Rid of Sunspots?
Dark spots can be lightened or completely eliminated, depending on the treatment. The options fall under three broad categories:
- Over-the-counter (OTC) topical products such as creams or serums
- Professional treatments, including prescription strength topical medications and mechanical removal using dermabrasion, light chemical peels, laser resurfacing and cryosurgery
- Natural treatments
For any sunspot treatment to be effective, it must penetrate deeply enough to reach the deepest layer of the epidermis—the basal cell layer—where excess melanin accumulates.
Most sunspot treatments, whether a topical medication or a procedure such as dermabrasion or a chemical peel, expose new and especially vulnerable skin cells to UV radiation. As such, it’s vital to be vigilant about sun protection. This entails using a 30 SPF sunscreen daily, wearing brimmed hats and sunglasses, and staying out of direct sunlight as much as possible.
Best Over-the-Counter Treatments for Sunspots
There are numerous OTC topical creams and serums available that claim to improve the appearance of age spots. Although these products won’t completely remove them, for some people they may lighten them enough to be less noticeable. To be as effective as possible, though, they must be used regularly and consistently.
Skin lightening formulations
The key ingredient in these products is hydroquinone. Hydroquinone works by inhibiting tyrosinase, the enzyme necessary for the production of melanin. This will both fade existing dark spots and help prevent the production of new melanin.
Hydroquinone can be found in concentrations of up to 2% in OTC products. It can take at least four weeks of regular and consistent use for these spots to be less noticeable. If after several months you haven’t noticed an improvement, prescription formulations containing up to 4% are available.
Although primarily used as a treatment for fine lines and wrinkles, retinol may help fade dark spots. Retinol is a derivative of vitamin A, the active ingredient in stronger prescription medications called retinoids, such as tretinoin, that are used to treat acne and fine lines and wrinkles.
Over-the-counter retinol products and prescription retinoids work by suppressing the activity of melanocytes—the cells that produce melanin—and by encouraging old skin cells to shed and new ones to emerge.
Because OTC products aren’t as strong as prescription retinoids, they may not be as effective or work as quickly. However, they’re less likely to cause side effects such as drying, redness and irritation, and may therefore be ideal for people with sensitive skin.
Although not strictly a retinol, studies have found that adapalene can lighten dark spots as well as reduce the appearance of wrinkles. Once available only by prescription to treat acne, a gel containing 0.01% adapalene can now be purchased OTC under the brand name Differin.
Botanicals and other natural treatments
Few natural ingredients for treating sunspots have been studied rigorously. However, a review of research found that some found in OTC sunspot treatments may be especially effective.
- Azelaic acid reduces production of melanin
- Soybean extract helps inhibit the transfer of melanin to skin cells
- Niacinamide, an active form of vitamin B helps prevent melanin from reaching skin cells
- Lignin peroxidase, an enzyme that is derived from a fungus, breaks down melanin
- Ascorbic acid (vitamin C) decreases melanin production, and has antioxidant properties that protect against free radical damage caused by sun exposure
- Licorice extract contains a flavonoid known as liquiritin that breaks up melanin
- Kojic acid, a compound in certain types of fungi, may help treat spots in two ways – by inhibiting tyrosinase, an enzyme necessary for the production of melanin, and by protecting skin from free radicals
Professional Treatments for Sunspots
Should OTC treatments prove ineffective in reducing the appearance of dark spots or take longer to show results than is ideal, a dermatologist can offer more aggressive and potentially effective options.
Prescription topical medications
In addition to higher-strength formulations of hydroquinone and retinoids, a combination topical treatment combining prescription-strength 4% hydroquinone with tretinoin and a steroid called Tri-Luma (fluocinolone) is a relatively new and effective option.
Similarly, a compound called mequinol that is a derivative of hydroquinone is available in combination with tretinoin and marketed as Solage.
Light chemical peel
For this treatment, a solution containing 20–30% salicylic acid or 10–25% trichloroacetic acid is applied to the skin. It works by removing hyperpigmented cells that comprise sunspots and stimulate new skin cells to form.
The process can be temporarily uncomfortable; mild side effects such as stinging, burning or pain are typical.
Dermabrasion uses an instrument with a diamond tip or one that sprays fine crystals to deeply penetrate skin to break up clumps of accumulated pigment. These cells are then gently sucked away. Combining dermabrasion with a chemical peel using 15% trichloroacetic acid can be especially effective for treating sunspots on the face.
Ablative laser resurfacing
Ablative lasers combine pulsating light and heat to destroy and remove damaged skin cells. The types of lasers most often used are the carbon dioxide CO2 and Erbium laser, which causes fewer side effects than its counterpart.
Whichever instrument is used, laser treatment is very precise and can target specific areas of skin. In addition to destroying built up pigment, this treatment encourages the growth of new skin cells. Laser resurfacing can have temporary side effects, including swelling, itching and stinging.
Intense pulse light therapy
Much gentler than ablative laser resurfacing, intense pulsed light (IPL) applies an intense beam of visible light to treat symptoms of sun-damaged skin, including sun spots. Studies have found IPL to be highly effective with a minimum of pain and recovery time.
Cryosurgery is not a surgical procedure, but rather the application of a liquid nitrogen solution to affected areas, usually with a cotton swab or a small hand-held spray device. It works by destroying the excess pigment that forms a sunspot by freezing it. It can be somewhat painful and will result in redness and crusting that resolves within a few days.
How to Get Rid of Sunspots Naturally
Some topical home remedies have earned a reputation for helping fade age spots. One of these is aloe vera, a succulent plant known for its skin-healing properties. It contains a compound called aloesin that has been shown to inhibit tyrosinase, the melanin-stimulating enzyme.
Other potential sunspot treatments can be found in the kitchen. These include apple cider vinegar, green tea, lemon juice, buttermilk (due to the lactic acid it contains) and honey.
Before trying any DIY approaches to skin care, it’s important to speak with a dermatologist to make sure it isn’t likely to interact with other topical treatments or medications.
Sunspot Prevention Tips
Practice vigilant sun protection to prevent sunspots from forming:
- Apply a generous layer of 30 SPF sunscreen or higher to exposed skin every day, even when it’s cloudy outside
- Use makeup that has sun-protective ingredients as a second layer of protection
- Reapply sunscreen every two hours if outside for extended periods of time
- Protect skin with a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses and sun-protective clothing
- Avoid tanning beds
When To See Your Doctor
Sunspots are not a cause for concern and will not develop into cancer. However, they are a sign of damage caused by frequent exposure to UV rays, which can increase the risk of developing skin cancer. The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends yearly full-body exams for most people and more frequent checks for those at higher risk of cancer such as those with Fitzpatrick skin types I–III.
In between regular exams, you should see your dermatologist if you notice any spot that changes in color, size or texture.
You might also see a dermatologist if you’ve been using OTC treatments consistently and regularly, and are not getting the results you want. They may prescribe a topical medication or suggest a light chemical peel, dermabrasion or ablative laser therapy. These measures can be costly, particularly procedures that may require multiple treatments. They are rarely covered by insurance, so be prepared to pay out of pocket for them.
While sunspots are harmless and not a health concern, they are unsightly. They develop after years of sun exposure that leads to the buildup of melanin, the pigment that colors skin, hair and eyes. People who are in their 40s or 50s and older are most likely to have them.
There are many treatment options available, including OTC topical products, prescription strength topical medications and professional treatments such as light chemical peels, dermabrasion, ablative laser resurfacing and more.
Sometimes a combination of treatments are necessary to reduce their appearance. Factors to consider include the number, size and darkness of the spots; the sensitivity of skin, the degree of discomfort a person can tolerate and the amount of downtime involved.
The best solution is to prevent sunspots from forming in the first place; protect skin from sun exposure to maintain skin health and avoid damage from UV rays.
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