If you're of a certain age and noticing dark patches on sun-exposed skin, you may be developing age spots. These noticeable spots are difficult to hide and won't fade without treatment once they appear.
Recognizing Age Spots
Age spots, also called "liver spots," appear on some people's faces, hands, legs, feet, and other sun-exposed skin as they get older. They are brown or black patches of skin with sharply defined borders. They're small and flat, with a rounded shape, and look similar to large freckles.
They tend to occur more often in people who spend a lot of time in the sun. People whose close relatives have them are also more likely to develop age spots. They can occur in people as young as their 20s, but they appear more often around age 50 or 60.
Changes in the Skin
Age spots are actually collections of the cells that give skin its color. For reasons not fully understood, these cells have a tendency to grow in clusters as people get older. The clusters form between the top two layers of skin, the epidermis and the dermis. When those cells produce pigment in the same place at the same time, a dark spot appears.
Not a Sign of Disease
Some people think that liver spots are a sign that something is wrong with the liver. That's not true. The spots are just a normal part of aging.
Some people also worry that age spots are cancerous, or that they could turn into cancer. Again, this is not true. However, because they appear on sun-exposed skin, and because sun exposure is a risk factor for skin cancer, it's possible to have both age spots and cancer at the same time. If you have a spot that changes color, has irregular edges, has a rough surface, bleeds or crusts over and won't heal, or that shows other signs of skin cancer, see your doctor.
Bleaching and Lightening
The smooth, clear skin you have when you're young naturally thins and becomes less elastic and more delicate, giving a clue to your age. Liver spots, though, can make you feel especially old. If you'd like to get rid of them, bleaching and skin-lightening treatments may help.
- Bleaching creams. Bleaching creams work slowly to decrease the amount of pigmentation (color) in the spots. They are available at the drugstore or can be prescribed by a doctor.
- Freezing. A doctor applies a very cold substance directly to the spot, thereby freezing and destroying it. As the area heals, new skin usually forms without the discoloration.
- Tretinoin. This prescription cream is a form of vitamin A. Used regularly, it can help lighten the spots.
- Chemical peels. The skin is treated with a chemical which makes it blister and peel. Newer, smoother skin takes its place.
- Dermabrasion or microdermabrasion. A rough-surfaced tool is used almost like sandpaper to remove the damaged layer of skin. Microdermabrasion is gentler and has less risk of scarring.
- Laser therapy. Laser light is used to destroy the top layer of skin and encourage growth of fresh new skin from underneath.
Women (and men) have tried all kinds of home remedies to get rid of liver spots. Most of these haven't been studied, so it's not known if they really work. Here are some suggestions from books and web sites dedicated to natural remedies:
- Lemon juice. The acid in lemon juice is thought to work like fancier creams to remove the top layer of skin. Try rubbing it on the spots twice a day for several weeks.
- Red onion. Red onion's acids may work the same way.
- Castor oil. Castor oil, applied twice a day, may smooth rough-looking spots. (Rough-looking spots should always be checked by a doctor first, to rule out cancer.)
The best way to prevent age spots is to stay out of the sun. Use sunscreen, wear hats and protective clothing, and stay indoors during the middle part of the day, when the sun is strongest. If you already have some dark spots, sun protection will help prevent further damage.