Now that Autumn is in full swing, it’s time to take stock of what the Summer sun did to your skin. Maybe you’re one of the fair-skinned ones who religiously slathered up in a super high SPF sunscreen. Or, maybe you’re part of the sun-worshipping camp that tans instantly as soon as the sun’s glorious rays kiss your skin. Either way, you need to take a look and see what the sun left behind in and on your epidermis.
Chances are, especially if you’re over the age of 40, you may find some splotches that are flat and darker than the surrounding skin. They may look like a cluster of freckles.
Don’t worry. These are more than likely just solar lentigines, or age spots. Also known as “liver spots”, although they have absolutely nothing to do with the liver. Age spots commonly appear after prolonged exposure to the sun. They’re not dangerous and don’t spell c-a-n-c-e-r.
So, what causes them? The sun. Kind of.
The skin does an interesting thing when exposed to sunlight. It produces extra melanin, the pigment that gives skin its color, in order to protect itself from the sun’s UV rays. Age spots are just excess melanin that is clumped together.
They appear most on the areas of skin that are more exposed to the sun, such as the face, shoulders, backs of hands, tops of feet, arms, and back.
Age spots can vary in size and may range from 0.2–2.0 centimeters in diameter. They may also form singularly or in clusters. They are more common in people with lighter skin because the lighter the skin, the more sensitive to the sun.
It may be difficult to tell the difference between an age spot and melanoma, which is a type of cancer that forms in cells that contain pigment, so it’s imperative to tell your doctor or dermatologist so they can take a proper look at it. Most of the time though, it’s not a big deal and they don’t require treatment, but people want to get get rid of them for cosmetic reasons.
There are lots of options to remove them. Your doctor or dermatologist may recommend prescription topical creams that may lighten the age spots over time,sometimes with irritating side effects. Some of the more invasive procedures include cryotherapy (which involves freezing them with liquid nitrogen), chemical peels, or laser surgery. These types of techniques can leave the skin incredibly sensitive to sunlight.
There are some non-invasive, natural home remedies that are very effective to consider as well:
- Aloe vera: Research in animals suggests that applying aloe vera to age spots each day can lighten the marks.
- Red onion: This study indicates that dried red onion skin may lighten age spots. Look for topical creams that contain Allium cepa.
- Orchid extract: Still, another study found that orchid extracts may lighten age spots. The extracts are found in some skin care products.
Research also recommends using topical creams that contain the following:
If you suspect your age spots aren’t just “spots”, or you notice any of the following:
- rough patches of skin that may be painful when rubbed
- dry, scaly, pink or red patches of skin
- white, scaly marks that look like warts
Call your doctor right away as these signs could point to something known as “AK growths”, which are precancerous. It’s always safer to talk to your doctor when you notice any unusual changes.
It’s still true that “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
Simply by using a water-resistant sunscreen with a minimum SPF of 30 that is both UVA and UVB protectant, you can reduce the risk of getting age spots (and certain cancers) in the first place. If you already have age spots, using an SPF cream every day can prevent them from getting darker in the spring and summer. Be sure to remember to apply sunscreen 15 minutes prior to going outdoors. And reapply every two hours, or after sweating or getting in water.
Just because the summer sun isn’t beating down on us anymore doesn’t mean it’s not there at all. All this common sense applies in the fall and winter months as well. Be smart!