Age spots, also referred to as liver spots, become more common with age, but they’re more related to sun exposure than they are a direct consequence of aging. Older people who have protected their skin from the sun by wearing sunscreen and protective clothing are less likely to experience age spots, although most people after a certain age will have at least a few of these pigmented lesions on their hands or face. They typically look like small spots on the skin and are brown in color because they’re made up of melanin, the pigment that gives skin and hair its color.
What Causes Them?
Sun exposure is the number one cause of these spots. When skin is repeatedly exposed to ultraviolet rays from the sun, more melanin is produced. Age spots are nothing more than clumps of pigment. As might be expected, they’re more common on areas of the skin that are exposed to direct sunlight such as the face, back of the hands and forearms. Fortunately, they’re not harmful, and they aren’t pre-cancerous. On the other hand, sun exposure increases the risk of both age spots and skin cancers, so it’s a good idea to have regular skin exams if you have them.
Sun protection isn’t a cure for the problem, but it should be a high priority since sun exposure is what caused sun spots in the first place. Wear a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 that blocks both UVA and UVB rays year-round even indoors. UVA rays can penetrate glass and cause skin damage. Many products combine ultra-effective sun protection with antioxidants for additional defense against ultraviolet light. Mineral sunscreens are safe to use even on sensitive skin. They are a good alternative to sunscreens that contain chemicals.
There are home treatments that will fade the dark pigmentation over time. Some ingredients that are effective include hydroquinone and kojic acid. These compounds work by blocking enzymes involved in synthesizing melanin. They work well alone, but their effectiveness is enhanced by the addition of glycolic acid, a weak acid that most often comes from sugar cane. Glycolic acid gently sloughs off the outer layer of skin cells so hydroquinone and kojic acid can penetrate more easily and fade the pigmented areas. Some products contain a combination of kojic acid, hydroquinone and glycolic acid to attack age spots in three ways. They have the added benefit of making skin look and feel smoother while diminishing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. The products can generally be used up to twice a day.
Retinoids in prescription strength products like Retin-A help to fade age spots over time, but it can take up to 6 months to see significant lightening. In addition, some people experience skin irritation and redness when using these products. A weaker form of retinoid called retinol available in over the counter products cause less skin irritation.
Dermatologists and estheticians can do a series of peels using glycolic acid to lighten age spots, although this may require up to 6 visits. Some dermatologists and plastic surgeons use intense pulsed light therapy or laser treatment to reduce pigmented spots due to sun exposure. Unfortunately, these treatments are costly.
The Bottom Line?
Age spots become more common with age, but they’re a product of too much sun exposure. That’s why sun protection should be a priority for anyone with age or liver spots. Products that contain hydroquinone or kojic acid in combination with glycolic acid help to fade spots that have already formed.