As the name implies, sun spots are related to sun exposure. The medical term for these patches of discoloration is solar lentigos, and they look like brown spots on the surface of the skin. They can occur in almost any area that’s exposed to sunlight and usually involve the face and the backs of the hands. It’s quite common to see them on people who have spent time in the sun. It’s rare to see them before the age of 50, but most people over the age of 65 have at least a few.
Sun spots are the direct result of excessive sun exposure. In fact, it’s uncommon to see them on people who have consistently worn sun protection or avoided the sun altogether. With repeated sun exposure, cells called melanocytes that lie in the epidermis of the skin produce more melanin, the pigment that gives skin its color, as a form of defense against the sun’s damaging rays. This leads to dark spots on the surface of the skin that are made up of melanin. These spots aren’t harmful or precancerous, but having them is a sign of sun damage, which is a risk factor for skin cancer and melanoma. Even though they’re harmless, most people want to get rid of sun spots for cosmetic reasons.
Sun protection should be a priority since sun spots are directly related to sun exposure. It’s important to wear a high-powered sunscreen that protects the skin against both UVA and UVB rays when outdoors or indoors. UVA rays can penetrate glass and cause skin damage.
Sunscreen helps to prevent new sun spots from forming, but it won’t take away ones that are already present. Kojic acid is a food additive that has the additional benefit of lightening dark sun spots. It works by blocking an enzyme necessary for the production of melanin. Glycolic acid helps the kojic acid penetrate the skin better so it can more effectively fade areas of pigmentation. It also encourages sloughing of superficial cells containing pigment. As an additional benefit, it also improves skin texture by making skin feel smoother and reflect light better.
Topical retinoids, available by prescription, help to lighten sun spots over time, but it can take six months or more to see results, and some people can’t tolerate them due to skin irritation and redness. Retinols are a non-prescription form of retinoid that is less potent and less likely to cause irritation. It’s sometimes combined with hydroquinone, a chemical proven to fade pigmentation. These two ingredients work together in a two-pronged attack against darkly pigmented spots.
A dermatologist or esthetician can treat dark pigmentation by performing a series of glycolic acid peels. This will require several treatments to get results. Other options are laser therapy and intense pulsed light therapy, which would be performed by a dermatologist or plastic surgeon. Laser therapy is expensive and requires downtime for healing. Intense pulsed light therapy doesn’t require downtime, but it requires 3 to 6 treatments for satisfactory results.
Sunscreen is a top priority for preventing further sun damage that can lead to sun spots. Once they’ve formed, a product containing kojic acid, retinol or hydroquinone in combination with glycolic acid is effective for many people. If not, there are other treatments available through a dermatologist, but they may require some recovery time.