Each week, Health and Beauty Expert Sue Chung will discuss skin health topics suggested by members of the HealthCentral community. To ask Sue a question, send an email to mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org?subject=Skin%20Care%20Question.
Reader's Question: I've been careful about sunscreen and staying out of the sun for a few years, but I've been seeing a lot of brown spots on my skin. Are they dangerous? Is this a result of tanning when I was younger? Can I get rid of them?
Sue's Response: Whether you call them liver spots, sun spots, age spots or solar lentigenes (the technical term), those darker spots that show up on your skin as you age are a common occurrence. In fact, the majority of lighter-skinned people will see these spots by the time they reach 40.
The spots tend to be small (usually less than 5mm in diameter) and can range in color from a deep yellow to a dark brown-black. While some worry that sun spots are pre-cancerous, they actually pose no threat to your skin health. So why and how do we get them?
When you walk out into the sun, your skin reacts by releasing melanin to the surface. By increasing melanin production, your skin protects itself from UV damage. However, frequent sun damage causes some of the extra color to pool, creating spots that don't fade. Even if you've been applying sunscreen religiously for the past few years, those sun-tanned summers from your youth can still catch up.
While sun spots are not pre-cancerous lesions, they can cause certain problems. Many people find them upsetting in a cosmetic sense and for some others, a large amount of sun spots may make it more difficult to detect actual pre-cancerous lesions.
Topical Treatments for Sun Spots
Unfortunately for us, the areas of our bodies with the highest frequency of sun exposure happen to be our face, neck and the backs of the hands. If you're bothered by your spots, there are ingredients you can look for in skin care products that have been shown to lighten hyperpigmentation.
Hydroquinone, a melanin inhibitor, can be found in many skin lightening products such as DDF Intensive Holistic Lightener and Peter Thomas Roth Potent Botanical Skin Brightening Gel Complex. It does not actually bleach skin but has been shown to reduce the skin's production of melanin. One thing to note: Although tests with human subjects have been inconclusive, the FDA is considering the possibility of limiting its availability due to a possible link between hydroquinone and cancer in lab rats.
Kojic acid is another substance that has shown some success in inhibiting pigment production in the skin. A by-product of the fermentation process of Japanese rice wine, it can be found in Philosophy Pigment of Your Imagination SPF 18 and Ole Henriksen Hands Forward SPF 15.
Skin care staples such as alpha-hydroxy acids and retinol will also help improve the look of age spots. Murad Skin Perfecting Lotion for Blemish Prone/Oily Skin contains both ingredients while Neutrogena Advanced Solutions Facial Peel contains a high dose of citric acid. Instead of reducing pigment, these products help increase cell turnover rate, allowing your skin to create a newer layer of undamaged skin cells.
It is important to remember that these topical products will not be effective for everyone; it will most likely take a few weeks to notice any results. While it may be tempting to try using more of the product for faster results, stick with the directions on the product label. Overuse of pigment-lightening products can cause irritation, especially if you have dry skin. If you don't see results after six weeks, try a different product or take the next step of consulting your dermatologist about laser options.