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Age Spots

Written by: Becki Murray

Updated by: Alice Hart-Davis

Last Updated: 15 March 2024

Whether they crop up on the back of your hands, another part of your body, or your face, age spots are an annoyingly prominent sign of ageing –  not least because aside from heavy makeup or physical clothing, they tend to be tricky to conceal. Actually more to do with prolonged sun exposure than skin ageing alone, if you’ve noticed the small, brown-to-black blemishes start to appear, read on to discover what causes these marks, how they may show up on different skin tones, and the best tweakments to help them disappear in a flash. Plus, to keep any worries at bay, there’s important information on how to tell the difference between the annoying but benign marks and potentially dangerous skin cancer lesions.

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What is an age spot?

Age spots, also known as liver spots – or to give them their fancy name solar lentigines – are flat darkened areas of skin, ranging in colour from brown to black. They typically appear on areas that have been frequently exposed to the sun, such as the backs of the hands, face, and shoulders, meaning they are closely associated with sun damage. As a result, the terms ‘age spot’ and ‘sunspots’ are often used interchangeably, although age spots technically refer more specifically to marks caused by prolonged sun exposure over the years, tying them more closely to skin ageing. They also tend to become more prevalent in individuals over 50.

What causes age spots?

Age spots are primarily caused by prolonged exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun or tanning beds throughout our lifetimes. As we age, accumulated UV exposure can cause damage to our skin cells and trigger the pigment-producing cells in your skin (melanocytes) to produce more pigment. Over time this melanin may clump together, forming concentrated spots of pigmentation. At the same, UV generates free radicals in your skin (unstable molecules that can damage DNA). These effect our skin’s ability to repair itself, which can also contribute to the development of age spots.

Hormonal changes throughout our lives, such as those that occur during pregnancy, may also increase your likelihood of developing some degree of uneven pigmentation, whether that is age spots or something like melasma. Your genetics will play a role too, as some individuals are more prone to the condition as they age.

 

Age Spots on hands

What do age spots look like?

Typically age spots appear as small, round, or oval patches of darkly pigmented skin, which tend to be flat in appearance with well-defined borders. They can range from brown to black in colour, and commonly appear on your hands, as well as your face and back. That means that while they are most noticeable in lighter skin tones, Black skin is not immune to them, and they can be visible in all skin tones.

How can you tell the difference between age spots and cancerous lesions?

While age spots are considered benign or ‘not life threatening’, its important you don’t get them confused with potentially cancerous lesions, and there are differences in appearance to look out for. Common skin cancers like melanoma and both basal cell or squamous cell carcinomas (which are primarily caused by damage to skin cell DNA) tend to manifest as irregularly shaped and asymmetrical, compared to age spots’ more regular appearance. Cancerous lesions may also increase in size over time and feature varied colours within them.

Age spots may be visually annoying, but skin cancer can have serious health risks if left untreated, so early detection is crucial. If you notice any changes in your skin, especially to existing pigment spots or moles, please go speak to your GP.  

How to get rid of age spots?

Depending on the size, location and stubbornness of your age spots, there’s a wide range of treatments you can try to reduce their appearance and get rid of them. That includes: 

  1. Peels: Chemical peels can help reduce the appearance of age spots as the chemicals in the solution remove the top layer of damage skin where the uneven pigmentation is found. A skin peel might sound a little scary, but even a superficial one can have good results on mild age spots, while improving the overall smoothness of your skin.
  2. Laser therapy: Lasers target unwanted pigmentation by using a specific and controlled wavelength of light to heat up and break down unwanted pigment in the skin. Ablative lasers also have a resurfacing effect on the skin surface, while fractional devices reduce downtime by leaving untouched scraps of skin between the micro-channels created by the laser, so skin heals faster.
  3. RF microneedling: Combining the skin-tightening benefits of radiofrequency (RF) and the collagen-boosting effects of microneedling, RF microneedling can target age spots with precision and limited downtime.
  4. IPL: IPL devices can also target age spots, using broad-spectrum pulses of light that are attracted to the pigment, breaking it down into smaller pieces that your body then removes.  
  5. Cryotherapy: For small and isolated age spots, cryotherapy may be an option. Liquid nitrogen is applied to the area, which freezes your age spot, causing it to fall off over time.
  6. Microskin grafting: This surgical option is best considered if your age spots aren’t responding to other treatments as its invasive and costly. It involves physically removing the age spot and then grafting a small piece of healthy skin from elsewhere to the affected location.

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Could lifestyle changes make any difference?

Avoiding excessive UV exposure is the most important way you can avoid age spots (and other health concerns). In fact, if you don’t, even if you treat your existing age spots, more are likely to crop up soon. For that reason, give up your sunbed habit now if you have one – it’s really not worth the tan – and wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen with high SPF whenever your skin is exposed to the sun, not forgetting easy-to-miss areas such as your hands and around your ears. If the weather is especially sunny, for example when you are on holiday, it can be wise to wear protective clothing such as long sleeves and hats to provide extra protection. Avoiding peak sun hours over lunchtime can also reduce your exposure to the sun’s UV rays, lowering the risk of new age spots forming.

Can at-home use devices help with this concern?

There are some suggestions that handheld LED therapy devices that have a red, green and/or yellow light mode could help improve the appearance of mild pigmentation. However, would need consistent and probably long-term use to see real improvements, so you are probably best spending your money going into clinic.

How much, on average, would treating age spots cost?

Depending on the number of sessions you need to have and where you choose to have them, you can expect chemical peels to start from £60, laser treatments from £500, and RF microneedling from £600.

Are there skincare options that can improve age spots?

Your best bet for targeting age spots with skincare is to try products that contain pigment-fading ingredients. On prescription, you can get hydroquinone, which can be very effective at reducing the appearance of stubborn age spots as it inhibits the production of melanin. However, it needs to be used with caution and only for short periods, as it can cause other skin conditions with improper use, especially for Black skin.

Other ingredients that can target age spots with more gradual but lower risk results, include alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) as these chemically slough off damaged, dull skin cells; retinoids as they stimulate cell turnover; and vitamin C which has an overall brightening effect. The key with any of these is persistence as results won’t emerge overnight.

Could age spots be a sign of a medical issue?

Age spots aren’t considered a health risk, although, as mentioned above, you could mistake cancerous lesions for them. Make sure you’ve read our little section on the differences between the two and monitor your moles and age spots for any changes. Don’t forget to speak to your GP if you have any questions.

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