Age Spots

Age spots are small dark areas that appear on the skin with age, just like their name suggests. Alternative names are senile freckles, solar lentigines, liver spots and old age spots. They are usually found on areas of the skin that are exposed to the sun, such as the face, shoulders, arms and hands.

Age spots can have variable sizes and are quite common, especially after the age of 50. They are not restricted to elders though and can appear on the skin of young people who are exposed to the sun a lot. Even if these spots can resemble skin cancer, they are actually harmless and can be safely ignored. Some people decide to remove them for esthetic reasons, which can be done by surgery or using cosmetic products that whiten the skin. Avoiding sun exposure and using sunscreen are the best ways to prevent age spots.

People over the age of 50 are commonly affected by age spots. These usually look like flat zones of skin on the face, hands and neck, with a yellow or brown color that contrasts with the skin around them. They are a cosmetic concern since people consider them a sign of old age, but not a medical problem. Still, you should constantly monitor your skin growths and spots. If one of them is dark with jagged edges or if it changes its size and color too fast, it could actually be skin cancer and you should ask for medical advice.

What are the causes of age spots?

Like their name suggests, age spots are a consequence of aging, after the skin is exposed to sun damage for a long period of time. Some spots can have a different root cause, such as improper nutrition or some types of liver diseases.

An improper liver function can also be caused by aging. In time, the liver becomes less effective due to damage and changes in our metabolism. At some point, the liver becomes unable to process and eliminate all the toxins in the body, which can cause age spots to appear. Another cause is oxidation damage caused by free radicals and a diet low in antioxidant compounds.

Age spots usually develop slowly, over a long period of time. One of the easiest ways to prevent them is to constantly use sunscreen with a protection factor of minimum SPF 15 before spending time in the sun. Age spots can be eliminated but this is also a slow process.

Treatment options

Several treatments are available to make age spots less visible or to completely eliminate them for cosmetic reasons. The spots are caused by pigments located in the top skin layer, or the epidermis. As a result, any treatment for them doesn't have to go any deeper and the procedures are not very invasive.

Several types of medications can remove age spots. A treatment that must be applied for several months is the use of bleaching creams based on hydroquinone, sometimes combined with weak steroids and retinoids such as tretinoin. These products require a prescription and can cause the skin to become dry, inflamed, itchy or burning. A strong sunscreen with a SPF of at least 30 should be used for protection during this cure.

Cryotherapy is a new form of treatment, usually based on liquid nitrogen or another similar agent. It is applied on the skin with a cotton-tipped swab and freezes the spots, killing the cells with extra pigments. The skin will usually have a lighter tone after it heals. However, this therapy is not without risk since it usually irritates the skin and can sometimes leave a scar or cause permanent discoloration. It is normally used to correct a single age spot or small groups of them.

Another modern therapy uses laser and intense pulse light to penetrate the skin without harming its surface. These destroy melanocytes, which are the cells that produce the skin pigment melanin. Multiple rounds of treatment are usually required and the effects are not immediately visible. Several weeks or even a few months can be needed until the color of the age spots starts to change. There are no serious side effects and the treatment is usually effective but the destruction of the melanocytes can have some consequences. Without melanin, constant sun protection is required and the skin might become permanently discolored.

Dermabrasion is a technique that uses a rotating brush to basically remove the surface of the skin through a process of sanding. Once the top layer of skin is removed, a new one will start growing in the same location. It can result in redness and the formation of scabs. Sometimes, the new skin layer still doesn't have the right color and the treatment has to be repeated. A variant of this treatment is microdermabrasion. It is less intrusive than normal dermabrasion but the effect is also less powerful. It should not be performed on people who suffer from facial rosacea or tiny red veins, since it can aggravate this condition. The procedure has to be repeated over several months in order to be effective.

An alternative method to remove the outer layer of skin is to use a chemical agent. This is usually an acid that burns the skin until it reaches the age spot. A new skin layer then starts to grow in its place. Chemical peeling also has to be repeated several times until the age spots are removed. It can cause redness and sometimes a permanent skin discoloration remains. You should protect the area with sunscreen after chemical peeling.

Before deciding to remove an age spot, you should ask for the opinion of a dermatologist, who is a doctor specialized in skin issues. Some of them are trained in one or more of the above treatment options, make sure you go to the right one. Caution is needed since all of the possible options can have serious side effects.