A common skin issue that can be a natural part of aging is the appearance of age spots on skin. So what are age spots? Are they dangerous, and can you remove age spots? Here are general facts to help you deal with this senior skin condition.
If you're over the age of 50, you might have noticed the appearance of dark age spots on various areas of your skin, but especially on those areas which get the most exposure to the sun, like the backs of your hands. What are age spots?
These darkened areas, called "age spots" or "liver spots," might cause you concern, not only because they affect your appearance, but also because of the possibility that they could be a symptom of an underlying illness.
It's important that you understand the facts about age spots. In particular, you should know what are age spots, what causes them, how to treat or remove age spots, and whether they pose a risk to your health.
What Are Age Spots?
The Mayo Clinic defines age spots as follows:
"Age spots — also called liver spots and solar lentigines — are small dark areas on your skin. They vary in size and usually appear on the face, hands, shoulders and arms — areas most exposed to the sun."
Although people can develop age spots at any age, they're more likely to develop after the age of 50. You're also more prone to developing age spots if you are fair skinned, and if you spend a lot of time in the sun. Although these spots can have an appearance similar to cancerous growths, if they are truly age spots, they're actually harmless.
What Do Age Spots Look Like?
Age spots are relatively easy to identify. They are typically flat, oval areas of increased pigmentation, and usually tan, brown or black. They can be as small as freckles, or as large as about ½ inch in diameter. As noted above, they usually appear on those areas of the skin which are most exposed to sunlight, such as the backs of the hands and the tops of the feet, as well as the shoulders, upper back and face.
If you are concerned about the appearance of any types of spots on your skin, you should consult your doctor to ensure those spots are not a sign of melanoma, a form of skin cancer. Generally, spots are more dangerous if they rapidly increase in size, are especially dark or present an unusual combination of colors, have irregular borders, or are associated with tenderness, bleeding, redness, or itching.
What Causes Age Spots?
Age spots occur due to overactive pigment (melanin) in skin cells. This increased activity is accelerated by exposure to ultraviolet light from the sun or tanning beds. When this exposure takes place over many years, melanin tends to "clump," causing the development of age spots.
Because sunlight is the principal cause of age spots, you can prevent them by limiting sun exposure, as well as by using broad-spectrum sunscreens which have a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30.
Are There Treatments And Can You Remove Age Spots?
It's important to note that the increased pigmentation associated with age spots occurs at the base of the epidermis (the upper layer of skin). Any product which doesn't penetrate to this layer will not be effective in lessening the appearance of age spots. Additionally, you should check with your doctor before beginning any course of treatment. That said, there are several effective treatments for age spots in general and age spots on the face, including the following six:
- Bleaching creams: Your doctor can prescribe bleaching creams (called "hydroquinone") to be used either alone or in combination with retinoids and mild steroids to cause the fading of age spots. This typically requires several months of treatment.
- Laser therapy: You can deactivate the skin cells which produce melanin (called "melanocytes") through the use of lasers and pulsed light therapies. Most people require 2 or 3 such sessions to achieve the desired results. Once these treatments are concluded, your age spots will gradually fade over the course of a few weeks or months.
- Cryotherapy: Cryotherapy involves freezing the affected areas to destroy builtup pigment. Liquid nitrogen is applied to the skin with cotton-tipped swabs to destroy the pigment. Over time, the treated skin will lighten. Cryotherapy carries a small risk of permanent scarring or skin discoloration, so you should discuss this possibility with your doctor.
- Dermabrasion: As its name suggests, dermabrasion involves sanding down the affected skin. A rotating brush is used for this purpose. This will remove the surface of the skin, after which a new layer of skin grows.
- Chemical peels: The chemical peel uses an acid which burns the outer layer of the skin where age spots reside. This causes the existing skin to peel, and new skin to appear in its place. You will probably need several treatments to realize the benefits of such peels.
- Over-the-counter products: You will find many products which don't require a prescription in your pharmacy or department store. These products can be effective if used properly, and if they contain hydroquinone, glycolic acid or kojic acid. Although these products are generally safe to use, you should consult with your doctor before using them (some, for example, can cause skin irritation).
Combat Those Age Spots
Although age spots can by annoying, they are not dangerous to your health. Still, it's always important to consult with your doctor about any significant change in the appearance of your skin. He or she can ensure that the spots you see are harmless and suggest effective treatments to improve your appearance.
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