Sun Spots

Woman smiling
Sun spots are more common in older people, but young people can get them too. See more pictures of skin problems.
Eric Anthony Johnson/Workbook Stock/Getty Images

It's no secret that if you've had a lot of fun in the sun, your skin could end up paying the price. But there's a lot more to worry about than just a temporary burn. Over time, excessive sun exposure may result in lasting patches of discoloration called solar lentigines -- more commonly known as sun spots [source: Journal of Drugs in Dermatology]. These marks are also referred to as age or liver spots, though they may have little to do with age and nothing at all to do with the liver. They're often brown or gray and accompany other signs of sun damage, such as wrinkles and dry, thinning skin [source: Mayo Clinic].

Sun spots can vary in size, shape and color, and they often show up on the parts of the body that get the most sun, such as the hands and face. People with fair skin are more likely to get them than people with darker skin. In fact, more than 90 percent of light-skinned people over the age of 60 have sun-related age spots [source: Skin Resource Center, Mayo Clinic]. However, people with dark skin are not immune to sun scarring. On deep skin tones, the damage may appear in the form of gray or ashy areas [source: My Skin Care Connection].


While sun spots are generally the result of years -- even decades -- of chronic overexposure to harmful UV rays, young people can develop them, too. Tanning in booths or beds -- a popular way among many teens and twentysomethings to get golden complexions -- sometimes causes skin to "spot" prematurely. These spots may darken over time and can blend together to create large patches of discoloration.

The good news is that, while they may say more about your sun-speckled past than you'd like, sun spots are generally not dangerous and can be treated effectively in a variety of ways. However, as with most health-related issues, prevention is really your best bet. Read on to find out more about how to avoid ever getting sun spots in the first place.


Preventing Sun Spots

While sun spots indicate skin damage, they also reveal your body's defense against the sun's harmful rays. That's because when you're exposed to UV light, cells called melanocytes in the outer layer of your skin produce more of the pigment melanin than usual. This extra melanin gives you a tan, which protects the deeper layers of your skin from more extensive sun damage. However, when your skin makes too much melanin in one area -- or when it's forced to make too much melanin over time -- it can create lasting speckles and spots [source: Mayo Clinic].

Limiting your exposure to the sun is the surest way to prevent damage to your skin. Since sun spots generally show up on the face, arms, neck and shoulders, keeping these areas covered will help you avoid discoloration. But if sitting under a parasol isn't your thing, there are other ways to protect yourself from UV rays.


First and foremost, apply sunscreen every day. Many moisturizers and foundations contain sunscreen, and certain mineral-based cosmetics have a natural sun protection factor (SPF). However, you shouldn't rely solely on your makeup to protect you from the sun. Fifteen minutes before you head outdoors, apply a broad spectrum sunscreen that protects the skin from both UVA and UVB rays. Use a sunscreen with a minimum SPF of 15 or, even better, with an SPF of 30 [source: UCSF School of Medicine].

If you're in the car a lot, you're likely to get a heavy dose of UVB rays, which are responsible for sun spots. (UVA rays, on the other hand, are responsible for sunburns.) If you can, install an anti-UVB coating on your vehicle's windows [source: The Patient's Guide].

Finally, you've probably heard about the restorative effects of the vitamin A compound, retinol. For nighttime, consider applying a moisturizer that contains this ingredient.

Read on to learn more about reducing the appearance of sun damage to your skin.


Sun Spot Treatments


While it's true sun spots are not usually cancerous, you should see a doctor about any irregular spots on your skin or any dramatic changes in the way your skin looks or feels. Never assume that a sun spot is benign, and always consult a physician before pursuing any course of therapeutic action.


Once you've got a diagnosis, you have a range of treatment options for sun spots, including several prescription and over-the-counter drugs, as well as a variety of dermatological procedures. Laser therapy, for example, destroys the cells that produce the extra pigment, while cryotherapy, or freezing, destroys the extra pigment itself. Dermabrasion and chemical peels both involve removing the top layer of damaged skin so that a healthy new layer can grow back [source: Mayo Clinic].

If these sorts of treatments seem too costly or labor intensive, you can take a topical approach instead. Look for solutions that contain hydroquinone; some cosmaceuticals contain it, too. Hydroquinone prevents the overproduction of melanin and runs interference for new skin cells, allowing them to develop and eventually mask -- or "fade" -- the damaged areas [source: My Skin Care Connection]. Kojic acid and tretinoin solutions have also been used to treat sun spots -- although not as successfully as solutions with hydroquinone -- as has the antioxidant vitamin, retinol.

If you don't buy the hype about pricey skin repair regimens, there are some other ways to treat sun spots. Read on to find out which all-natural methods could get your skin glowing again.


Getting Rid of Sun Spots Naturally

If you find the idea of chemical peels or hydroquinone solutions unappealing, you have a variety of natural ways to reduce the appearance of sun damage on your skin. To start, you can eat a flavanoid-rich diet, which may also help reduce your risk of cancer. Flavanoids are powerful antioxidants found in a variety of fruits, vegetables and grains; they also exist in tea and in soy-based foods [source: American Chronicle].

Here are some other natural remedies you can often find right in your home:


  • Lemons -- Lemon juice is a natural skin lightener and should be applied a couple of times a day when used for that purpose. But keep in mind that lemon juice can make your skin extra sensitive to the sun. To avoid negating the benefits of your treatment, be sure to cover affected areas when you're outdoors [source: American Chronicle].
  • Onions and garlic -- If you can stand smelling like dinner, then this low-cost dermabrasion substitute may be the treatment for you. Apply onion juice or a garlic clove directly to your sun spots; the acidity will cause your skin to peel and then lighten [source: DocShop].
  • Milk -- The lactic acid in milk helps cells regenerate. Buttermilk and yogurt will do the trick, too.
  • Papaya -- Press its flesh to yours for 20 minutes a day until you get the results you'd like.
  • Castor oil and aloe vera -- These substances won't bleach your sun spots, but they can help even out your skin's texture.
  • Vitamins -- You know that you can take them orally, but did you know you can apply them topically, too? Look for products that contain vitamins A (or retinol), E and C, all of which have antioxidant, or cell restorative, powers. Vitamin B3 and coenzyme Q10 may also reduce the chance of harm from ultraviolet light [source: Harvard Health Publications].

For more insights about how the sun can affect your skin, check out the links on the following page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Bernstein, Eric. "What Causes Age Spots?" The Patient's Guide. (Accessed 8/2/09)
  • Briones, Danielle. "Home Remedies for Age and Sun Spots." DocShop. May 20, 2008. (Accessed 8/2/09)
  • Cohen, Lauren. "Get Younger-Looking Skin at Every Age." Harper's Bazaar. (Accessed 8/2/09)
  • Farris, Patricia. "Combination Therapy for Solar Lentigines." Journal of Drugs in Dermatology. September-October 2004. (Accessed 8/2/09)
  • Harvard Health Publications. "Lotions and potions." AARP. March 1, 2007. (Accessed 8/2/09)
  • Harvard Health Publications. "Lotions and potions." AARP. March 1, 2007. (Accessed 8/2/09)
  • Mayo Clinic. "Age spots (liver spots)." 3/20/09. (Accessed 8/2/09)
  • Mayo Clinic. "Age spots (liver spots)." 3/20/09. (Accessed 8/2/09)
  • Mayo Clinic. "Age spots (liver spots)." 3/20/09. (Accessed 8/2/09)
  • My Skin Care Connection. "How Do I Get Rid of the Brown Spots on My Face?" 11/13/07. (Accessed 8/2/09)
  • My Skin Care Connection. "How Do I Get Rid of the Brown Spots on My Face?" 11/13/07. (Accessed 8/2/09)
  • San-Joyz, Naweko. "Natural Remedies for Age Spots You Can Try at Home." American Chronicle. January 21, 2008. (Accessed 8/2/09)
  • Skincare-news. "Does Mineral Makeup Provide Enough Sun Protection?" 4/27/09. (Accessed 8/2/09)
  • Skin Resource Center. "Sun Spots." (Accessed 8/2/09)
  • UCSF School of Medicine. "Sunblock." 5/4/07. (Accessed 8/4/09)