As you grow older, you may notice an increasing number of yucky-looking and unwanted spots on your arms or face. They’re flat and can be brown, gray, or black. Usually, they’re appropriately called “age spots.” Some people call them “liver spots,” but the spots have nothing at all to do with your liver.
They can range from freckle size to more than a half inch across. Sometimes, they group together making them more prominent. Medically, age spots are known as lentigines.
“Liver spots are among the inevitable changes skin undergoes as it ages,” Dr. Andrew Weil says. “They’re caused by years of sun exposure and usually show up on the parts of the body that sunlight is most likely to hit: the face, hands, back, and feet.”
People are most likely to have age spots if they’re over 40, have fair skin, and have a history of frequent sun exposure or tanning bed use.
“Age spots are caused primarily by years of exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun,” according to the Mayo Clinic. “The pigment in the upper layer of skin (epidermis) that gives your skin its normal color is called melanin. On areas of the skin that have years of frequent and prolonged sun exposure, age spots appear when melanin becomes ‘clumped’ or is produced in particularly high concentrations.”
The best way to avoid age spots and to promote the health of your skin is to shield it from the sun—either by protective clothing and/or sunscreen that blocks both UVA and UVB rays.
If you don’t want to live with your age spots, Dr. Weil says, “You can treat them with Retin-A (available with a prescription) or have them lasered away. Don’t bother with commercial ‘fade creams’—they won’t help.”
Age spots are generally considered harmless. There is the danger, however, that age spots can be confused with melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer.
“As a general rule, if that spot you’re staring at is new to you, it’s a good idea to check in with your dermatologist,” says Dr. John Wolf Jr., a dermatologist, professor, and chairman of the dermatology department at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. “I strongly recommend a full-body exam for anyone over age 50—maybe even earlier for some patients.”
If you’re old enough to have age spots, you’re old enough to remember the great TV show, “Hill Street Blues.” So, when it comes to the sun, follow Sergeant Phil Esterhaus’ warning and “let’s be careful out there.”