Soaking in the sun can leave you with more than just wrinkles. Age spots—those flat, roundish marks that appear on sun-exposed areas such as the face, chest and backs of hands—also result from exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light, which stimulates the production of pigment known as melanin. Sometimes called liver spots, these brown, tan or black marks actually have nothing to do with the liver…or with age, for that matter. Age spots are more common among fair-skinned and light-haired individuals, and they affect men and women about equally.
HARMLESS OR NOT?
True age spots, also called solar lentigines, are harmless. If you find them unsightly, you can significantly lighten them or, in some cases, render them almost invisible with the therapies described below.
Important: Some skin cancers can masquerade as age spots. That’s why it’s crucial that you show any new or changing growths or spots to a dermatologist. Be aware of the ABCDE signs of skin cancer—Asymmetry, Border irregularity, Color that is not uniform, Diameter greater than 6 mm (size of a pencil eraser) and Evolving size, shape or color.
A NATURAL APPROACH
Over-the-counter (OTC) topical products cost significantly less than prescription treatments…but they don’t work quite as well. Even with consistent use and rigorous sun protection, it can take a month or so to see some improvement. For an OTC product, consider one that contains one of these ingredients…*
• Niacinamide (vitamin B-3). Topical niacinamide lightens age spots without irritation. Hundreds of skin creams contain this ingredient. Look for one with a 2% to 5% concentration for best results. This cream can be used on your face, chest, arms, hands, etc.
• Glycolic acid. Originally sourced from sugarcane, glycolic acid is used in varying concentrations in facial peels, cleansers, moisturizers and serums. Also called a fruit peel, it exfoliates the outer layer of dead skin cells. When purchasing a product, make sure glycolic acid is listed as an active ingredient…or look for a product with 5% to 10% glycolic acid. It can be used all over the body if it’s tolerated—glycolic acid can be irritating for some people.
Niacinamide works better for some, but for others glycolic acid is more effective.
EAT TO BEAT AGE SPOTS
A plant-based diet, filled with antioxidant-rich produce, may help combat sun-induced skin damage by fighting harmful free radicals. Eat plenty of berries, dark leafy greens and tomatoes. Foods rich in beta-carotene may be particularly helpful—the carotenoids that give sweet potatoes and other orange produce their color get converted to vitamin A in the body, speeding cell turnover and perhaps helping the top layer of skin to shed more quickly.
These foods alone won’t prevent age spots, but they may slow their growth and help prevent new spots from forming. My advice: Eat nine fist-size servings of vegetables that have a variety of colors each day.
The following products, which can be prescribed by your doctor, are considered the most effective topical treatments for age spots. Note: Insurance companies generally will not cover age spot treatments as they are considered cosmetic.
• Hydroquinone. This bleaching cream interrupts pigment production. With a prescription-strength cream containing 3% or 4% hydroquinone, you may notice lightening within a few weeks…maximum effect occurs after a few months. Apply it twice daily to the spots only, not the surrounding skin. This cream can be used all over the body if it’s tolerated. Note: Do not use if you are pregnant or breastfeeding or are using peroxide products.
• Tretinoin. This vitamin A–based product slows melanin production and increases skin cell turnover. Sunlight causes tretinoin to break down, so you should apply it only at night. I recommend applying it to your face or other affected area one to two times a week to begin. Then when any redness or irritation has subsided, use it nightly. For initial treatment of the face, dilute the tretinoin with a mild face cream. Tretinoin can take up to 40 weeks for noticeable results.
I like a combination hydroquinone/tretinoin product that includes a topical steroid, which helps calm possible irritation.
Topical treatments cost an average of $50 to $200 per tube. A course of treatment may require one or more tubes.
*Caution: Products made outside the US may contain mercury. Use caution if buying online.