You may have noticed tan or light brown spots on your skin and wondered what they are. If they're unchanging and painless, these are sunspots, and they're exactly what they sound like: spots caused by the sun. While developing sunspots may be a clue of how much sun exposure your skin has received over time, these spots are common and typically benign. However, you may not like the look of them. Luckily, there are many treatment options both at home and in a Dermatologist's office that can help reduce or even remove sunspots.

What Are Sunspots?

Sunspots, also called solar lentigines, are non-harmful brown spots that appear on your skin in response to long-term sun exposure. Sun exposure triggers your skin to make more pigment-producing cells, also called melanocytes. Since the sun plays a major role in developing these particular spots, they're typically found on areas on the body that get the most sun exposure, like the face, neck, forearms, shins, chest, and upper back. Sunspots may pop up at any age, but they're more common over the age of 30, which is why they're often somewhat erroneously called age spots.

Your skin is a potpourri of spots and markings of various colors, shapes, and appearances, so how can you identify a sunspot from all the rest? Here are helpful tips to determine if you have a true sunspot:

  1. Color: Sunspots are typically tan to light brown in color.
  2. Size: Sunspots may vary in size from <0.5 cm to ~1 cm in size.
  3. Flat: Sunspots are typically flat lesions and rarely have surface changes.
  4. Asymptomatic: Sunspots rarely become irritated, bleed, or itch.

When doing your routine skin check, you might be alarmed when you identify a new spot. While any spot is worth getting checked by a board-certified Dermatologist, true sunspots are non-cancerous and harmless. However, if a sunspot were to change in size, appearance, pigmentation, and/or bleed, crust, or become painful—all tell-tale signs of skin cancer—it's important to have your Dermatologist further evaluate the spot.

How to Remove Sunspots

Sunspots typically appear on highly visible parts of the body, such as the face, neck, back of the hands, and chest, so sunspot removal is largely driven by aesthetic desires. Here are helpful tips, tricks, and treatments to manage your sunspots:

At-Home Removal

There are many over-the-counter and prescription-strength topicals available that target and brighten dark spots. Among all the options, finding a safe and worthwhile skin-lightening cream may feel like a daunting task. Understanding the ingredients to look for that are safe and produce actual results is the first and vital step to being a proactive skin care consumer. Look for products that include ingredients like:

  1. Vitamin C: A powerful antioxidant that is quintessential in one's skin care regimen, helping to brighten skin complexion. When it comes to choosing the right vitamin C product, it's important to find one that contains the most active form of vitamin C: L-ascorbic acid.
  2. Retinol: A form of vitamin A used topically for the treatment of acne, fine lines, and wrinkles. It's also a great tool for lightening those pesky sunspots. Work with your Dermatologist to find the type and strength of retinol that's right for you.
  3. Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) (i.e., lactic acid, glycolic acid): Chemical exfoliants that even out your skin tone. AHAs work by weakening the bonds between the dead skin cells on the top layer of your skin (i.e., epidermis) and, as a result, help improve dull skin complexion.
  4. Hydroquinone: Blocks the production of pigment within the pigment-producing cells (i.e., melanocytes). Hydroquinone may be available over the counter at lower strengths (i.e., 2 percent) as well as prescription strength (i.e., 4 percent to 8 percent). It's important to speak with your Dermatologist about how often and how much hydroquinone you should use; overuse of hydroquinone can actually harm your skin and cause permanent dark spots.

In-Office Removal

Woman smiling as she has her skin lasered by a doctor.

Sometimes, creams and products can fade sunspots but fail to resolve them completely. If your unwanted sunspot is sticking around, you may need to have an in-office procedure done by a board-certified Dermatologist. Once your Dermatologist observes the spot, they can recommend options for removal.

  1. Laser treatment: This resurfacing removes dead skin cells and penetrates deep into the skin to remove pigment. The type of laser used and how many treatments you may need for your sunspots depends on your skin's type, color, and the area being treated (i.e., face vs. chest). In general, laser treatments are performed every six to eight weeks. Before starting laser treatment, it's important to discuss realistic expectations and potential side effects with your Dermatologist. And after laser treatment, soothe your skin with a post-procedure formula, like EltaMD's Laser Enzyme Gel.
  2. Liquid nitrogen: This treatment, also referred to as cryotherapy, is a relatively quick and tolerable procedure where your Dermatologist uses a liquid solution to gently peel away the darkened skin. A gentle moisturizer may be helpful to treat any discomfort shortly after you get the treatment.
  3. Chemical peels: These are available over the counter, but in-office chemical peels performed by a skilled Dermatologist are safer and superior in tackling sunspots and skin dyspigmentation. By using a chemical solution containing exfoliating and lightening ingredients, chemical peels help improve the appearance of sunspots. How well a chemical peel works and post-procedure recovery depends on a few factors, including the type of chemical peel used, how long it's left on your skin, and your skin type.
  4. Microdermabrasion: This minimally invasive technique uses manual exfoliation with a special machine to remove or sand away dead skin cells on the top layer of your skin. At-home microdermabrasion devices are available; however, they're typically not as effective as microdermabrasion performed by a Dermatologist.

Sun Protection and Prevention

If you love being out in the sun, sun protection is essential. And if you're prone to sunspots and have already had a few removed, it's never too late to develop good sun safety habits so that the sunspots don't darken or reappear. Sunscreen should be a part of your daily routine, and when it comes to everyday sun protection, look for a broad-spectrum, mineral-based sunscreen that contains zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, like the EltaMD UV Elements Broad-Spectrum SPF 44.

Sun prevention will help to keep your skin smooth and spotless, but if you do develop sunspots, remember that they're super common. Still, if you're worried about a spot, your Dermatologist can take a look to put your mind at ease and help you develop a game plan to tackle the issue. Conducting frequent checks and being diligent about sun and skin care will go a long way on the journey to happy, healthy skin.

Author

  • My name is Dr. Rina Allawh and I am a Board-Certified Dermatologist in the Philadelphia suburbs, with a special interest in the unique challenges for pigmented skin with regards to anti-aging, hair loss, sun care and acne. Founder and co-host of "Skin the Surface" podcast which serves as an educational resource about skin-related issues, a tool to empower people to take a more active role in their skin health including skin cancer prevention, and an outlet to discuss some of the current hot topics in dermatology.