How to prevent and treat sun spots

Spending a lot of time outdoors this summer? Don’t skimp on the sunscreen!

Even if you’re not prone to sunburns, overexposure to the sun ages the skin faster — leading to wrinkles, fine lines, and hyperpigmentation. Let’s take a look at how to deal with one common skin imperfection and nuisance: sun spots.

What are sun spots?

Sun spots — also known as solar lentigines to dermatologists, as well as liver spots or age spots — are small, dark areas of discoloration on the skin. They’re usually found on skin areas commonly exposed to the sun’s UV rays — like your hands, arms, shoulders, and face.

While no one can escape sun spots, you’re more likely to be affected if you have fair skin. On fair skin, sun spots look like round, brown or tan spots. The discoloration is not as obvious in darker skin, which naturally produces more pigment and is better protected from the sun.

What causes sun spots?

Exposure to sunlight can burn the top layer of your skin — the epidermis. This can cause your skin to lose elasticity and lead to premature aging.

As one line of defense, certain cells on the epidermis — melanocytes — produce a pigment called melanin to protect the skin from these harmful UV rays [source]. In fact, the accumulation of melanin is actually what your sun tan is — your body’s attempt at sunscreen.

Sun spots develop when too much melanin is produced and clumps together, forming dense areas of hyperpigmentation on areas that are overly exposed to the sun [source].

What are some popular myths about sunspots?

  • They’re a sign of aging: Typically, sun spots appear in people over 25, but this likely has more to do with sun damage that has accumulated over time rather than your actual age.
  • They’re related to your liver function: ‘Liver spots’ are a common misnomer for sun spots, as it was once thought they were due to liver malfunction. We now know that sun spots are actually skin damage caused by overexposure to the sun.

What can I do to prevent and treat sun spots?

While sun spots are mostly harmless, may folks just find them annoying. Luckily, sun spots are both preventable and treatable. When looking for products to protect your skin from sun damage and/or correct hyperpigmentation, check for these active ingredients:

  • SPF: Protect your skin by wearing sunscreen. You’ve probably seen labels like SPF 15 or SPF 30 when choosing a sunscreen. If properly applied (meaning a nickel-sized dollop for the face), wearing sunscreen with a Sun Protection Factor of 30 (SPF 15) means that you would have 30 times the protection of not wearing any sunscreen; or, put another way, only 1/30th of UV radiation reaches the skin. [source]

  • Hydroquinone: To treat your existing sun spots, a dermatologist-recommended combination of hydroquinone, tretinoin, and SPF may be the way to go. Hydroquinone is a prescription lightening cream. It lightens the skin by interfering with the production of melanin by melanocytes — which is why most dermatologists will recommend using it with a broad spectrum sunblock.

  • Arbutin: While hydroquinone is still a popular choice for skin lightening in the U.S., some people prefer to use arbutin, an active ingredient found naturally in bearberry. Its mechanism is identical to that of hydroquinone; it blocks melanin production.

  • Kojic Acid: An agent derived from the koji fungus, kojic acid serves a similar function as hydroquinone and arbutin. It inhibits the production of pigment in plant and animal tissue, and thus acts as a skin lightener.

  • Tretinoin: Possibly the most well-known retinoid for treating the effects of photoaging, tretinoin lightens the skin by regulating how the body sloughs off skin cells that have been damaged by the sun.

Where to start?

Your skin needs unique, personalized care. If you don’t know where to start when treating your sun spots — don’t fret! Talking to your dermatologist is the first step in understanding your individual skincare needs and how to restore your skin to its natural, healthy state