Medically reviewed by Mary Lucas, RN
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 4/26/2020
There’s something to be said for aging gracefully, but let’s get real: No one really wants to look old. You’re human; you will continue to look older. Wrinkles and dark spots are coming, if they haven’t already arrived. But there’s a glimmer of hope — solutions exist that can lessen the appearance of your wrinkles and lighten your dark spots.
Dark spots, age spots, or hyperpigmentation, are largely caused by sun damage.
Age spots are non cancerous, but watch out for those spots that are unusually large or dark or change in shape or texture — see a dermatologist if you think your spot looks or feels unusual to rule out skin cancer.
Prevention is the best medicine for sun damage, but there are solutions that can lighten the spots you already have.
Over-the-counter solutions, like those containing soy or niacinamide can bleach dark spots on your face.
Prescription topical products such as tretinoin are also effective at lessening dark spots and reducing other signs of aging.
There are a few reasons you could have dark spots on your face — including scarring from acne or other skin conditions — but the most likely culprit is the sun. You’ll know if you can blame the hot bastard in the sky if your dark spots are especially prominent where you get the most sun — areas like the bridge of your nose, top of your forehead and cheekbones, and even your shoulders and chest.
In kids, these spots are adorable and even have a cute name — freckles. But in adults, they’re a sign of poor skin protection multiplied by your years on the planet, and have an equally shudder-worthy name — age spots.
Yes, you can call them dark spots or even grown-up freckles, but they’re actually age spots.
These spots are created overtime after exposure to the sun and are more common in people with light skin tones. Your skin responds to the sun by producing more melanin, or pigment, in an effort to protect itself. A summertime tan is evidence of this. But these spots are created when melanin is produced in a high concentration in a small area. Over the years, your poor skin has scrambled to protect you in the absence of sunscreen.
True age spots are not cancerous. The Mayo Clinic describes them as flat and oval, and typically tan, brown or black. However, if you spot a spot that has undergone changes or that is unusually dark, get it checked out by a dermatologist. Unusual spots could be a sign of melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer.
Keep an eye out for spots that are:
Asymmetric - if you draw a line through the middle of your spot, the two sides should match.
Uneven borders - a harmless spot or mole should have smooth edges, not be scalloped or notched.
Uneven colors - spots and moles should be uniform in color. Splotchy or multi-colored spots should be checked out.
Large - Harmless spots and moles shouldn’t be larger than a pencil eraser.
Changing - Changes in size, color, shape or texture can indicate a problem.
There are several options for getting rid or at least lightening your age spots. The range from simple over-the-counter bleaching creams to freezing the spots right off your face. Obviously, your choice of solutions will have to balance how long you want to wait for the effects, how dramatic you want those effects to be, and how much you want to spend.
Bleaching: The American Academy of Dermatology recommends over-the-counter products containing niacinamide or soy to safely brighten the skin. These products take time and consistent application to work properly. Another ingredient, hydroquinone, has also shown positive effects in lightening dark spots caused by melasma, or patches of dark skin similar to age spots.
Retinoids: Retinoids are vitamin A derived compounds that have been shown to effectively reduce the signs of aging. One of those signs: age spots and sun damage. Several studies have shown retinols, and tretinoin in particular, to lighten hyperpigmentation. For example, a 6-month double-blind, randomized study of 533 people found tretinoin to “significantly” improve wrinkling, roughness, skin thickness, and “mottled hyperpigmentation”, according to the journal Clinical Interventions in Aging.
Laser treatments: Although lasering dark spots can lead to temporary darkening and crusting, the results are typically quicker than over-the-counter bleaching or lightening products. This solution works by destroying the melanin-producing cells and can be pricey.
Cryotherapy: Freezing the darkened skin cells is another quick solution that has temporarily unpleasant side effects — blistering and redness, for example. Like lasering, this treatment is done in a dermatologist’s office and can be expensive.
Microdermabrasion: Sloughing away the dark skin cells by essentially sanding the outermost layer of skin can take several treatments and have temporarily negative side effects, such as redness.
Age spots can return after treatment and new ones can arise. Both for aesthetic reasons, like your spots, and for the prevention of more serious issues, like cancer, protecting your skin is crucial.
Wear sunscreen daily. Choose a facial moisturizer with SPF 30 to get the greatest protection and to make applying it more convenient. If you’re headed to the beach, pack a new bottle of broad-spectrum SPF-30 protection and reapply often.