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Age spots (liver spots)

Age spots — also called liver spots and solar lentigines — are flat tan, brown or black spots. They vary in size and usually appear on the face, hands, shoulders and arms — areas most exposed to the sun.

Age spots are very common in adults older than age 50. But, younger people can get them too, especially if they spend a lot of time in the sun.

Although age spots can look like cancerous growths, true age spots are harmless and don't need treatment. For cosmetic reasons, age spots can be lightened with skin-bleaching products or removed. However, preventing age spots — by avoiding the sun and using sunscreen — may be the easiest way to maintain your skin's youthful appearance.

Symptoms Causes Risk factors Prevention

Age spots typically develop in people with a fair complexion, but they can be seen in those with darker skin. Age spots:

  • Are flat, oval areas of increased pigmentation
  • Are usually tan, brown or black
  • Occur on skin that has had the most sun exposure over the years, such as the backs of hands, tops of feet, face, shoulders and upper back

Age spots range from freckle size to more than 1/2 inch (13 millimeters) across and can group together, making them more prominent.

When to see a doctor

You may not like the way they look, but age spots are usually harmless and don't require medical care. However, your doctor should evaluate spots that are dark or have changed in appearance, because these changes can be signs of melanoma, a serious form of skin cancer.

It's best to have any new skin changes evaluated by a doctor, especially if a spot or lesion:

  • Is darkly pigmented
  • Is rapidly increasing in size
  • Has an irregular border
  • Has an unusual combination of colors
  • Is accompanied by itching, redness, tenderness or bleeding

Age spots are caused primarily by years of exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun. The use of commercial tanning lamps and tanning beds can also contribute to the development of age spots.

The pigment in the upper layer of skin (epidermis) that gives your skin its normal color is called melanin. UV light accelerates the production of melanin, creating a tan that helps protect deeper layers of skin from UV rays.

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.

Although anyone can develop age spots, you may be more likely to develop the condition if you:

  • Have light-colored or fair skin
  • Have a history of frequent or intense sun exposure or sunburn

To help avoid age spots, follow these tips for limiting your sun exposure:

  • Avoid the sun between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Because the sun's rays are most intense during this time, try to schedule outdoor activities for other times of the day.
  • Use sunscreen. Fifteen to 30 minutes before going outdoors, apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen that provides protection from both UVA and UVB light. Use a sunscreen with a sun-protection factor (SPF) of at least 30. Apply sunscreen generously, and reapply every two hours — or more often if you're swimming or perspiring.
  • Cover up. For protection from the sun, wear a broad-brimmed hat, which provides more protection than does a baseball cap or golf visor, and tightly woven clothing that covers your arms and legs. You might also consider wearing clothing designed to provide sun protection. An ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) of 40 to 50 provides the best protection.
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