What Are Those Splotches?
Freckles. Age spots. Sun spots. Liver spots. No matter what you call these small- to medium-size flat, dark markings, they’re all “collections of pigment, also known as melanin, that often appear after exposure to ultra-violet light—which is why they’re so likely to pop up on your face and hands,” says Karyn Grossman, a dermatologist in Los Angeles. But there are subtle differences. For example, “freckles can have a genetic component, but like the other spots, they are most often caused by UV exposure and usually get darker and multiply as a result of being in the sun,” says David Colbert, a dermatologist in New York City. Sun spots, or solar lentigines (the medical term), aren’t typically a result of a genetic predisposition. They can, however, become more prominent with age, in addition to sun exposure, hence the nickname “age spots.” Liver spots (so called because of their color) are also solar lentigines.
Do I Need to Worry?
None of these markings mean you’ll get skin cancer, says New York City dermatologist Dennis Gross. But they could be a sign that you’re at a greater risk for skin cancer due to excessive sun exposure. At the very least, they’re an indication that you should be using more sunscreen, or a formula that’s more potent. (Choose a sunscreen that has an SPF of at least 30 and that blocks UVA and UVB rays. Two ounces should cover your face, neck, and arms.)
And to be safe, see your dermatologist once a year for a spot check to make sure your splotches aren’t actually moles, which may appear as dark, flat or raised growths. “Any mole can change into a precancerous or eventually cancerous lesion,” says Colbert.
See Spots Run
Once a doctor has confirmed that your spots are harmless, there are a few strategies you can try to minimize their appearance. For an at-home solution, trade your regular cleanser for one that has an exfoliator, like papaya or pineapple enzymes or salicylic or glycolic acid, which helps slough off dead skin cells that contain excess pigment. Use it morning and night, then apply a brightening serum to your entire face. Brightening serums help smooth skin so it reflects light more evenly. They also often contain exfoliators, melanin-inhibiting ingredients (such as licorice extract or hydroquinone), and antioxidants, “which have been shown to help prevent discoloration,” says Grossman. (For good options, see The Best Dark Spot Correctors.) If your spots aren’t fading after four to six weeks, you can consult a dermatologist for a prescription-strength product, like Tri-Luma cream, which contains a higher concentration of hydroquinone combined with tretinoin, an exfoliating vitamin A derivative, to be used after cleansing at night. But apply sunscreen daily or risk the return of your spots.