The sun’s golden warmth on your skin may feel nice, but it could be wreaking havoc on your skin. One of the most visible, and the most common, symptoms of sun damage to your skin is sun spots. Also known as liver spots, solar lentigo, or age spots, not only do sun spots on skin make you appear older than you are, but they can also be signs of increased cancer and health risks related to UV damage.
In a study published in the medical journal Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology, researchers monitored 298 women. (1) They found that even if you take into account other factors like stress, diet and tobacco usage, the sun’s ultraviolet rays are still responsible for approximately 80 percent of visible signs of aging in your skin.
In another study on twins with identical genes, the twin who got more sun exposure was perceived to be more than 11 years older than her twin of the same age. (2)
If you want to restore your natural ageless beauty and boost your wellness and health, take the next few minutes to understand what sun spots are, plus natural ways to protect your skin and heal UV-related skin damage.
What Are Sun Spots?
A sun spot or age spot occurs due to the natural production of pigment in your skin when your skin is exposed to the sun. However, similar to how your skin scars when it is cut, pigment starts to collect in areas of your skin that have been injured due to increased sun exposure and sun damage. (3)
Over time, this can create markedly darker spots and discoloration on your skin’s surface. Because it can take time for this pigmentation to occur, sun spots are most commonly seen in men and women ages 55 and older, although younger people can experience sun spots if their skin is damaged enough. (3)
Signs and Symptoms
There are several forms of skin spots, including sun spots, that you may notice on your body, each with a distinct appearance, shape and color. (4)
Lentiges are what most people refer to when they talk about sun spots, age spots or liver spots. They’re bigger than freckles and range in color from dark brown — almost black, even — to light tan. Red sunspots on skin or white sunspots on skin are not true sun spots. They tend to have an irregular shape that isn’t a perfect circle, and you’ll notice them in people of all different skin types.
Freckles are spots that darken in the sun during the sunnier summer months, and tend to fade or even disappear in the winter. While freckles aren’t dangerous in and of themselves, they can still be a sign of a higher risk of skin cancer. You’ll likely have freckles today if you had freckles as a child, but not the other way around.
Melasma typically appears in women in their 20s or 30s. They’re irregularly shaped patches of darker skin on your forehead or other areas of your skin caused by hormonal imbalances. They can be aggravated by exposure to excessive sun.
Regardless of the type of skin spots you have, the only symptom is the appearance of spots on your skin that are darker than the rest of your skin. These spots do not cause any pain, nor do they itch.
Causes and Risk Factors
While people of all ages, genders, lifestyles and backgrounds are at risk of developing sun spots on their skin, there are several specific risk factors that may increase your chances of developing sun-related discoloration on your face, hands and other areas of your body:
- People with fair skin are more susceptible to sun-related skin damage. The darker your skin, the more melanin (skin pigment) you have, which helps to block some of the ultraviolet rays that would otherwise damage your skin. (5) According to animal-based research conducted by chemists and scientists at the University of California-Riverside, while fairer-skinned people are at a higher risk of sun-related damage, the type of skin pigment found in fair-skinned, red-haired people can actually raise the risk of UV-related skin damage. (6)
- You’re at a higher risk of getting sun spots and seeing other signs of UV-related skin damage once you’re age 50 or older. (7) That’s because the older you get, the more susceptible your skin is to stress and damage. For example, your skin starts to thin and lose its elasticity; the blood vessels that carry healing blood and nutrients to your skin surface become more fragile; and the layer of fat under your skin thins out, all of which increases your risk of skin injury. (8)
- People who enjoy hobbies and pastimes that expose them to UV rays will likely see more sun spots and sun damage than those who don’t. And while you might immediately think of outdoor sports like hiking, indoor practices like sun tanning can also expose your skin to UV damage.
- If you take prescription or over-the-counter medications, some of the active ingredients in common medications can boost your skin’s sensitivity to the sun, leaving you more prone to sun damage. (9) Common examples include some allergy medications, pain medications, and acne treatments. Even products that are supposed to enhance your skin’s appearance and reduce signs of skin damage can actually increase your risks of sun spots. For example, some anti-aging skin care treatments contain alpha hydroxy acid (AHA), a common anti-wrinkle ingredient. But in studies by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, people who used AHA creams saw their skin become 18 percent more sensitive to the sun. (10)
- Your immune system is a key component in the process to heal wounds and damage not only in your body, but also in your skin. (11) In fact, there are specific immune cells in your skin itself that react to sunlight exposure. (12) However, if your immune system is weak or compromised, or if you’re suffering from a chronic disease that’s constantly taxing and exhausting your immune response, your skin is less able to resist and repair the surface damage that can cause the creation of sun spots, fine lines, wrinkles and other signs of aging.
You can actually quickly diagnose the appearance of sun spots on the arms, sun spots on the back, or sun spots on other areas your skin simply by examining your skin visually. (3) If you’re unsure or confused by what you notice on your skin’s surface, talk to your doctor or a dermatologist. A medical professional can quickly give you confidence in your skin’s health, and he or she can also do additional tests, including but not limited to a skin biopsy, to rule out other skin health risks like skin cancer.
Are sun spots a sign of cancer?
True sun spots, or age spots, as defined above, are not signs of skin cancer or any serious health condition. However, you should be doing regular reviews of your skin to watch for something different than sun spots: moles.
If you notice new moles, or existing moles that start to grow or change their shape or color, talk to your doctor. Skin moles can be a sign of melanoma and other forms of skin cancer, and you should especially consult a professional if your family has a history of skin cancer or if you have 40 or more moles. (4)
Another type of skin change that you’ll want to watch for is solar keratosis, also known as actinic keratosis. Unlike sun spots, which are smooth, darker spots on your skin, solar keratosis are clear, red, pink or tan spots that feel scaly or rough to the touch. These are not a form of skin cancer, but they can be a stepping stone to skin cancer.
If you ever have any concerns about signs or symptoms of skin cancer, or if you’re having a hard time distinguishing between harmless sun spots and more risky skin changes, always talk to a doctor or dermatologist for an expert opinion.
What does skin cancer look like on your face?
While sun spots on the face are benign signs of skin damage related to sun exposure, constant sun exposure raises your risks of skin cancer. The face is one common area where skin cancer symptoms show up because the skin on your face is often the most exposed to the sun throughout your lifetime.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, there are several signs of skin cancer on your face that you’ll want to watch for: (13)
- A new mole, or a mole that looks different from other moles or is starting to change its shape, color or size.
- A growth on your skin that forms a dome shape.
- Scaly, dry skin patches.
The academy notes that sometimes other skin irregularities on your face may be hints of skin cancer. The academy recommends seeing a dermatologist immediately if you notice something on your face’s skin that:
- Appears different from similar marks on your skin
If you see a dermatologist about your sun spots, he or she may recommend several conventional treatments that range in their cost, invasiveness and time it takes to fade your sun spots. (14) Keep in mind that sun spots will fade slowly on their own over time, so whether you turn to conventional treatments or natural ways to help treat sun spots is up to you.
Creams and Lotions
You can find many over-the-counter skin-lightening products at cosmetic stores or drug stores, but the American Academy of Dermatology recommends prescription creams or lotions from your dermatologist for the safest and quickest option.
Over-the-counter creams and lotions may use chemical or physical exfoliation to slough off your surface skin cells to reveal less damaged skin cells underneath. Some creams and lotions may also contain ingredients that they claim may lighten your skin color. Example ingredients in many mainstream skin-brightening skin care products include hydroquinone, vitamin C, niacinamide, licorice and mulberry extract.
When used consistently, these products may start to show results in a few months, but exact efficacy varies depending on the active ingredients, how concentrated they are in the product, and what else the product contains.
You have several options through a dermatologist when it comes to procedures for removing sun spots. Laser treatments zap your skin to remove sun spots in one or two laser treatments. Cryotherapy is another common dermatological recommendation, during which he or she freezes the sun spots so they fall off.
Finally, microdermabrasion or chemical peels help remove the surface layer of your skin. According to the academy, microdermabrasion can take up to 16 weeks, and 40 percent of patients see their age spots disappear. (14) Meanwhile, the academy reports that 47 percent of people who use chemical peels see their age spots lighten by up to 50 percent.
5 Natural Ways to Help Treat Sun Spots
If you prefer to avoid the cost and invasiveness of a visit to the dermatologist’s table to remove your sun spots, you have several natural and organic options for lightening and brightening away skin blemishes. These natural approaches may nourish your skin, restore your glow and help turn back the hands of time.
1. Exfoliate your skin
Regular exfoliation helps to get rid of the damaged skin cells on your skin’s surface that are discolored or darker, thus helping to fade and eliminate sun spots. Regular exfoliation also helps to encourage your skin to produce newer, rejuvenated skin cells.
You can buy scrubs and brushes for your skin at the drugstore, or you can make your own scrubs at home using sugar. According to Michigan State University, using sugar as a natural exfoliation tool has an anti-aging effect on your skin, helping to brighten away skin discoloration, slow the aging process, flush out toxins and give your face a renewed glow. (15)
For a quick sugar scrub, combine 1 cup of organic granulated sugar with 1/2 cup of coconut oil, then massage into your skin. Then rinse clean.
2. Moisturize regularly
To avoid dry skin patches, moisturize your skin regularly and always after exfoliation. (16) This helps to nourish your skin and help your skin heal any existing skin damage. Plus, dry skin patches are more prone to damage and appear less healthy. (17) By keeping your skin moisturized, you keep your skin surface firm, healthy and glowing, and improve your overall youthful look as you fade away sun spots.
Michigan State University recommends moisturizing your skin with coconut oil. The fatty acids in coconut oil don’t just help to hydrate your skin, but these fatty acids also enhance how quickly your skin heals itself. Coconut oil also contains vitamin E, which can help repair sun spots because vitamin E helps to heal your skin, reduce skin damage, slow signs of premature aging and protect your skin. (15)
3. Eat an anti-aging skin-friendly diet
“Let food be thy medicine,” recommended Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine. And he was onto something. Certain foods contain specific plant-based compounds, antioxidants and nutrients that help to repair signs of skin damage, as well as protect against future skin damage that can keep your sun spots recurring or darkening.
According to research published in the medical journal Dermatoendocrinology, there are several key nutrients that you want to include in your everyday meals to help heal your skin, fade and diminish signs of skin damage, and protect your skin from the aging effects of the sun: (18)
- Vitamin C, which can help your skin to filter out UV rays and repair your skin cells. According to the study, vitamin C has even been used to help treat skin cancer. The Linus Pauling Institute reports that some of the best sources of vitamin C in your food include citrus fruits, tomatoes, sweet red peppers and broccoli. (19)
- Vitamin E, which helps repair UV damage. According to the study, deficiencies in vitamin E can lead to increased skin pigmentation problems, skin dryness and other skin issues. And researchers at Oregon State University say vitamin E may even reduce wrinkles. (20) Some of the best vitamin E-rich foods include sunflower seeds, almonds and avocado. (21)
- Vitamin A. The study reports it helps with photoprotection, which means it guards against skin damage related to sun exposure. The study notes that it can even guard against sunburn. Yellow, red and orange-colored vegetables are high in carotenoids, which your body converts into vitamin A. (18)
4. Apply vitamins topically
Not only should you eat anti-aging, skin-repairing vitamins and nutrients, but you may also want to consider applying them topically to your skin. When used on your skin’s surface, these antioxidants can help reduce free radicals that lead to skin damage and discoloration, as well as protect from future damage.
One common example is vitamin C. In a 12-week clinical trial, using a vitamin C product containing 10 percent vitamin C reduced wrinkles and helped even out skin color and skin tone. (22) More is not necessarily better, as the beneficial skin effects appear to max out once vitamin C concentrations reach 20 percent. (23)
Vitamin A has also been shown to be effective at reducing signs of skin damage and aging in your skin. (22)
You can find natural skin care serums and creams, such as citrus extracts, that contain vitamin C and vitamin A.
5. Stay hydrated with green tea
Aim to drink at least eight glasses of fluids a day. But what you drink matters just as much as how much you drink.
A study on 16 healthy participants, published in the British Journal of Nutrition, found that drinking two cups of green tea every day helped reduce the redness and inflammation that comes with sun exposure, with the researchers noting that green tea can potentially prevent long-term skin damage. (26)
Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Georgia call the polyphenols in green tea the “fountain of youth for skin cells” and note that green tea may help to rejuvenate damaged skin cells. (27)
If you want to avoid sun spots, the American Skin Association (28) recommends several key strategies for keeping your complexion flawless.
1. Avoid the worst hours of the sun
The sun’s damaging potential isn’t the same all day. If you can, try and avoid going outdoors or being near windows during the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. During these hours, the sun’s rays are at their peak strength and will inflict the most damage on your skin.
2. Wear adequate sunscreen
According to a new study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, researchers monitored how 2,187 people used sunscreen over the course of more than four days. (29) They found that only 33 percent of people applied sunscreen properly.
Sunscreen prevents sun spots in two ways: It will either reflect or scatter the damaging rays that cause sun spots, or it will soak into your skin to protect against UV-related skin damage.
The American Skin Association recommends choosing a product that’s rated as having a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15 (SPF 15). To truly protect your skin, you need to apply it to all of your exposed skin a minimum of 30 minutes before you’re exposed to the sun, and you should follow all labeled guidelines when it comes to reapplication.
3. Change your wardrobe
A hat and sunglasses can shield your face and neck from UV rays that could lead to skin cancer and sun spots. Darker clothing also helps protect your body better than lighter fabric. If possible, wear pants and a long-sleeved shirt or top for maximum sun protection and sun spot prevention.
Skin cancer is no laughing matter. There are more people diagnosed with skin cancer annually than any other type of cancer combined. (30)
While sun spots are simply a cosmetic issue, they do signify that your skin has become damaged by the sun. Take precautions to avoid sun spots and sun-related skin damage, and use these small spots as a warning sign to care for and nourish your skin health.
- Sun spots are signs of skin damage caused by the sun’s ultraviolet rays.
- Sun spots are small, darker colored spots on your skin.
- If they change shape, appear raised or red, or start to grow in size, they may be another form of skin damage or even skin cancer.