What Are Those Dark Spots? and How to Treat Them

Learn more about dark spots — hyperpigmentation, also known as liver spots or sun spots.
Woman looking at mirror in cottage
Woman looking at mirror in cottage during safari vacation

Age gets a bad rap. Those of us who have come to know its gifts happily embrace the touch of gray that lets us see subtleties beyond the black-and-white certainty of youth. We recognize that problems are often complex in nature, despite the natural reflex to place blame.

Take, for instance, “age spots,” which don’t owe so much to accumulated years as other factors.

Dark spotshyperpigmentation, also known as liver spots or sun spots — can be caused by factors such as medication, sun exposure, and a variety of medical conditions.

On the plus side, these spots — commonly found on the back, face, back of the hands, and shoulders — are rarely serious and seldom require treatment. However, many women choose to remove them for cosmetic reasons, typically with good results.

How They Happen

The most common causes of dark spots are sun exposure (which can be mitigated by consistent use of sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher and avoiding the sun during the peak hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.); hormonal fluctuations caused, for example, by pregnancy or oral contraceptives; medical conditions such as liver disease; and a wide range of medications that cause sun sensitivity, including:

  • Estrogens
  • Broad-spectrum antibiotics
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs)
  • Psychotropic drugs

What to Do

A visit to a doctor or dermatologist is in order to rule out skin cancer. Though flat, generally oval-shaped and consistently colored spots are rarely a cause of concern. Except where specific characteristics indicate further testing (itching, tingling, bleeding, irregular color or borders, etc.), that determination can typically be made without invasive procedures. There are several options for cosmetic removal of common dark spots.

Don’t Try This at Home

While there are some over-the-counter remedies that can help, some “treatments” can make matters worse. Lightening dark spots with apple cider vinegar — one widely touted home remedy — isn’t backed by any sort of scientific substantiation. Lemon juice or abrasive scrubs can exacerbate the condition. Also avoid products containing mercury or steroids, which can cause rashes and make the skin more fragile.

Removing and Reducing Dark Spots

Professional options include a variety of ways to lighten or remove dark spots based on their location and size. Treatments include:

  • Laser: Targeted light breaks up melanin. Risks include redness, swelling, scarring and altering skin texture.
  • Cryotherapy: Freezing the spot. The skin may be permanently whitened.
  • Microdermabrasion: Essentially an eraser for the skin (typically with a diamond tip or some other abrasive surface), this is a relatively low-risk procedure.
  • Chemical peels: Mild acids are used to remove the top layer of skin, revealing newer, more evenly toned skin. May require multiple treatments and could irritate the skin.
  • Prescription creams: These skin-bleaching products work gradually and might take several months to noticeably reduce dark spots.

Aging Gracefully

Dark spots aren’t an inevitability of aging. Attention in the areas of prevention and treatment are ways to show our wisdom so that our hands don’t. For further information on this topic, consult the accompanying resource.

This infographic was created by Zapatat, a laser tattoo removal provider

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