Skin Journal
What are sun spots and are they dangerous?
Author:
Lucinda Starr
Reviewed by:

If you're like most Australians, you probably enjoy heading to the beach in summer for a dip, a BBQ and some time soaking up the sun.

Over the years, you might have noticed little dark-coloured spots on your skin and you may be wondering what they are (and if they are cause for concern).

These little lesions are called sun spots and in this article, we'll be diving into the common causes of sun spots, how to prevent them through a range of treatments and the warning signs that indicate it could be time for a skin cancer check or a visit to the dermatologist.

What are sun spots and what causes them?

Sun spots (sometimes called age spots or liver spots) are flat dark brown spots usually the size of a freckle on the skin [1]. Typically, these spots appear on areas of your body that are exposed to the sun. Sun spots are more common in adults over 50, however, young people who spend time in the sun without sun protection are prone to getting them, too.

In other cases, sun spots can appear as rough, scaly patches of skin. In the medical world, they also go by the name actinic keratosis, solar lentigo or solar keratoses and crop up on parts of your body that receive high levels of sun exposure [9].

Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays causes an increase in the production of pigment on the skin — otherwise known as melanin. Too much skin pigmentation causes the presentation of these flat brown spots. Long-term sun exposure can cause melanin to group together or be produced at higher levels, therefore, causing an increased amount of sun spots.

Plus, it's important to remember that some sun spots are classified as pre-cancerous, which means there is a chance these blemishes might evolve into skin cancers. However, the chance of this happening is statically quite low.

What parts of the body are affected by sun spots?

Generally speaking, you're more likely to get sun spots on areas on your body that are getting the most sun exposure. This level of sun damage is especially likely if you're not applying sunscreen before hitting the beach or sitting in the sun.

The most common areas of the body include:

  • Lips
  • Nose
  • Face
  • Neck
  • Hands
  • Arms

Do sun spots go away?

Sun spots can fade over time. However, long-term sun exposure can cause permanent damage, meaning the sun spots won't completely go away. There are science-backed topical treatments and dermatological procedures that can help to fade or lighten sun spots.

The best thing you can do to prevent sunspots is to apply sunscreen every day. It's never too late to start incorporating an SPF50+ into your daily skincare routine and even use a lip balm containing SPF to avoid sun spots on your lips.

How to treat sun spots

There are various treatments and skincare ingredients that you can add to your routine to treat sunspots. Some topical treatments contain specialised active ingredients while other options use laser treatments and even chemical peels.

Software's prescription pigmentation treatment

Software's prescription pigmentation treatment is a personalised formula that helps fade and prevent sun and dark spots, hyperpigmentation and melasma.

Software's skincare experts get to know your skin goals before formulating treatments using medical-grade ingredients, including niacinamide and azelaic acid, that suit your skin needs and goals.

We know that your skin is unique, which is why we use custom compounded formulas that tackle any challenges your skin is facing (such as dark spots or signs of skin ageing). Plus, we make sure to tweak your personalised formula throughout your journey to help you find a long-term routine that evolves as your life and skin needs change.

Laser and intense pulsed light treatment

Laser and intense pulsed light therapies work to destroy melanin-producing cells without damaging the skin's surface [1]. Typically, you should start to see a difference in the appearance of your skin after two to three sessions.

Cryotherapy

Cryotherapy (or freezing) works by applying liquid nitrogen that destroys extra pigment [2]. As the areas heal, the skin appears lighter and your dark spots should begin to fade.

Laser resurfacing

Laser resurfacing removes the top layer of damaged skin, which can help to remove cells that have been affected by sun exposure and fade dark spots [3]. It also heats layers underneath the surface of the skin which boosts collagen production.

Vitamin C serum

Software's Vitamin C + Ferulic Serum is a highly potent vitamin C serum (that contains 15% vitamin C!) and is made with a combination of antioxidants and specialised actives designed to brighten the skin and fade dark spots and discolouration. Plus, it helps protect cells from free radicals caused by UV rays and environmental stressors.

This serum also contains ferulic acid which is essential in building and developing collagen and helps improves skin elasticity and firmness.

Chemical peels

Chemical peels involve applying a chemical solution to the skin which removes its top layers and enables the formation of new, smoother skin to take over [1].

Can a sun spot turn into cancer?

Most of the time, sun spots are harmless. However, you should still be paying attention to them because if they change their appearance or turn black it might be an indication of melanoma — a serious form of skin cancer.

Sun spots are warning signs that you've spent too much time unprotected in the sun [4]. They may indicate you have a higher risk of developing skin cancer in the future so make sure you get them checked out regularly with skin cancer checks.

Looking out for sun spots and getting skin cancer checks regularly is particularly important for Australians as we spend a lot of time in the sun. This can be pretty dangerous if you aren't protecting yourself with measures such as wearing SPF+50 (even inside) and protective clothing.

Melanoma rates in Australia are amongst the highest in the world and it's the fourth most commonly diagnosed cancer in Australia [5][6].

How can you identify a dangerous sun spot?

There are no definitive indicators of what dangerous sun spots or skin cancers look like, particularly to an untrained eye. The best way to identify dangerous sun spots or indicators of skin cancer is to get to know your body and perform regular self-checkups.

This will help you pay attention to potentially harmful sun spots. Some of the ways you can look out for them are:

  • spots that look different to others on your body
  • spots that have changed in size, colour or texture
  • sores that are itchy, bleed or don't heal [4].

A good rule of thumb to follow is the ABCDE of skin which refers to:

  • Asymmetry: look out for spots that aren't symmetrical. Ask yourself does each side of the spot look different to the other?
  • Border: a spot with an irregular border or spreading edge.
  • Colours: is the spot's colour uneven or blotchy? Are they black, blue, white, blue and/or red?
  • Diameter: look out for spots that are getting bigger.
  • Evolution: is the spot changing and growing over time? [7].

Make sure you examine your entire body regularly with good lighting as skin cancers can sometimes occur on parts of your body that aren't exposed to the sun [8].

This includes in between the fingers, your toes and the soles of your feet. Use a mirror to identify hard-to-see spots including your scalp and even get a family member or friend to help you check spots that are hard to see.

What to do if you suspect a sun spot might be cancer

The majority of people who find spots on their skin that could be dangerous don't feel ill or feel any pain. This means they are less likely to see a doctor.

However, if you start to suspect a sun spot could be cancerous or something doesn't feel right, go see a GP and a dermatologist. Early detection of skin cancer gives you a better chance of reducing serious health implications and the need for surgery [8]. Your dermatologist will likely perform a visual inspection or skin biopsy to identify if the sun spot is indicative of something more harmful.

Often, a dermatologist can treat early detection of skin cancer by removing the cancerous growths [9].

Sun-exposed skin without any sun protection is the most common way to develop sunspots on your body. The best step you can take to prevent sunspots and protect your skin is to ensure you're always wearing sunscreen to keep your skin healthy and avoid any possible risk factors of harmful UV rays.

But, living in a country with strong UV rays means you're likely to encounter sun spots at one stage in your life. With the right treatments on top of your protective measures, you can minimise their appearance and help them fade over time, too.

Photo credit: Getty Images

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