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How to Treat Sun Spots — And When to Worry

Young woman with freckles and dark spots
April 30, 2018 Reviewed by Marta 1 Comment

Did you know that freckles, while not dangerous, are a sign of sun exposure (even those that speckle the faces of children)? Sun damage is responsible for roughly 90 percent of the changes in your skin, many of which come with age. This includes those stubborn dark spots that, no matter how persistent you are throughout the year, seem to return every summer. What gives? I've been researching here the best new ways to treat photoaging at its inception and prevent new spots from forming. Plus, how to spot those that look suspiciously like melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.

How to spot a sun spot

Solar lentigines are flat brown spots that are caused by sun exposure. The first sun spots to appear are usually on the sides of your face, the sides of your neck, the décolleté and the back of your hands. I got my first one in my 20s, just below my outer right eye, where it has resided ever since.

Sunspots are a concentration of skin pigment called melanin. With UV exposure, the pigment-making cells, called melanocytes, produce excess pigment in just one spot instead of uniformly across your skin’s surface.  The melanocyte cells themselves do not increase, only the amount of pigment that they produce.

Sunspots are essentially harmless. They don’t become cancerous. However, skin cancer can mimic a sunspot, which I will get back to later.

How to treat and prevent sun spots

Leaving aside the obvious regimen essential that is sunscreen, there are new ingredients or improvements on old ones that are upping the ante in the pursuit of sun spots. Recently, I’ve had great success with a modified form of kojic acid, called kojic dipalmitate used in Your Best Face Brightening Concentrate ($32 in the shop). Kojic dipalmitate works by inhibiting the activity of tyrosinase present, so as to prevent the formation of melanin.

Another up and coming ingredient is azelaic acid, a naturally occurring fatty acid proven to be beneficial in the treatment of hyperpigmentation. In one study, it demonstrated lightening results comparable to 4 percent hydroquinone, but without its harsh side effects. You’ll find it in Dr. Dennis Gross Ferulic Acid & Retinol Brightening Solution ($88 in the shop).

A newish treatment is MediaTone, which is derived from octadecenedioic acid (oleaic acid). It lightens the skin and regulates melanin production and can be found in MitoQ Crystal Brightening & Skin Correcting Serum ($155 in the shop).

A recent discovery that I’m intrigued by is Exo-T, derived from marine bacteria found near Polynesian atolls. According to the manufacturer, it does a better job than alpha hydroxyl acids at stimulating cell turnover, which eventually chips away at spots. It is one of the key actives in Skin 2 Skin Photoaging Repair Cream ($69 in the shop).

TEGO PEP-4 is a tetrapeptide that diminishes dark spots and brightens the skin. Additionally, it is able to reduce acne lesions and to alleviate melasma on ethnic skin. You’ll find it in Your Best Face Restore ($130 in the shop).

To prevent new spots from forming, look out for glucosamines, which interrupt the UV-triggered chemical signals that turn on melanin production. This is in Ao Skincare Restore Serum ($119 in the shop). B-White is a peptide that it is said to inhibit tyrosinase activity, inhibit melanin synthesis and decrease the proteins involved in the pigmentation process. You can find it in Skin 2 Skin Photoaging Repair Cream ($69 in the shop). Another photoprotective tripeptide can be found in Your Best Face Defend Daytime Treatment ($130 in the shop).

When to worry: How to tell a spot could be cancerous

One or two sunspots can likely be ignored, but lot of sunspots indicate more sun exposure than your skin can handle. This could mean increased risk for skin cancer in the areas that are speckled. An annual skin exam by a dermatologist is a good idea. I was intrigued to read that each person’s skin has a unique “style” or pattern to its sun spots, and your dermatologist can teach you how to tell the difference between your sun spots, your age spots and skin cancer. Armed with your personal map, you can do your own monthly skin examination.

According to the American Cancer Society, you need to learn your ABCs to look for the common signs of melanoma. Here’s what to look for using the ABCDE rule:

Asymmetry: One part of a mole or birthmark doesn’t match the other.
Border: The edges are irregular, ragged, notched, or blurred.
Color: The color is not the same all over and may include shades of brown or black, sometimes with patches of pink, red, white, or blue.
Diameter: The spot is larger than ¼ inch across – about the size of a pencil eraser.
Evolving: The mole is changing in size, shape, or color.

Remember that I said that with sun spots melanocyte cells themselves do not increase, just the amount of pigment. With moles and melanoma, on the other hand, melanocyte cells have increased. In the case of moles, these melanocytes are not cancerous. In the case of melanoma, the melanocytes are cancerous.

A recent study intriguingly found that much of the damage that ultraviolet radiation (UV) does to skin occurs hours after sun exposure. Read that again and emphasize the word ‘after.” Sun damage causes a type of DNA damage known as a cyclobutane dimer (CPD) and the researchers found that found that half of the CPDs in melanocytes were created in the dark. The good news that process of them becoming carcinogenic is relatively slow, opening up possibilities for an “evening after” sunscreen. I will stay tuned for that! 

  • May 3, 2018

    by Sheena

    What an interesting article! I had myself noticed that after sun exposure I would look in the mirror, nod and feel relieved that my sunscreen worked in preventing my sunspots and pigmentation from getting worse, only to find that by bedtime or the next morning, those spots would have darkened. As a result, after a day in the sun, I try and focus my night regimen on things like vitamin C, brightening serums like La Vie Celeste and, more recently, azelaic acid. So it's interesting to see the findings of this study for sure.

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