Overview

Age spots — also called liver spots and solar lentigines — are small dark areas on your skin. They vary in size and usually appear on the face, hands, shoulders and arms — areas most exposed to the sun.

Age spots are very common in adults older than 50. But younger people can get them too, especially if they spend a lot of time in the sun.

Age spots can look like cancerous growths. But true age spots are harmless and don't need treatment. For cosmetic reasons, age spots can be lightened with skin-bleaching products or removed.

You can help prevent age spots by regularly using sunscreen and avoiding the sun.

Symptoms

Age spots may affect people of all skin types, but they're more common in people with light skin. Age spots:

  • Are flat, oval areas of increased pigmentation
  • Are usually tan, brown or black
  • Occur on skin that has had the most sun exposure over the years, such as the backs of hands, tops of feet, face, shoulders and upper back

Age spots range from freckle size to about a 1/2 inch (13 millimeters) across and can group together, making them more noticeable.

When to see a doctor

Age spots are usually harmless and don't require medical care. Have your doctor look at spots that are dark or have changed in appearance. These changes can be signs of melanoma, a serious form of skin cancer.

It's best to have any new skin changes evaluated by a doctor, especially if a spot:

  • Is darkly pigmented
  • Is rapidly increasing in size
  • Has an irregular border
  • Has an unusual combination of colors
  • Is accompanied by itching, redness, tenderness or bleeding

Causes

Age spots are caused by overactive pigment cells. Ultraviolet (UV) light accelerates the production of melanin. On the areas of skin that have had years of frequent and prolonged sun exposure, age spots appear when melanin becomes "clumped" or is produced in high concentrations.

The use of commercial tanning lamps and tanning beds can also contribute to the development of age spots.

Risk factors

Anyone can develop age spots, but you may be more likely to develop the condition if you:

  • Have red hair and light skin
  • Have a history of frequent or intense sun exposure or sunburn

Prevention

To help avoid age spots and new spots after treatment, follow these tips for limiting your sun exposure:

  • Avoid the sun between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Because the sun's rays are most intense during this time, try to schedule outdoor activities for other times of the day.
  • Use sunscreen. Fifteen to 30 minutes before going outdoors, apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen that provides protection from both UVA and UVB light. Use a sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30. Apply sunscreen generously, and reapply every two hours — or more often if you're swimming or perspiring.
  • Cover up. For protection from the sun, wear tightly woven clothing that covers your arms and legs and a broad-brimmed hat, which provides more protection than does a baseball cap or golf visor.

    Consider wearing clothing designed to provide sun protection. Look for clothes labeled with an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) of 40 to 50 to get the best protection.