Fact or myth: Sun spots are the result of cumulative sun damage.
Fact. But it’s not the whole story, because sun spots can crop even when you’ve been pretty meticulous about using sunscreen. They’re a type of hyperpigmentation caused by UV exposure. When you’re exposed to the sun, even in small amounts, like, say, driving to work in the morning, your skin boosts production of melanin, the pigment that gives skin color. Over time, some areas may develop clumps of melanin or may overproduce it, resulting in a sun spot.
The areas most prone to sun spots, which are typically flat, rather than raised, and brown, are the parts of your body that get the most sun: your face, shoulders, chest, back, and hands.
For the most part, sun spots are harmless, but they can easily be confused with other kinds of sun-related spots on the skin that may be a sign of skin cancer. So, it’s important to keep an eye on them. And if anything looks suspicious, get it checked out by a board-certified dermatologist.
Brightening agents are no match for lasers and peels
If you want to have your sun spots removed because they’re in a highly visible area, talk with a dermatologist then, too. Over-the-counter products that contain brightening agents, like retinoids, hydroquinone, and vitamin C, may be worth a try in certain circumstances, but they’re generally not strong enough to have a meaningful impact on your sun spots.
Instead, a dermatologist may recommend using a prescription-strength lightening cream or a professional chemical peel or laser treatment. Following a laser treatment, a sun spot will usually turn a little white, crust, and then peel off, leaving a subtly pink area that will fade gradually.
Most dermatologists don’t treat sun spots with lasers during the summer because they can make the skin more sensitive to sun exposure and cause even more pigmentation after the treatment. With the summer behind us, it’s still important to shield your treated spot from any sun exposure, especially while it’s healing.
Sometimes a sun spot isn’t really a sun spot
One last note: A sun-related spot isn’t either a sun spot or a sign of skin cancer. There are a number of other types in between. Most common among them are melasma, a condition where hyperpigmentation appears in patches on the cheeks, forehead, nose, or chin, and seborrheic keratoses, which, like sun spots, are harmless brown, tan, or black growths on the skin.
Unlike sun spots, though, seborrheic keratoses tend to be slightly raised, so they may need to be shaved down or removed with electrocautery. These procedures are often combined with laser treatments to further remove the pigment.
If you’re prone to sun spots, you’re also prone to seborrheic keratoses, so it’s common to have both.