Harvard Women's Health Watch

Topical drug treatments for age spots

A bit of sun may give skin a youthful glow but, over time, too much can leave it looking old.

Photoaging (skin damage caused by the sun) not only contributes to fine lines, wrinkles, and leathery-looking skin, but also can cause uneven skin darkening that gives rise to age spots, or solar lentigines (len-TIH-gen-eez) — also called liver spots because of their brownish color. Solar lentigines occur occasionally in early adulthood, but mainly after age 40. More than 90% of white people over age 50 have at least one.

The upper layer of the skin (the epidermis) protects itself from the sun's ultraviolet rays by thickening and producing more melanin, the pigment responsible for tanning. Age spots arise when melanin clumps together after years of sun damage, in much the same way that a callus develops in response to repeated contact and pressure. Solar lentigines (a single one is called a lentigo) are most common on sun-exposed areas of the body, including the backs of the hands and parts of the face, back, arms, legs, feet, and shoulders.

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