Although they aren’t dangerous, dark spots on the skin (sometimes called sun spots) tend to be something most people want to get rid of. These mysterious marks show up on the face and other areas of the body, and if you’ve ever wondered what they are, why they appear, and how to treat sun spots on the face, we’re diving deep on the topic.
Whether you’re curious about the cause of sun spots, have questions about hyperpigmentation, or want to know how to treat, remove or prevent them, we have the answers to help you make an informed choice about the skincare you choose.
Want to speak to a professional about dark spots or hyperpigmentation? Our Skin Experts are here to help:
Here’s what we’ll cover:
- What are dark spots/sun spots?
- How do they occur?
- How do I know if it’s a dark spot or something else?
- Are sun spots dangerous?
- Who is most likely to develop dark spots?
- Is there a way to prevent dark spots?
- How do I get rid of dark spots?
- Do I need a hyperpigmentation treatment?
What are dark spots/sun spots?
Dark spots have many names, and are often mistaken for other skin conditions. You might have heard them referred to as sun spots, age spots, liver spots, or hyperpigmentation, which are all essentially the same thing; small patches of skin on the face that appear darker than your natural skin tone.
How do they occur?
Dark spots appear on the face when skin produces too much melanin (the pigment that gives skin its colour). Ultraviolet (UV) light encourages melanin production, and this occurs more in skin that’s had a lot of sun exposure over the years.
The most likely causes of dark spots are ageing and sun exposure, however other factors can contribute, such as:
- Acne scars
- Bites, small cuts or burns
- Certain hair removal techniques or harsh skincare products
- Ingrown hairs
- Scarring from previous psoriasis or other skin conditions (these dark spots are known as post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation)
- Use of tanning beds (one of the most significant causes)
- Hormone fluctuations during puberty or pregnancy
- Medications like birth control pills, oestrogen, and medications that cause sensitivity to sun
- Vitamin deficiencies, like B12 and folic acid
- Thyroid disorders
- Pituitary tumours
- Adrenal disorders like Addison’s disease, when the body doesn’t produce enough cortisol
- Liver disorders or haemochromatosis, when the body produces excess iron
How do I know if it's a sun spot or something else?
With so many names and variations, it can be tough to identify which type of dark spot you have, and knowing the difference is important in order to discover any skin issues that could be more harmful. Let’s break down exactly what all these words mean:
As we mentioned above, sun spots are also referred to as dark spots, age spots and liver spots, and all can be categorised as hyperpigmentation. They are patches of discoloured skin, flat to touch, and can be different shades of brown. As they often occur due to long-term sun damage, they tend to appear on areas of the body that get the most sun exposure, like the face, tops of shoulders, and backs of hands. You can read more about hyperpigmentation in our article; What is hyperpigmentation? Symptoms and causes
We’re so glad freckles are having their day in the sun (pardon the pun!). For years they were seen as imperfections, but now people are embracing their unique freckles. Most often seen on very light skin and inherited from relatives, freckles are tiny brown dots that become more noticeable in the sun. The difference between freckles and sun spots is that many people develop freckles very young, and they fade as you get older.
Birthmarks are often easily distinguishable from sun spots, but they can occur on the face too, so are sometimes hard to identify. Birthmarks are either pigmented or vascular, can be flat or raised, big or small, and can appear brown, purple, red or other colours. As the name suggests, you will likely have a birthmark from birth rather than develop this later.
Another very common issue that appears in areas with heavy sun exposure, except this kind is more prominent in women due to its connection to hormones. For this reason, it is very common during pregnancy. It often appears in slightly larger patches than sun spots and can be found most often on the forehead, chin or upper lip. You can read more in this article; Melasma and hyperpigmentation – what’s the difference?
Are sun spots dangerous?
Fortunately, sun spots are more of an aesthetic issue than a medical one, and if their appearance doesn’t bother you then there is no need to pursue any treatment. If, however, you are concerned that a spot could be irregular, you should always speak to your doctor as soon as possible to ensure everything is OK. Remember:
- Sunspots are flat, brown-ish marks that appear due to sun exposure. They usually start light in colour and grow more noticeable over time. They are noncancerous so you don’t need to worry about them.
- Skin cancer can look different for everyone, but if the marks on your skin are raised when you touch them, or you have a mole that’s changing shape, colour or size, check this with your doctor to make sure everything is as it should be. Also keep an eye out for any itchy skin lesions, or skin that won’t heal.
You will find more information about checking for skin cancer here or in our article; Dr Julia's top tips on how to check your skin for signs of cancer. Sun spots are harmless, but if you have any doubts or notice spots that grow quickly, change often or seem unusual, don’t ignore them - speak to your doctor.
Who is most likely to develop sun spots?
Hyperpigmentation can affect pretty much anyone of any race, ethnicity, skin type, or those with any number of skin conditions. That said, they are more likely to develop with age (mostly over age 40), and depending on the level of sun exposure you experienced throughout your life, you may notice them appearing earlier. As mentioned above, tanning beds are one of the leading causes of sun spots, so those who have a history of tanning bed use may notice them earlier too.
Is there a way to prevent dark spots?
You can prevent future sun spots from forming by reducing your exposure to UV rays, which means avoiding sun wherever possible, applying and reapplying sunscreen throughout the day, using makeup with an SPF factor, covering up with clothing while in direct sunlight, and of course, skipping the tanning beds! Opt for self-tan products instead if you want to keep that summer glow.
How do I get rid of dark spots?
If you already have dark spots appearing on the skin, you may want to fade them in order to see a brighter, more even complexion. Thanks to certain ingredients, prescription medicines and in-clinic treatments, it is possible to reduce or remove these over time.
There are a number of ingredients in over-the-counter products that help to fade sun spots, many of which use active ingredients like retinoids, azelaic acid, and even vitamin C can help. In the case of retinoids, there is some research to suggest this could help to improve hyperpigmentation on black skin, so you may find these at-home products work for you.
We have a number of prescription skincare products we often recommend for hyperpigmentation, so if you want to learn more about our ranges you can read our article here; What products should I use to treat dark spots/sun spots?
Or if you would prefer an in-clinic treatment, laser treatments, peels and chemical exfoliants can offer a reduction in dark spots - you can read more here; The best in-clinic treatments for hyperpigmentation
Do I need a hyperpigmentation treatment?
It can be hard to know what counts as a sun spot, what could be melasma, or what could just be freckles! If you have any kind of dark spots you would like to fade, it’s always a good idea to speak to a professional who can identify them for you before jumping into any new skincare routine to make sure the ingredients are right for your skin.
Active prescription skincare ingredients are often the most effective and these must be prescribed by an authorised stockist before you can start using them. You will find the details of lots of authorised clinics online who can help and offer advice. At Face Dr, our Skin Experts can speak to you for free on a secure video link to discuss your skin concerns at length, find out about any skin conditions you may have, and advise on the products most likely to work for you. This could be from the ranges we stock, but our Skin Experts aim to be open, honest and unbiased when it comes to recommendations so if they believe something outside of the ranges we stock will work for you, they will happily let you know.
If you choose to purchase from us, your prescribed product will be unlocked to buy on our website, and we will post it to you next working day anywhere in the UK.
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