We know that exposure to UV rays damages skin, but in our foolish youth, we may have worshipped the sun. Now we’re seeing the consequences: wrinkles, loss of elasticity and those nasty brown spots that are no longer considered cute little freckles.
Hyperpigmentation is the clinical term for ‘age spots’ or ‘sun spots,’ which appear as darkened patches of skin. Because the face is one of the most exposed parts of the body, hyper-pigmentation is a common dermatologic condition of the face, and it becomes more common with age.
“The sun’s ultraviolet radiation penetrates into the skin and cells, and damages their DNA,” explains Dora Peters of dpEsthetics Skin and Wellness Studio. “To protect itself from this damage, our bodies tan, and the skin darkens with a pigment called melanin, which helps reduce UV penetration into the cells. Sometimes the skin will develop areas that stay darker than the surrounding areas and these areas may be referred to as sun spots, age spots, liver spots or solar lentigines. Sun spots can vary in size and usually are black, brown or gray.”
Although they’re generally harmless, these deposits of melanin on the face and hands (another commonly sun-exposed area), can become unsightly, mottling the complexion. Treatment ranges from relatively gentle topical products to more invasive chemical or laser procedures.
Before buying an over-the-counter product that promises to fade sun or age spots, however, consider a professional opinion, Peters says. “Although hyperpigmentation is often caused by overexposure to UV radiation, it can also be caused by an underlying medical condition, hormones or prescriptions the person may be taking,” she notes. “It’s best to see a medical professional to determine that sun spots are not skin cancer or precancerous lesions, especially if they begin to change or become bothersome.”
Treatment is based on the cause and severity of the problem, but the first step is to stop the damage, says Dr. Joseph Muccini, a dermatologist with the Mid-America Skin Health and Vitality Center. “It’s simply a waste to be treating this problem while continuing to expose the skin to more UV radiation. So I tell patients to wear a hat with a wide brim and always use sun-screen,” he says.
“Once we’ve covered prevention, we can look at treatments, and they run the gamut,” Muccini continues. Prescription creams that contain the bleaching agent hydroquinone may help to some degree but can’t be used indefinitely due to potential side-effects. Muccini prefers a botanical product that can be used long-term and helps minimize pigment formation and reverse some of the damage.
For more immediate or dramatic results, chemical peels, light-based therapies (like in-tense pulsed light), and fractional or semi-ablative laser treatments are effective. In many cases, Muccini notes that treating sun spots is part of a more comprehensive plan to address the wrinkling and premature aging that also comes with years of sun exposure.
“I urge everyone to protect their skin so you don’t have to worry about these problems in the first place,” Muccini says. “Make a commitment to yourself and change your relationship with the sun.”