How to differentiate harmless sunspots from skin cancer

Hyperpigmentation
You’re more likely to develop sunspots as you age. CRISTINA PEDRAZZINI/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY/Getty Images
  • Sunspots are permanent, dark flat spots that appear on areas of skin frequently exposed to the sun.
  • Sunspots are harmless but may be mistaken for a more serious symptom like skin cancer.
  • Check the asymmetry, color, diameter, and how the spot changes over time to ensure it’s not cancer.
  • Visit Insider’s Health Reference library for more advice.

Sunspots are flat, dark spots that appear on parts of your skin that you frequently expose to the sun, such as your face, hands, arms, shoulders, and feet.

While anyone can develop these spots, they are particularly common in people with light skin over the age of 40, especially those who spend a lot of time in the sun.

Genetics also play a role, so having a family history of sunspots can make you more likely to get them.

Sunspots are permanent marks that are harmless, so you don’t need to remove them for health reasons. However, if you don’t like their appearance, there are steps you can take to lighten them.

Here are some tips on how to prevent sunspots and reduce their appearance, as well as how to differentiate a sunspot from something more serious like skin cancer.

How to get rid of sunspots

There are topical treatments and dermatological procedures that can lighten sunspots’ appearance; however, it’s always best to consult a dermatologist to determine which approach is best for you, says Kathleen Suozzi, MD, a dermatologist at Yale Medicine.

To understand how the following treatments work, it’s important to mention how sunspots form in the first place. They appear darker than the surrounding skin because what you’re actually seeing is a concentrated patch of a natural skin pigment called melanin, which gives your skin its color.

Darker people typically have more melanin. You can ramp up melanin production by spending time in the sun or a tanning bed.

With that in mind, here are six common treatments for reducing the appearance of sunspots:

  • Topical creams: Suozzi recommends prescription or over-the-counter topical creams containing vitamin C, tretinoin (aka retinoic acid), hydroquinone, a bleaching agent, azelaic acid, kojic acid, licorice extract, and tranexamic acid. These ingredients can gradually lighten existing spots and reduce the production of melanin. Suozzi says you can expect to see results in one to three months.
  • Laser treatments: “Laser treatments are very helpful for minimizing the appearance of sunspots,” says Suozzi. These treatments are performed by dermatologists. They work by targeting and destroying cells under the surface of your skin that produce melanin. You can expect to see results after two or three sessions.
  • Cryotherapy: Cryotherapy is a procedure where your dermatologist will apply liquid nitrogen to the pigmented areas for a few seconds. The nitrogen freezes the area and destroys the excess melanin, causing the skin to look lighter once it heals.
  • Dermabrasion: This procedure involves using a mechanical brush to sand off the age spots, allowing new skin to grow in their place. Your dermatologist may need to do the procedure a few times before you see results.
  • Microdermabrasion: Microdermabrasion is less aggressive than dermabrasion. You may need to do it repeatedly over several months to reduce the appearance of sunspots. It can be more effective if combined with a chemical peel.
  • Chemical peels: This procedure involves applying a chemical solution to your skin to remove the top layer, aka epidermis, allowing new skin to grow in its place. Suozzi says you can also do glycolic acid peels at home to lighten sunspots; however, they are not as powerful as a chemical peel performed by a dermatologist. Both light and medium peels will likely take a few sessions before you see results. But light peels can be done every one to four weeks whereas you should only get a medium peel every 6-12 months.

You may also find other “remedies” by casually browsing the internet, but keep in mind that there’s no scientific evidence to back the effectiveness of applying any of the following to your skin for sunspots:

  • Apple cider vinegar
  • Buttermilk
  • Green tea
  • Papaya

Sunspot vs. skin cancer

Sunspots can sometimes resemble cancerous growths. The ABCDE rule can help you differentiate between the two and identify potential signs of melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer:

  • Asymmetry: If one side of the spot looks very different from the other, it could indicate melanoma.
  • Borders: If the borders of the spot are uneven, irregular, or blurry, it could be a cause for concern.
  • Color: Sunspots are usually all one color. If your spot has multiple colors or shades, it could be a cancerous growth. Melanoma patches can include shades of black and brown, or have red, pink, blue, or white patches.
  • Diameter: If the spot is over six millimeters in diameter – roughly the size of the pencil eraser – you may need to get it checked out, although cancerous spots can sometimes be smaller than this.
  • Evolving: Suozzi recommends seeing your dermatologist if the spot appears to be growing larger or changing color, as that could also be a sign of skin cancer.

To rule out the possibility of cancer, your dermatologist will probably perform a skin biopsy, where they collect a small sample of the skin for lab analysis of any cancerous cells.

How to prevent sunspots

Related Article Module: The 7 best sunscreens of 2021 for every skin tone and typeSince sunspots are more common with age, you may not be able to prevent them entirely.

However, you can reduce your risk of developing a lot of sunspots by minimizing your exposure to UV rays.

Here are some helpful tips:

  • Wear sunscreen: Suozzi recommends opting for a mineral-based sunscreen that contains zinc or titanium and is SPF 30 or above. Instead of getting absorbed, the active minerals stay on the surface of your skin and act like a physical shield that deflects the sun’s rays.
  • Avoid the midday sun: Try to avoid being outdoors between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., when the UV rays of the sun are most intense.
  • Cover up: If you are going to be out in the sun, wear sun-protective clothing like lightweight long-sleeve shirts, full-length pants, closed shoes, wide-brimmed hats, and sunglasses.
  • Avoid tanning: Tanning ramps up melanin production, thereby increasing the probability of sunspots.

It’s also important to note the risk factors that may make you more prone to developing sunspots:

  • Spending a lot of time in the sun or getting a bad sunburn
  • Being over the age of 40
  • Having lighter skin
  • Using a tanning bed regularly
  • Undergoing a medical procedure, such as radiation therapy
  • Having a family history of sunspots
  • Being a person with a vagina

Insider’s takeaway

Sunspots are small, dark spots that you may see on your skin, particularly if you spend a lot of time in the sun. They are harmless and don’t require treatment. However, you can take steps to reduce or eliminate them, if you prefer.

You can prevent sunspots by avoiding tanning and shielding your skin from the sun. “Sun protection is the best prevention,” says Suozzi.

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