Age spots

Age spots are small patches of skin that darken and, in general, can appear anywhere on the body. They very often begin on the hands and forearms as well as on the face, primarily because these areas are most frequently exposed to the sun's UV radiation where they lack protection. Age spots vary in intensity and not only occur in older people but also in young individuals. Effective UV protection is the best precautionary measure to guard against age spots developing in the first place.

What are age spots?

From a practical point of view, age spots are not an age-related phenomenon, but rather the result of unchecked sun exposure. Anyone who needs to ask the question, "What are age spots?" has probably exposed their unprotected skin to the sun for too long. Its UV rays can lead to an increased concentration of melanin – a dark pigment in spots. This is why we also talk about pigmentation marks. Melanin protects the skin against UV light and is the body's way to resist UV radiation as effectively as it can. Other factors leading to age spots are a person's genetic predisposition and sensitivity to sunlight. Age spots can basically affect any skin type from fair-skinned Europeans to people of African descent.

What symptoms do age spots exhibit?

Age spot symptoms are visible to the naked eye. The skin gradually develops spots that become a little darker in the affected areas. Age spots are small and flat while the skin retains its structure. This is where they differ from moles and birthmarks. Furthermore they are not congenital but develop when exposed to the sun. Age spots that itch, on the other hand, are not a typically associated symptom, yet occur frequently in older people. This is the so-called ‘age itch’ which is another condition. When itching age spots occur in young people, it is advisable to visit a doctor to clarify the cause.

What helps against age spots?

Age spots can be recognized by looking in a mirror at home. Normally they initially appear on the back of the hands, the forearms and on the face around the nose and on the cheeks. The use of cream that reduces pigmentation over a longer period of time is a first measure to counteract age spots. In order for such a treatment to work successfully, the cream needs to be applied over a long term – and being patient is part of the procedure! A doctor is able to answer the question, "What counteracts age spots" with faster, effective methods. Laser treatment disperses pigment accumulation where age spots exist. However the treated areas may appear lighter than before and they do not always change with time. Microdermabrasion is a gentler alternative where, under a local anaesthetic, a layer of skin is removed where the age spots are located. Afterwards the skin is very vulnerable but takes on a normal appearance over time.

Age spot prevention. What really works?

Preventing age spots is the most effective way to maintain a smooth complexion. They only develop when unprotected skin is exposed to the sun. A protective day and hand cream for the face and hands is best applied regularly from a young age. One of the most common causes of age spots is a lack of sun protection, even if the person concerned has never been to a solarium or sunbathed on a regular basis. During everyday life, a cream with a high sun protection factor is not necessary, but when sunbathing or on holiday, sufficient protection should be exercised even if the skin does not appear to be sensitive. And obviously those who are often exposed to the sun in everyday life need to protect themselves more than people who work in an office.

Links have also been found between age spots and diet. People whose diet includes natural sun skin protection will enhance the effectiveness of a UV sunscreen. Carotenoids in carrots and lycopene in tomatoes are both effective natural sunscreens. Age spots are unlikely to develop if such foods are eaten when accompanied by a protective sunscreen.

Are age spots dangerous?

Today it is widely known that too much sun exposure results in sunburn, making skin cancer more likely. However since age spots also result from unchecked sun exposure, many people become concerned when they notice them on their skin. An age spot as such is harmless and it is unlikely that it will become malignant. However if a large number of age spots appear over one area of skin or if existing age spots suddenly spread, a medical examination should be carried out. It may be that the patches are not age spots but skin cancer that visually resembles age spots – an untrained eye will be unable to tell the difference. Age spots that become larger and larger and have blurred defined edges are also suspect. A normal, harmless age spot is not raised above the skin but perfectly smooth and cannot be felt. If an age spot can be felt, this implies that it is no longer harmless.