What do age spots mean?
Age spots (sometimes known as liver spots) often appear on our skin as we start to head into our 50s and 60s, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t show up earlier in life too. You see, the primary cause of age spots isn’t actually ageing itself, but rather your exposure to the sun!
Age spots occur when you start to overproduce melanin, your skin’s natural pigment cells. Melanin helps to give your complexion its colour, but it also acts as a defence mechanism, protecting your skin from UV radiation. When your skin is exposed to the sun, your production of melanin will increase which gives you that coveted tan.
However, over time, this exposure can cause premature ageing and, in the case of melanin, cause pigment cells to clump together, thus creating age spots. Although, as I’ve mentioned, age spots can develop at any time in your life, one possible reason for them being so common in old age is due to the changes that take place with your skin which could make it more vulnerable to this problem.
What do age spots look like?
When it comes to age spots, there are two main types that you need to consider: solar lentigines and seborrhoeic keratosis. Although these two types of age spots often appear together (leading some to believe that there is a connection between them) they are each caused by different factors.
Solar lentigines, as the name may suggest, refers to the traditional type of age spots that I’ve been discussing thus far. They are cause by the proliferation of melanin due to sun exposure and, consequently, usually manifest on the areas of your body that are most vulnerable to the sun – your face, your hands, your back and your shoulders.
In terms of appearance, as you can see, they are normally quite small – no more than a few centimetres in diameter – plus they are quite smooth. When it comes to colour, they can also vary, sometimes appearing as no more than a small tanned freckle whilst other times they can be much darker and more pronounced.
On the other hand, though, seborrhoeic keratosis (sometimes known as seborrhoeic warts) can be very different. As I mentioned earlier, some do believe that there is a relationship between solar lentigines and seborrhoeic keratosis, with one possibly inspiring the other; however, the two are caused by different issues. Whereas solar lentigines are believed to be primarily caused by sun exposure, seborrhoeic keratosis is thought to be triggered by a genetic predisposition.
This means that they are not as preventable as solar lentigines, although they affect just as much of the population. In fact, in the UK more than 30% of the population will develop at least one seborrhoeic age spot by the time they’re 40. This figure increases exponentially to 75% by the age of 70.1
As you can also see, there are subtle differences in appearance too; although, like solar lentigines, they can appear as smooth, dark blemishes on the skin, age spots caused by seborrhoeic keratosis can become bigger over time and more raised, similar to skin tags.
Are age spots cancerous?
A major concern that often accompanies the appearance of age spots is the fear that they could be related to skin cancer. While age spots can occur due to sun exposure, they themselves are not linked to skin cancer, although their appearance is very similar to that of melanoma.
Melanoma is a specific type of skin cancer that, in the early stages, can appear as a dark mole that closely resembles age spots. This can, understandably, lead to some confusion, especially as age spots and melanoma are more common in individuals that spend a lot of time in the sun! However, there are differences between melanoma moles and ages spots, so if you have any doubts, please consider some of the points below.
- Asymmetry – Does the shape of the growth vary from one side to the other?
- Border – Is the border of the growth irregular?
- Colour – Is there any disparity or variance in the colour of the growth?
- Diameter – How big is your growth? Is it larger than the size of a pencil eraser?
- Evolution – Has the size of you growth changed? Has it suddenly started causing you pain or become itchy at all?
If your answer to any of these points is ‘yes’, then you should definitely make an appointment with your doctor to get this growth check out. The chances are the growth will be benign; however, when it comes to melanoma you really don’t want to risk becoming complacent. Equally, if you notice any changes with any existing moles on your skin, then this is another warning sign to consider.
Will age spots go away?
The big question most people ask in relation to age spots is ‘Will they ever go away?’
For the majority of us, the appearance of these growths is unwelcome, especially on exposed areas such as our faces and arms. Unfortunately, age spots are not like other types of spots – they do not disappear with time and, although many have turned to skin lightening treatments in an effort to diminish their appearance, surgery is the only reliable way of getting rid of them permanently.
Understandably, this option isn’t for everyone. That’s why prevention is definitely better than cure and, even if you already have an age spot, it’s still worth considering a few of the tips I’m about to mention as, there’s always the chance that you could develop more in the future.
5 ways to prevent age spots
1. Consider your vulnerability
There are a few factors that can, understandably, make you more vulnerable to age spots. I’ve listed three of the main issues below:
3.Level of sun exposure
Unsurprisingly, those with paler skin will be more susceptible to sun-related damage as their skin is more vulnerable to UV lightwaves. In the case of medication, certain classes of drugs, such as antibiotics, antihistamines and antidepressants can make you sensitive to the effects of sunlight while your exposure is another, unmistakable factor.
If you do fall into either of these categories, you should make conscious efforts to avoid spending too much time in the sun. Limit your exposure between 10am and 3pm during the summer months and try to bear in mind that sunlight, even in winter, can still cause problems with your skin. Seek out good sources of shade at every opportunity!
2. Protect yourself when you’re in the sun
If sun exposure is unavoidable then it is imperative that you take the proper precautions. Don’t be shy about using suncream to protect your skin and remember to reapply it consistently throughout the day. As many conventional high-street sun protection creams contain a plethora of potentially harmful chemicals, it might be worth investing in a more natural brand like Green People, who also offer sun protection products for children as well as adults.
3. Cover up your skin
This might sound like quite an obvious tip if you’re going to be out and about in the sun but, while coverage does matter, so does the type of clothing you are going to be wearing. You might be able to keep your legs and arms covered but if you’re wearing black clothes or synthetic materials, then you’re still attracting UV lightwaves. Instead, opt for comfort – wear materials that still allow your skin to breathe, like cotton, and opt for lighter colours as these won’t soak up the sun in quite the same way as darker clothing.
It’s also really important to consider wearing a sun hat, especially one with a broad brim. Not only does this protect your vulnerable scalp, it also provides some coverage for your face, potentially keeping age spots at bay here too.
4. Load up on antioxidants
UV radiation can be really terrible for your skin: it doesn’t just promote the formation of age spots and sunburn, it can also encourage the proliferation of harmful free-radical molecules that can age your skin prematurely. That’s why it’s really important if you want to retain your skin’s youthful appearance and structure that you make sure you’re getting plenty of antioxidant-rich foods in your diet.
Fresh fruit and vegetables are your best options here – these tend to be naturally rich in skin-boosting vitamins and minerals, like vitamins A, C and E, as well as zinc and selenium. They also contain a whole host of antioxidants too, to help counteract free-radical damage. Think berries, such as blueberries, blackberries, strawberries and goji berries, in addition to green leafy veg like spinach, kale and broccoli.
5. Follow a good skin routine
As you age, your skin will naturally lose collagen which can affect its appearance and sensitivity. That’s why establishing a good skincare routine at this time is so important, doubly so if you’re going to be exposing yourself to the sun. If your skin is already dry or affected by a skin condition like rosacea or eczema, then it’s going to be extra sensitive to UV damage, so you really want to take good care of it.
In my blog, ‘The best skincare routine for ageing skin’, I discuss how to go about maintaining your skin as you age, going into more depth about the importance of proper cleansing, as well as the best serums to use and which exfoliators to try. Here, I also mention our ultra-nourishing Comfrey Cream and how it can help to revitalise dry, tired and ageing skin.