What Causes Age Spots?

age-spotsSolar lentigines is the medical term for age spots, sometimes called liver spots. They occur most often on skin which has had the greatest exposure to sun: the face, neck, hands, arms, shoulders and upper back. Age spots are usually flat, and colored brown, black, or gray. They are common after age 40, but can occur in younger people. Some may have an appearance similar to a more serious medical condition.

Age spots are harmless, but the spots may raise concerns about cancer, thanks to public education. People have been conditioned to examine their skin, and to report the appearance of new lesions, aware of the potential for new growths to be pre-cancerous or frank cancer. Lesions which appear spontaneously, change shape, or grow rapidly should be checked for irregular borders and varied pigments within the same lesion.

For cosmetic reasons, age spots can be lightened with skin bleaching agents or can be removed surgically. The best management of age spots is to prevent them by using sunscreen and avoiding direct sun on skin as much as possible. Choose natural sunscreens that do not contain parabens or petrochemicals.


Age spots are caused primarily by years of exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun. Commercial tanning lamps and beds also damage the skin. Melanin is the pigment in the upper layer of skin (epidermis), which gives skin its normal color. UV light speeds up the production of melanin, causing a tan, which protects the deeper layers of skin from UV light. Age spots are formed when the melanin clumps or is, in some areas, in particularly high concentration.

Just getting older can also speed up production of melanin, even without sun exposure. There may be some genetic effect, with some people more susceptible than others to forming age spots. Fair-skinned people are more prone to forming age spots than are people with a naturally darker skin. There is also increased risk with a history of exceptionally intense and frequent sun exposure.

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