age spots, elderly hands

Photo: Alta Oosthuizen/Shutterstock

Age spots, also known as liver spots, are flat, brown, gray or black spots on the face, neck and hands, areas that are more exposed to the sun than others. They usually appear in older people, which is how they got the term age spots. They also appear more often in people with a fair complexion, but can appear in people with darker skin as well. So why do they appear on your skin?

Where they appear on your body may give you a clue. Age spots usually appear only on areas that have had prolonged ultraviolet light exposure over the years, such as your face or the back of your hands. They can also appear more in people who frequent tanning beds. The pigment in your skin (also known as the epidermis, as in “your epidermis is showing”) is produced by melanin. UV light accelerates melanin production and that’s why we get a tan when we’re out in the sun (well maybe you do, but I look more like a tomato after too much time in the sun). Age spots occur in places where melanin production is concentrated on the skin. Besides UV exposure, just getting old can increase melanin production.

So how can you get rid of age spots? There are a number of treatments for age spots, but they’ll probably cost you, since removing age spots is really not medically necessary. One way to get rid of them is through laser therapy, which kills the melanin-producing cells without damaging the skin’s surface. Laser therapy usually takes several sessions to work and then a few months for the spots to fade. Another option is dermabrasion, in which the top layer of the skin is essentially sanded down and new skin grows in its place. It ain’t comfortable but it usually works. Another option similar to dermabrasion is a chemical peel, in which an acid is applied to your skin to burn off the top layer. Also, not so fun, and you may have irritation after but it should do the trick. If none of these is your cup of tea, prescription bleaching creams may help to fade the appearance of the spots over several months.

Modern medicine maintains that liver spots are not caused by anything underlying the skin, but Chinese medicine, which has a more holistic perspective, says there is indeed a connection to something inside your body. Since the melanin in your skin is produced by melanocytes that are triggered by hormonal signals, age spots actually reflect a hormonal imbalance. Chinese medicine relates this hormonal imbalance to your kidneys. A healthy balance can be restored by eating certain foods (like black beans and sesame seeds) and taking certain herbs and supplements. According to Chinese medicine, this will help the age spots to fade.

Though bothersome from a cosmetic perspective, these spots are harmless. Since they do resemble cancerous growths though, best to check with a doctor if the spot is irregularly shaped, itchy or tender, is getting bigger, or has an unusual combination of colors, and continue to get harmless ones checked out yearly by a dermatologist to make sure they stay that way.

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