Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 10/16/2020
Over time, it’s common for small, darkened spots to develop on your face, arms, shoulders and hands. Referred to as age spots (they’re also known as solar lentigines and liver spots), these spots are a normal aspect of aging.
Age spots usually appear as you enter your forties and fifties, but can pop up earlier if you have sensitive skin and spend a lot of time in the sun.
While age spots are generally harmless, they can seem unsightly. A few small spots in the wrong place can have an impact on your appearance, as well as effects on your self-confidence.
Luckily, age spots don’t need to be permanent. Below, we’ve explained how age spots develop and how certain factors can make them worse, as well as the most effective treatments for making age spots less visible.
Age spots are small, darkened areas of your skin. They can develop anywhere on your body, but they’re most common in areas that are frequently exposed to the sun. These include your face, neck, shoulders, chest, arms and hands.
The dark tone of age spots is a result of hyperpigmentation — your skin cells producing more melanin than normal.
Like other forms of hyperpigmentation, age spots can vary in size, shape and color. They’re usually tan, brown or black in color, with a circular or oval shape. Unlike pimples and warts, most age spots are completely flat and aren’t easily discernible by feel.
Most of the time, age spots are sized somewhere between a freckle and half an inch in size.
Age spots develop when your skin is exposed to excessive amounts of sunlight. Over long periods of time, the UV radiation in sunlight can cause certain parts of your skin to produce more melanin than it needs, leading to one or several age spots.
UV radiation can also cause your melanin-producing cells to clump together, causing small patches of your skin to become darker than others.
Other factors that contribute to age spots include your genetics, your use of sun protection products and your general lifestyle. If you have light skin, your risk of developing age spots might be higher than average.
Despite these factors, it’s sun exposure that plays the biggest role, especially if you spend long periods of time in the sun without protection.
Like hyperpigmentation and melasma, age spots require time to develop. Most people start to notice them in their forties and fifties, although it’s possible for age spots to show up in your thirties or even earlier if you spend a lot of time in bright, sunny environments.
Contrary to popular belief, age spots usually aren’t cancerous. Their biggest negative effect is on your appearance — if you have particularly dark or obvious age spots, they can make your skin look older and more exposed to the sun than you may desire.
In some cases, age spots can require medical evaluation. It’s best to talk to your healthcare provider about your age spots if they’re growing in size, have an unusual shape, are irritated or itchy, have an unusually dark tone or feel overly sensitive.
While age spots can be annoying, they’re usually fairly easy to treat. Treatments for age spots range from topical creams such as hydroquinone and tretinoin to simple changes in your habits to reduce UV exposure and protect your skin.
Below, we’ve listed the most effective treatments for age spots, as well as the best ways to stop age spots and other forms of hyperpigmentation from reoccurring.
Before we get into medications and other treatments for age spots, it’s important to cover how you can stop age spots from developing in the first place.
Like other forms of hyperpigmentation, age spots develop when your skin is exposed to large amounts of UV radiation. The most effective way to prevent age spots from forming is to limit your time in bright, sunny environments. You can do this by:
Avoid peak sunlight hours. The sun’s rays and UV radiation are strongest from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m., making it best to avoid spending more time than you need to outside in the middle of the day.
If you want to spend time outdoors enjoying the sun, opt for off-peak hours like the late afternoon or early morning.
Use an SPF 15+ sunscreen. Products with an SPF (sun protection factor) rating of 15 or more will keep your skin more protected from UV radiation, especially if you’re out in the sun during peak sunlight hours.
And don’t forget to reapply! Sunscreen should be reapplied every two hours, or even more often if you’re sweating, swimming or potentially rubbing off the sunscreen.
Wear a hat and clothing that covers your skin. If you’re worried about age spots, it’s best to cover up. Wear a wide-brimmed hat that protects your face, as well as clothing that covers up your arms, chest and shoulders.
Don’t use tanning beds. We know, we know — we all want to look like sun-kissed bronze goddesses, but tanning beds can be seriously harmful to your skin. Before you hop inside a tanning bed, understand how harmful they are, and remind yourself that you’re a goddess no matter what your skin looks like.
While avoiding excessive sun exposure is the best way to prevent age spots from forming, the most common way to fade existing age spots is through the use of topical medications such as hydroquinone.
Hydroquinone is a skin lightening compound that stops your skin from producing melanin. Since melanin is responsible for the darkened tone of age spots, regular use of hydroquinone can help lighten the skin and make age spots less visible.
Hydroquinone is used to treat numerous types of hyperpigmentation, including melasma. Although it starts doing its job instantly, hydroquinone usually needs to be used daily for several weeks in order to produce noticeable results.
However, some studies have seen noticeable results in as early as four weeks.
Overall, hydroquinone is a safe, tested and well-tolerated substance. However, like other topical skin creams, it can occasionally cause side effects such as itchiness, redness and some amount of irritation if overused. For the most part, these side effects are manageable and rarely cause major issues.
Our guide to hydroquinone for melasma explains how hydroquinone works in more detail, as well as how you can use it to lighten darkened, hyperpigmented areas of skin.
A naturally-occurring substance, kojic acid is a byproduct in the natural fermentation process of rice. No, we’re not kidding — the same stuff that helps make sake is also used as a topical skincare ingredient that lightens your skin by lowering your body’s production of the amino acid tyrosine.
Tyrosine is an important precursor to melanin, the pigment produced by your skin cells to give your skin a tanned, darkened appearance. By restricting tyrosine production, kojic acid has the potential to lighten hyperpigmented patches of skin, such as age spots.
Although kojic acid isn’t as effective at lightening skin as hydroquinone, its short list of potential side effects (kojic acid is far less likely to cause irritation than hydroquinone) make it a popular option for dealing with mild, light age spots.
Kojic acid can also be used with hydroquinone. A comparative study from 2013 found that the two substances produce a synergistic effect when used together to help lighten skin and make age spots, melasma and other forms of hyperpigmentation less visible.
A topical retinoid, tretinoin is one of several medications used to make age spots lighter and less visible.
Although tretinoin doesn’t directly reduce your skin’s production of melanin, it can help to lighten hyperpigmented spots by speeding up your body’s skin cell turnover cycle. This helps to replace old, darkened skin cells with new ones in less time than normal.
Like hydroquinone, tretinoin’s benefits are documented in several studies.
Tretinoin is often used in combination with hydroquinone to lighten skin while speeding up your body’s production of new skin cells. In a 2013 study, researchers found that the combination of tretinoin and hydroquinone can produce better results than either medication used separately.
As well as its benefits as a hyperpigmentation treatment, tretinoin can also treat acne and reduce the visibility of wrinkles, smile lines and other signs of aging.
Our guide to tretinoin as a treatment for melasma goes into more detail on how tretinoin works to reduce hyperpigmentation in your skin, as well as how you can use it to lighten and remove age spots.
While age spots can be annoying, they’re usually not worth stressing about. With regular use of medications like hydroquinone, kojic acid and tretinoin, it’s usually possible to lighten age spots to drastically reduce the physical appearance of age spots.
Interested in learning more about treating hyperpigmentation? Our guide to hyperpigmentation and melasma covers the major differences between the two most common forms of discolored skin, as well as what you can do to treat them.
You can also learn more about the best treatments for skin hyperpigmentation in our guides to tretinoin, kojic acid and hydroquinone, all linked above.