Sunspots are dark-colored spots that can develop on areas of sun-exposed skin. Despite their appearance, sunspots are benign and not a sign of cancer.
Although sunspots are harmless, some people may choose to treat them for cosmetic reasons or to improve their self-esteem.
In this article, we discuss what causes sunspots on the face. We also outline the treatments and home remedies that could help reduce their appearance.
Sunspots, which doctors may refer to as solar lentigines, are dark brown, flat, rounded spots that may appear on the face or other areas of sun-exposed skin. Sunspots are most likely to develop in the following areas:
The sun emits ultraviolet (UV) radiation that stimulates the production of skin cells called melanocytes. Melanocytes produce a substance called melanin, which gives the skin its color.
When there is a disruption to melanin production, people may develop overpigmented (hyperpigmented) or underpigmented (hypopigmented) areas of skin. Sunspots are hyperpigmented skin blemishes.
Sunspots are not cancerous and do not become cancerous. However, some people may find these skin blemishes unsightly. They may, therefore, seek treatment to lessen the appearance of sunspots and improve their self-esteem.
Overactivity of the tyrosinase enzyme can occur as a result of aging. Due to this, some people refer to sunspots as age spots.
According to the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery (ASDS), some people may also have a genetic risk for developing sunspots.
Doctors can treat sunspots by slowing down or stopping the activity of the tyrosinase enzyme. They describe drugs that achieve this as having “antityrosinase activity.” The effects that they have can help lessen the appearance of sunspots.
Two types of treatment are available for sunspots on the face: topical creams and dermatologic techniques.
Topical creams are treatments that people apply to the skin. Several creams contain ingredients that target the tyrosinase enzyme and reduce the appearance of sunspots.
Hydroquinone is a popular medicinal treatment for sunspots. However, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have not approved hydroquinone for treating and preventing sunspots due to the drug’s unknown safety profile.
Hydroquinone works as a skin-lightening treatment by blocking the effect of tyrosinase. People can purchase 2% hydroquinone creams over the counter. Higher strengths of hydroquinone require a doctor’s prescription.
People who use hydroquinone may experience the following side effects:
Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should avoid using hydroquinone because substantial amounts of the medication absorb into the skin and enter the woman’s bloodstream. Here, it can affect a fetus or a breastfeeding baby.
Tretinoin is a derivative of vitamin A. Topical tretinoin creams can reduce the effect of photoaging that occurs as a result of exposure to UVB radiation.
Tri-Luma is a topical cream containing three active ingredients that can help reduce hyperpigmentation. These are:
- fluocinolone acetonide
Although doctors are unsure how this combination works to reduce sunspots, researchers suggest that tretinoin increases the effectiveness of hydroquinone.
Fluocinolone acetonide is a corticosteroid that dermatologists sometimes prescribe to treat severe inflammatory skin disorders.
Dermatologic techniques typically involve removing layers of skin from the sunspot to lessen its appearance.
The ASDS recommend the following treatments for sunspots:
- laser resurfacing
- chemical peels
As age spots are not dangerous, people may decide to lighten them using home remedies or natural products. Some natural products that may help treat age spots include those below.
Extracts of Haloxylon and Cleome
A 2017 laboratory study investigated the anti-aging skin effects of six different plant species that people commonly use in African folk medicine. In this study, Haloxylon articulatum, locally known as “Remeth,” had the greatest effect on reducing tyrosinase activity.
Cleome arabica, locally known as “Mnitna,” was also able to block tyrosinase activity but not as effectively as H. articulatum. The researchers concluded that both products may be effective natural skin-lightening agents. However, further studies involving human participants are necessary to confirm these effects.
Leaf extracts of Aloe and Harpephyllum
A 2012 laboratory study investigated the antityrosinase activity of ten different South African plant species.
Four different Aloe species inhibited the production of tyrosinase in vitro. These were Aloe ferox, Aloe aculeata, Aloe pretoriensis, and Aloe sessiliflora. Of these, A. ferox showed the greatest inhibitory effects.
However, leaf extract of Harpephyllum caffrum showed the greatest antityrosinase activity overall. The researchers, therefore, concluded that H. caffrum could be useful as a treatment for sunspots. However, further studies are necessary to confirm its effects in humans.
Traditional Chinese medicine doctors sometimes recommend licorice extract to lighten the skin. The main component of licorice is a chemical called glabridin. According to a review from 2009, glabridin has antityrosinase activity and can prevent UVB-induced hyperpigmentation.
Other components in licorice extract lighten the skin by dispersing melanin. People using licorice extracts may notice improvements in sunspots without experiencing significant side effects.
Researchers have studied the effects of soybeans on skin pigmentation. In an earlier study from 2001, researchers found that soy milk inhibits pathways in skin cells that cause hyperpigmentation. Further studies in humans are necessary to confirm these findings.
The duration of treatment necessary to treat sunspots depends partly on the type of treatment. In general, though, it may take weeks to months for treatment to cause noticeable changes to the skin. For example, the skin-lightening effects of dermabrasion may take 6–8 weeks.
Some treatments may also require multiple procedures. People who opt for chemical peels can repeat the procedure every 6–12 months if necessary.
A person should talk to their doctor or dermatologist to get an approximate time frame for their treatment.
Sunspots are noncancerous skin blemishes that people can develop on the face and other sun-exposed areas of the body.
Although sunspots are harmless, some people may want to get rid of them or lessen their appearance for cosmetic reasons. Dermatologists may recommend topical creams or dermatologic procedures to lighten the skin.
Natural remedies may be effective in reducing the appearance of sunspots. However, further research is necessary to establish their effectiveness.
A dermatologist may give some indication of how long a person’s treatment will take to produce noticeable results.