"Solar lentigines" is the medical term for the aesthetically unpleasant brown splotches that form on your hands, face and other areas of skin routinely exposed to the sun. You know them as age spots, but they may also be called sun spots or liver spots as well. Topical treatments that contain hydroquinone may be what your dermatologist recommends to slowly fade dark patches away. To prevent other sun spots from forming, however, you must also use diligent sun protection. Otherwise, hydroquinone treatment—and any other treatment for age spots—will be a waste of your time and money.
Age Spot Causes
The American Osteopathic College of Dermatology (AOCD) places age spots in a larger category of skin discoloration called hyperpigmentation. The process by which age spots form is simple: The melanin in your skin that gives it its color collects in patches that are darker when contrasted with the surrounding skin. This process is accelerated by exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun or a tanning bed. Age spots can affect anyone of any race, but Mayo Clinic experts state that they're more common in adults over the age of 40.
Hydroquinone: Over the Counter
Although genuine age spots don't require medical treatment, they can often resemble cancerous growths, and some people may want to have them removed for aesthetic reasons. Hydroquinone is a bleaching agent found in over-the-counter skin lightening/fading creams, but these products are milder compared to prescription hydroquinone topical medications. By law, nonprescription fading and bleaching creams may contain no more than 2 percent hydroquinone. If you want to successfully fade age spots at home, the Mayo Clinic indicates that these consumer products can be successful, depending on the darkness of the spot and how frequently the treatment is applied. Hydroquinone must penetrate all the way through the top layer of skin (dermis) down to the epidermis, where melanin is stored, explains Mayo Clinic experts. If using a nonprescription hydroquinone cream, it may take several weeks—or even months—before you notice that your age spots are lightening.
Treatments with a stronger concentration of hydroquinone (up to 4 percent) are available through prescription only. According to Drugs.com, topical hydroquinone is sold under more than 30 brand names. If age spots are particularly severe, the AOCD states that prescription hydroquinone may be complemented with other prescription topical treatment, including a topical tretinoin and a cortisone cream, to hasten fading. This type of combination therapy can also take time to yield improvement—between 3 and 6 months.
Cautions and Considerations
Hydroquinone can be irritating, so treating the skin gently is important. Drugs.com states that skin care products that contain alcohol, lime, spices, astringents and other medicated treatments should be avoided. If you use topical hydroquinone along with benzoyl peroxide or hydrogen peroxide, this may cause your skin to stain temporarily, cautions Drugs.com. This stain may be removed using soap and water. Before you use hydroquinone, tell your doctor if you are pregnant or nursing, have liver or kidney disease, or have any drug allergies. Hydroquinone should not be applied to chapped, sunburned/windburned or wounded skin. Special care should be taken to make sure that it doesn't get in the eyes or mouth; if it does, rinse immediately.
Protect Your Skin
It's important to exercise sun protection when using hydroquinone for age spots, as it leaves the skin more vulnerable to sunburn. However, sun protection is important for another reason: Age spots darken when exposed to UV rays. Moreover, sun exposure can cause new spots to form, as well as other signs of photoaging, such as wrinkles and tough, leathery skin. Always apply a sunscreen with a sun protection factor of at least 15 before going outdoors, advises the Mayo Clinic. Stay inside when the sun's rays peak–between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Wear protective clothing with a tight weave that covers your arms and legs when you go outdoors, as well as a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses.