Dark patches or spots -- those that are darker than your normal skin tone -- are a common cosmetic condition. These areas of discoloration, often referred to as age spots, liver spots or hyperpigmentation, are generally harmless and can affect people of every race and skin tone. In most cases, dark spots can be treated, although sometimes with difficulty.
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Why They Appear
Skin contains a brown pigment called melanin. Dark spots occur when an excess of melanin forms deposits in the skin. These deposits appear on the surface of the skin as dark blemishes or patches.
Sun and Age
Dark spots have a variety of causes, the most common of which are age and long-term sun exposure. When your skin is exposed to the sun, your body starts to produce extra melanin to protect against damage from the ultraviolet light in the sun’s rays. The overproduction of melanin appears in the form of a tan, or as dark spots in areas that are already hyperpigmented. Dark spots may also be caused by hormonal changes. Pregnancy or certain medications, such as birth control pills or acne medication, can trigger an overproduction of melanin. In these cases, the darkened areas are more likely to appear as swaths or patches than as spots.
Appearance and Location
Dark spots usually appear as flat, round, brown marks with irregular edges. They can be as small as a pinpoint or as large as a dime. They tend to appear in places on the skin that receive frequent sun exposure, such as the face, hands, forearms, shoulders and upper back.
Lighten and fade dark spots with over-the-counter or prescription creams containing hydroquinone, a type of bleach. Your doctor may prescribe a cream containing tretinoin and cortisone. Laser treatments are also highly effective at reducing or fading hyperpigmentation, as lasers can remove the pigment without disturbing the color of the surrounding skin. However, no treatment is permanent. If you continue to expose your skin to the sun, the spots are likely to reappear.
Protecting your skin from the sun is the key to preventing dark spots. Apply sunscreen with a high sun protection factor 30 minutes before going outside, and wear clothes that cover exposed skin and a wide-brimmed hat to shade your face. If you believe that your dark spots are caused by medication, such as birth control pills or acne medicine, talk to your doctor about alternative prescriptions.