What Causes Liver Spots?

As we age, we may develop liver spots–also called age spots–on areas of our skin where we get the most sun exposure: think the face, arms, shoulders, and hands. While the Mayo Clinic says liver spots are most common in those with lighter hair and skin, people of all skin tones can develop them. Additionally, those who get lots of sun exposure, frequent sunburns, or regularly hit the tanning bed are more prone to developing age spots than others.

In fact, liver spots are so common in the elderly that even cartoonists have often used them to depict older characters. Ultraviolet light, which radiates from the sun, speeds up melanin production, and age spots are the result of “clumped” or highly concentrated melanin. This explains why age spots pop up in areas where we get the most sun.

Age spots are innocuous, but can appear worrisome. Generally, liver spots:

  • are brown, tan, or black
  • appear in areas most exposed to the sun
  • are flat, oval areas of hyperpigmentation
  • can be freckle-sized to about half an inch wide
  • can group together, becoming more noticeable

According to the Mayo Clinic, you should see a doctor if you’re worried your age spots could be a sign of a type of skin cancer known as melanoma. Some useful warning signs to look out for are known as “The ABCDEs of Melanoma.

What are some ways you may prevent developing liver spots down the line?

  • Use sunscreen, and be sure to apply it 15-30 minutes before leaving the house, applying it generously and re-applying every 2 hours (and even more frequently if you’re sweating or swimming). Your sunscreen should be SPF 30 or higher, and should be broad-spectrum, aka it offers protection from both UVA and UVB light.
  • Avoid the sun from 10 AM to 2 PM, because this is when the sun is the strongest.
  • Cover up! Wear broad-brimmed hats and tightly-woven clothing to protect yourself from the sun. There’s also now clothing on the market that’s made with ultraviolet protection factor (UPF); the strongest is UPF 40-50.

While age spots are harmless, stay vigilant: make sure to get regular checkups from your doctor, and practice proper sun protection.