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No one wants to look older than they are, but skin discoloration in the form of sun or age spots, freckles, and other areas that look darker than the surrounding skin can add years to your face. But just because you’ve noticed some of these brown dots showing up on the skin of your face or chest, doesn’t mean you have to resign yourself to a less-than-ideal complexion. We share some tips and tricks for turning back the clock and restoring that much-coveted youthful glow.
Understanding Age Spots
Generally, what most people are asking about when they ask about age spots are really sun spots, explains Dr. Eric Bernstein. “These spots are caused by the sun, and tend to accumulate with more sun exposure and tend to grow if we don’t treat them.” The real connection between solar lentigines and age is the number of years a person has been exposed to the sun.
So how exactly does too much time in the sun cause these frustrating (but common) discolorations? “With time, the ultraviolet rays from the skin stimulate melanocytes (the pigment creating cells) to produce melanin pigment,” explains Dr. Brian Zelickson. “This increase in pigment, or hyperpigmentation, over time can become persistent in certain areas causing dark spots on the skin.” It’s these dark spots, medically referred to as a solar lentigo or solar lentigines, that make us look older than we are.
Laser Medicine to the Rescue
If you’ve ever wished for a magic, anti-aging tool to be invented, you can stop wishing because they exist. No, they won’t turn you back into a carefree 25-year old but lasers can — and do — take years off your face. “Lasers are ideal for age spot removal,” affirms Dr. Bernstein.
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The laser or pulsed light selectively targets dark concentrations of melanin that make up age spots or other skin discolorations. After being treated by the laser your body’s natural regeneration system returns the skin to its natural state over a short period. The result: even toned, younger-looking skin.
There are several options when it comes to the type of laser used to get your skin looking smooth, youthful and even toned.
- Q-switched lasers (like the Nd:YAG laser) - work to break up melanin on individual spots, removing discoloration. There is no down time and you should only need one treatment.
- Perfecta lasers - pulsed dye lasers that can remove several types of skin discoloration with minimal downtime including solar lentigines, redness and freckles.
- Fractional lasers (Fraxel®) - a good choice for getting rid of larger patches of pigmentation. This type of laser treatment will even out skin tone and also help smooth fine lines and wrinkles. Depending on the size of the hyperpigmentation, you may need more than one treatment, but usually no more than two.
- IPL (Intense Pulsed Light) - offers another way to target skin discoloration. These treatments are useful for hyperpigmentations according to Dr. Bernstein and usually require three to five treatments depending on what you’re hoping to achieve.
What to Expect
While the idea of a laser might sound daunting, it’s nothing to fear. The laser’s energy is usually delivered in pulses with a hand piece held very close to the skin. As the laser pulses, you may feel a slight sting, but many people don’t feel anything, or simply compare the feeling to the light snap of a rubber band. There’s no downtime, so you can go back to normal activities right away. The treated pigmentations will scab over and peel away over the course of about one or two weeks.
Make a note: As long as you stay out of the sun and protect your skin with broad spectrum sunscreen regularly to prevent the emergence of new solar lentigines. The treated hyperpigmentations will not return, but as you get older it takes less sun exposure to cause new age spots to form.
Age Spot Removal: Important Considerations
“It is important to see a dermatologist to evaluate the dark spots and first make sure they are not precancerous moles,” notes Dr. Zelickson. Dr. Bernstein agrees. “The most important thing prior to getting your brown spots or liver spots removed is to go to the dermatologist and get looked at,” he advises. “This is especially important if you’re being treated by a non-dermatologist. The reason for this is that some brown spots may look perfectly harmless to you, but may actually be cancers or pre-cancers and need to be evaluated by a dermatologist.” If the spots are raised they may be seborrheic keratosis, warts or other condition best treated by other means such as freezing.
Depending on the type of skin condition you’re dealing with there are a few other options that may help minimize them. “Aside from lasers and light devices one can use chemical peels and topical bleaching agents to lighten these spots,” says Dr. Zelickson.
Retin-A is an option for evening tone, but it can be irritating to the skin. The prescription bleaching cream Tri-Luma® cream which contains retin-A, hydroquinone and a corticosteroid cream can be good for large areas of discoloration like melasma.
Chemical peels and microdermabrasion help increase cell turnover, which decreases the amount of pigment that is able to be delivered to the skin cells and can help in an overall lightening of the skin on your face.
Talk to your skin care professional to find out the removal option best for you. Either way, know that there are effective ways to achieve skin that’s refreshed, revitalized and most importantly, younger looking.