Liver spots, also known as age spots, sun spots, or solar lentigines, are extremely common spots that develop on the skin’s outer surface. While they aren’t dangerous and won’t cause any serious health effects, they can make skin look blotchy or otherwise adversely impact appearance. According to Dr. Gregory Walker of U.S. Dermatology Partners in Waco, Texas, “People often worry when they see liver spots because they can mimic the appearance of skin issues that present a real health concern, so the good news is that these liver spots aren’t harmful. The bad news is that they won’t go away on their own, and they can make people feel a little self-conscious. If patients are unhappy with liver spots marring their appearance, several minimally invasive cosmetic dermatology procedures are available to improve the appearance of age spots.” In this blog, Dr. Walker will walk you through the answers to frequently asked questions about liver spots, including explaining exactly what liver spots look like since it’s important to know the difference between this skin condition and other more serious concerns.
What Are Liver Spots?
Liver spots, which you may hear referred to commonly as age spots or by medical professionals as solar lentigines, are a benign dermatologic condition that causes dark-colored spots to develop on the skin. They are most common for people with light-colored skin who are over the age of 40, but anyone can develop liver spots. These spots are usually light to dark brown in color and appear on the parts of the body that receive regular or frequent exposure to the sun’s damaging UVA/B rays. So, you are most likely to see liver spots on the face, neck, hands, arms, and tops of feet.
What Causes Liver Spots?
Liver spots are referred to clinically as solar lentigines because they almost always develop as a result of solar damage from the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays. According to Dr. Walker, “The sun’s UVA/B rays can damage skin immediately through a sunburn or tan, but sun exposure also has long-term and cumulative effects, including age spots.”
It’s a little complicated, but basically, sunburns and tans occur because sunlight speeds up the production of melanin, which gives the skin its color. A lifetime of exposure to the sun’s UVA/B rays leads to a buildup of melanin in specific spots, causing us to develop darker coloring that is concentrated in areas that receive frequent sun exposure. In addition to frequent sun exposure, age spots also develop due to the use of tanning beds. People who are light-skinned, have family members who have age spots, or who have had frequent suntans or burns are much more likely to develop liver spots.
What Do Liver Spots Look Like?
Because liver spots may resemble other skin conditions, Dr. Walker recommends, “Even if you’re pretty sure a new spot on your skin is just an age spot, make sure to note it during your regular skin self-exams, which you should be doing every month, and talk to your dermatologist about it at your next annual professional skin exam.”
In most cases, liver spots can be diagnosed with only a visual inspection by your dermatologist, but if there is a concern that your age spot may be another condition, the dermatologist can also perform a skin biopsy to be absolutely certain. If you notice a new lesion on the skin that you suspect is an age spot, they should match the following common characteristics:
- Flat (not raised, indented, or textured)
- Oval or round shaped
- Range in color from slightly darker than the natural skin tone to dark brown
- Develop on areas of the skin that have received sun exposure
- Typically small like freckles, but may grow to as much as ½ an inch in diameter
- One or a few smaller age spots may merge together over time
It may seem like liver spots will be easy to recognize, but this benign condition can closely resemble other skin conditions, including actinic keratoses, melanoma (pigment-related skin cancer), and lentigo maligna (a type of melanoma). The visual similarity to these more serious conditions is why it is so important to have a dermatologist examine your liver spots to ensure the correct diagnosis.
Are Liver Spots Cancerous?
Liver spots are not cancerous, and they will not negatively impact skin health in any real way. However, according to Dr. Walker, “While age spots themselves are entirely benign, they are often a warning sign that a patient is at greater risk for skin cancers since they indicate prolonged or more extensive exposure to sunlight, which is the most common cause of skin cancer.”
Since liver spots may be a warning sign that patients are at increased risk for skin cancers, Dr. Walker encourages these patients to schedule annual professional exams with their dermatologist, examine their skin for new or changing spots every month, and learn the ABCDE’s of skin cancer by heart:
- A – Asymmetry – The spot is not the same on both sides
- B – Border – The border is not even and round but scalloped, rippled, or otherwise irregular
- C – Color – Very dark brown or black coloring, coloring different from other similar spots, or a mixture of colors within one spot
- D – Diameter – Liver spots can actually grow fairly large, but any spot bigger around than a pencil eraser may be a sign of melanoma and should be examined by a dermatologist
- E – Evolution – The spot changes or grows, especially if this evolution occurs quickly
Other warning signs that an age spot may be more serious include:
- The spot is painful or irritated
- The spot is itching
- The spot bleeds frequently
How Do You Remove Liver Spots?
According to Dr. Walker, “There is a range of cosmetic dermatology treatment options available to remove liver spots. From store-bought creams to in-office procedures, if you’re unhappy with the appearance of liver spots, a dermatologist can help you remove them.” Commonly recommended treatments include:
- Nonprescription fade creams – You can find some low-dose hydroquinone creams over-the-counter as well as glycolic or kojic acid serums that are geared toward lightening dark areas of the skin, including liver spots
- Prescription fade creams – If over-the-counter creams aren’t effective, your dermatologist may prescribe a fade cream that contains higher doses of hydroquinone as well as retinoids and steroids to fade the liver spots over the course of several months.
- Laser treatments – Dermatologists utilize a laser treatment device to target the melanin-producing skin cells called melanocytes, which lightens skin over time and reduces the risk for future liver spots in that area. You can also receive ablative laser treatments that remove the outer layers of skin, which delivers a result more quickly, but liver spots are more likely to return.
- Cryotherapy – By applying liquid nitrogen to the area, the darker-pigmented skin cells are destroyed, and as the area heals, the liver spot appears lighter.
- Microdermabrasion – This process uses a physical exfoliant to remove several layers of skin, revealing new, healthier skin cells below and creating an even skin tone.
- Chemical peels – Delivers similar results compared to microdermabrasion, but peels utilize a chemical rather than a physical exfoliant.
Can You Prevent Liver Spots?
When it comes to prevention, Dr. Walker says, “If you already have liver spots, chances are you’ll develop more down the road, but by taking steps to limit sun exposure and protect your skin from UVA/B damage, you can reduce your risk for developing new age spots.” To protect your skin from sun damage and future age spots, Dr. Walker recommends taking the following precautions:
- Wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher every single day
- Apply an adequate amount of sunscreen and reapply regularly (every couple of hours)
- Limit sun exposure during peak hours between 10 am and 2 pm
- Wear protective hats, gloves, and other clothing items during periods of prolonged exposure
Visit U.S. Dermatology Partners
Whether it’s time for your annual skin exam or you’re interested in learning more about diminishing the appearance of liver spots, the U.S. Dermatology Partners team is here to help. You can get started working with our skilled dermatologists at any time by filling out our simple online scheduling request form. Once we receive your information, we’ll be in touch to finalize the details of your visit.
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