Also known as age spots, since they become more common as we get older, sun spots are flat tan, brown or gray marks that usually show up on the hands and face. They occur when ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun activate the skin’s pigment-producing cells (melanocytes), which spurs production of pigment (melanin). Too much UV exposure damages the melanocytes, causing them to produce too much melanin or causing the melanin to clump together, resulting in dark spots on the skin.
But the true cause of sun spots goes even deeper, according to Benjamin Johnson, MD, skincare expert and founder of Osmosis Pür Skin Care. “Excess UV exposure causes damage to the dermal/epidermal junction, which prevents delivery of antioxidants to the epidermis,” he explains. “The skin ages sporadically, and we can’t always say why a spot shows up there versus somewhere else.” He believes sun spots show up in places that have received so much trauma that they’re not able to receive adequate antioxidant supply from the dermis. Inadequate antioxidant supply, in turn, allows free-radical damage to the melanocytes and irregular melanin production, compounding the problem.
Conventional treatment for hyperpigmentation includes bleach (such as hydroquinone) and tretinoin (commonly known as Retin-A), both of which have some scary health risks (think cancer, reproductive toxicity and developmental effects). Also common are cryotherapy (or freezing) and light therapy (either laser or intense pulsed light), which appear effective and relatively safe for the skin—though not for the wallet. Treatments can easily run into the thousands of dollars.
5-Steps to Lighter Sun Spots
On the other end of the skincare spectrum are safe, natural ways to lighten or prevent sun spots. Follow this simple plan and watch those telltale signs of UV damage fade away.
Step 1: Use enzymes. Applying enzymes to the skin aids in the process of removing dead skin and generating new skin. Systemic enzymes help fight free-radical damage, stimulating circulation and improving delivery of nutrients to the skin, all of which can help the skin heal from sun damage.
Step 2: Up your antioxidants. Our skin naturally uses antioxidants to protect itself from the effects of the sun, but as Johnson explains, sun damage can get in the way of antioxidant delivery to the epidermis. You can help compensate for this by applying antioxidant-rich skincare products.
Step 3: Try beta glucan. According to Johnson, sun spots typically signal a buildup of debris between the dermis and the epidermis. He recommends using topical beta glucan (a soluble fiber found in oats) to clear the debris, increase circulation to increase food supply and remodel the damage in the dermis.
Step 4: Try this at home. You might not have to look any farther than your kitchen cabinet to find sun-spot fighters. While studies on their efficacy are lacking, traditional use suggests several food-based concoctions may help with skin lightening. A combination of honey and yogurt, for instance, is thought to create a natural bleach that is safe and effective for treating hyperpigmentation. In her book Naturally Healthy Skin (Storey Communications, 1999), Stephanie Tourles recommends blending 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, one small potato (peeled), ½ a small cucumber, and 1 tablespoon plain yogurt, applying the mixture to the affected areas, and covering with a hot, damp towel for 15 to 20 minutes twice per week.
Step 5: Avoid the sun. “Once your skin hyperpigments and/or clumps melanin, you must always wear sun protection, otherwise it will return again and again,” warns Myra Eby, founder of MyChelle Dermaceuticals, a natural skincare line. “Protect your skin from overexposure as best as possible, and wear hats and lightweight clothing when out in the sun for extended periods.”
Remember, even though sun spots are benign, they do indicate overexposure to the sun, which is a risk factor for skin cancer. In addition, it’s not always easy to distinguish sun spots from malignant growths, so be sure to have any suspicious skin discoloration checked out by a healthcare provider. True sun spots are purely a cosmetic issue, so take heart in knowing safe and natural alternatives can help you find the bright side of dark spots.