The pigment that is responsible to provide color to your skin, eyes, and hair is known as melanin. It is produced in cells called melanocytes when they absorb ultraviolet (UV) rays of the sun. Melanin is evenly distributed giving your skin a uniform color. But sometimes a phenomenon called hyper-pigmentation occurs that leads to the accumulation of melanin, forming brown spots on the skin. These spots may appear suddenly and become a permanent feature of your skin. Although they are harmless, there are ways through which you can get rid of them if you want to. These brown spots on skin mainly form due to overexposure to the sun. Having said that, there are certainly other causes that also exist behind their formation. Accordingly, there are also certain precautions that you can take to avoid their development.
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How Brown Spots on Skin are formed?
Brown spots are pigmented lesions, that could be flat or slightly raised but they have a defined edge. They are of the same texture as the surrounding skin. They vary in size and can develop on any part of the body. But brown spots commonly appear on the face, back of the hands, shoulders, lower legs and back. Another thing about brown spots is that they can either develop over many years or even overnight.
There are a number of causes behind the formation of brown spots on the skin. While some of them can be treated easily, others require more drastic treatments.
1. Chronic Exposure to Sunlight
Brown spots on skin are formed majorly because of excessive exposure to UV radiation of the sun. Such brown spots or liver spots are also known as solar lentigos or solar lentigines. It is mostly seen in people aged 60 and above. This is the reason why these dark spots are also called “age spots” or “wisdom spots”. But they can also occur in children and young adults. Men and women are equally prone to developing age spots. Brown spots can appear on people of light and dark skin tone but they are more prominent on people with light skin tone. Also, a brown spot may appear singularly or in a group.
2. Tanning Beds
Brown spots on skin can form not only due to excessive exposure to natural UV radiation but even an artificial one. Tanning beds are quite a rage in Europe and America. These beds emit artificial UV radiation to give people a tan. It is said that 10 minutes inside a tanning bed is equivalent to about 4 hours on the beach. You can develop brown spots even after prolonged usage of tanning beds.
3. Pregnancy and Hormonal Changes
Brown spots on skin could also form in women during pregnancy due to hormonal changes. This phenomenon of formation of small patches of discolored skin is called Melasma. It is marked by the appearance of brown patches on the upper lip, forehead, nose, and cheeks. Brown spots due to Melasma are mostly uniform and symmetrical on both sides of the face. It’s also called the ‘mask of pregnancy’. Even women who take birth control pills sometimes develop brown spots due to fluctuation in estrogen and progesterone levels.
There are certain skin-related issues that can cause inflammation, such as, psoriasis, eczema, and acne. Once the inflammation recedes, it’s possible that it may leave certain brown or dark spots on skin.
5. Side Effect of Certain Pharmaceutical Drugs
Certain medicines could also lead to hyper-pigmentation of the skin. Medication induced skin pigmentation could be due to topical, oral and even intravenous medications. Some common agents in this category are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or NSAIDs, antibiotics, tetracyclines, antipsychotics, anticonvulsants, and antimalarials.
Difference between Brown Spots, Moles and Freckles
You may easily get confused among brown spots, moles, and freckles and sometimes they look quite similar to each other. Brown spots are mainly caused due to excessive exposure to the sun. They are not hereditary in nature whereas freckles may be genetic. Even so, babies are not born with freckles but freckles might appear on the skin due to excessive exposure to the sun. They start appearing in children at the age of 3-4 years. Freckles that were light-colored initially may get darker due to overexposure to sunlight and again fade off in winters. But if you develop brown spots once, they are there forever. The only way to get rid of brown spots is to get them medically lightened or removed. Brown spots are also bigger in size than freckles.
Unlike brown spots and freckles, moles can be present on your skin by birth. Although new moles may keep appearing on your skin even during adolescence and in your early 20s.
Treatment for Brown Spots on Skin
Brown spots on the skin caused by chronic sun exposure are quite harmless. But even then, if you are worried that having brown spots is adversely affecting your appearance, you can get them treated. Treatment options include topical skin lightening products, laser treatments, chemical peels, and microdermabrasion.
1. Lightening creams
There are a number of lightening creams available in the market that you can buy without a prescription. You can choose from kojic acid serums, lactic, azelaic and glycolic acid preparations, and Vitamin C serums. They are all relatively safe to use. If you are not sure about which lightening cream to use, you can always get in touch with a dermatologist. Hydroquinone is the active ingredient in prescription lightening creams that work by bleaching the skin. Although it may take a considerable amount of time, generally several months, before you see any positive results.
Retinoids stimulate the production of collagen and exfoliate the skin which promotes the growth of new skin cells. You should use them 2-3 times a week initially and then increase the frequency of usage over time. Plus, you should always supplement your brown spot reduction regime with usage of a good moisturizer and sunscreen.
3. Laser Treatment
Laser treatment, although costly, but is a good option for brown spot reduction. Generally, an intense pulse light laser is used to treat dark spots on skin. It works by targeting the melanin in the skin and breaking up the dark spots. The results of laser treatment may take some time to show up and requires several sittings.
4. Chemical Peels
Similar to retinoids, a chemical peel involves the application of a solution to your skin which works towards exfoliating it. It removes the damaged top layer of the skin where new skin can grow. Using chemical peels over a period of time may help reduce the brown spots. You can choose a trichloroacetic acid or TCA peel that goes really deep into the skin. Or you can use glycolic acid or salicylic chemical peels which are light peels in comparison to TCA.
Cryotherapy is a procedure that involves the application of liquid nitrogen to the patches of dark skin and freezes them. When the skin heals, its color is much lighter. Although cryotherapy should be your last resort as it could sometimes cause permanent white spots or even more hyper-pigmentation.
This treatment also focuses on the production of new collagen which may eventually help in reducing the dark spots. This procedure is conducted by a dermatologist who will use a special device with an abrasive surface to remove the damaged outer layer of the skin.
Precautions That You Can Take
The best precaution that you can take to reduce your chances of developing brown spots on skin is to reduce your exposure to the sun, especially during peak hours. The duration of peak hours may differ from country to country but are generally considered between 10:00 am to 4:00 pm. Even if you do step out during midday you must wear sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher. You must also carry an umbrella or a hat large enough to block out the sun. During peak summer months, you can also choose to wear protective clothing like long-sleeved shirts and full pants.
If you are going to the beach, your beach essentials must include a sunscreen. Spending long hours on the beach without wearing sunscreen could lead to tanning in the short term. But, in the longer run, you may develop brown spots too. You can also avoid using tanning beds and sun lamps on a regular basis.
If the brown spots on your skin are a side effect of any medication you are on, withdrawal of the causative agent is the first step you can take. The pigmentation may take some time but it generally fades off on its own.
How are Brown Spots on Skin Different from Cancer of the Skin?
Brown spots on skin can vary in shade, from light brown to dark brown and may even turn black. But brown spots are harmless and benign in nature. Although the sudden appearance of brown spots may create a suspicion in your mind that what if they are an indication of skin cancer.
In order to check for skin cancer or melanoma, you can seek medical intervention from a dermatologist. Or, you can even self- examine the brown spots for the presence of five potential signs of skin cancer, at home.
The first thing you can look for is whether the brown spot or mole on your skin is symmetrical. If you see any sign of asymmetry, that is, one side of the mole is different from the other half, it could be a sign of melanoma.
Brown spots or moles on the skin generally have a rounded border. If the brown spot on your skin has an irregular border, it can be a sign of cancer.
Spots that develop on the skin due to chronic exposure to UV rays may vary from light brown to even somewhat blackish in color. But it will always be of the same color throughout its diameter. If the spot on your skin is of more than one shade or is of uneven color, you may get yourself checked by a physician.
Brown spots on skin may appear alone or in a group. Their size may also vary but they won’t be more than 6mm approximately in diameter. If the brown spot on your skin is of a diameter larger than 6mm or the size of a pencil eraser, get it checked.
Brown spots that appear on your skin due to excessive sun exposure stay the same in size and color. If you notice any changes in the colour, shape or size of the spots over a period of a few weeks or months, it could be a sign of cancer.
6. If the Spot on Your Skin Itches, Tingles or Bleeds
Brown spots due to sun exposure or hormonal changes or medicinal side effects, generally do not itch or bleed. It’s not at all a good sign if you notice any bleeding from a dark spot on your skin. You should immediately get it checked by a doctor.
The best way to reduce the risk of developing brown spots on skin is to lessen the time you spend in the sun. Every time you have to move out of your house, always wear a good quality sunscreen and re-apply it every 2-3 hours. Brown spots are not dangerous but if you want to get rid of them for cosmetic reasons, you have options. You can choose over-the-counter lightening creams or retinoids or even get a laser treatment done. Also, you should always check the possible side effects of any medication you are about to start. Sometimes it could lead to medication-induced cutaneous pigmentation so it is always good to be careful. Lastly, if brown spots appear on your skin overnight, at a young age, get it checked by a dermatologist. Rather, getting screened by a physician annually is highly recommended.