There’s a saying in the skincare community that your face doesn’t end at your chin — it stops at your décolletage. This mantra deserves to be framed in beveled gold and hung within eyesight of every vanity, lest one forgets to slather and spritz this particularly vulnerable area. While a handful of issues can affect your chest, including fine lines and creping, today we’re specifically focusing on how to combat those frustrating splotches of hyperpigmentation, otherwise known as “sun spots.”
What Exactly Are Sun Spots?
When dermatologists talk about sun spots, they’re referring to brown-hued splotches of discoloration that typically appear on areas that get a lot of sun exposure, including your chest. Unlike freckles, which are usually much smaller and tend to show up in childhood, sun spots occur later in life and are often larger in size, ranging from the size of a pencil eraser to a dime.
“Sun spots, or liver spots, technically called lentigines, are caused by overactivity of an increased number of pigment-producing cells,” explains Dr. Joshua Zeichner, a cosmetic dermatologist based in New York City. “Extended exposure to sunlight causes pigment-producing cells to increase in number. Sunspots are a permanent change, while freckles improve when you are no longer in the sun (for example, during the winter months).”
While sunspots can occur anywhere on the body — including your face, hands, neck, and legs — they tend to show up with some frequency on your chest. This area is particularly at risk in women due to our affinity for wearing lower-cut tops and (for shame!) not staying on top of SPF application.
“Often we are good at remembering to use sunscreen on our face, but we don't apply it to our necks, chest, and arms,” says Dr. Jennifer Chwalek, a dermatologist for New York’s Union Square Laser Dermatology. “Over time, these areas develop significant sun damage if they are not protected.”
Prevention is undoubtedly the most important step to take in preventing sun spots. This involves religiously applying SPF and using skin-protecting clothing and accessories to your advantage. If you haven’t yet invested in wide-brimmed sun hats, oversized sunglasses, and UV-protecting garments, now is the perfect time to take yourself on a shopping spree.
For those who’ve already got a few sun spots taking up prime real estate on your décolletage, don’t fret. You still have options when it comes to minimizing their appearance.
“Sometimes topical products and chemical peels containing kojic acid, azelaic acid, glycolic acid, and hydroquinone can help, over time, to fade the spots,” says Dr. Chwalek. Learn more about how acids can work for your skin here.
Dr. Zeichner agrees on all the above ingredients, adding that antioxidant serums such as vitamin C can also help to interfere with abnormal pigment production and help lighten dark spots. Retinol is another option, he says, for its ability to stimulate collagen production, increase cell turnover, strengthen the skin’s barrier, and generally improve radiance.
If you don’t want to slather on products in the hopes that they’ll reduce your sun spots — after all, fading discoloration takes time! — there are different types of in-office procedures you can look to instead. But navigating the world of lasers and light treatments can be challenging, and selecting a procedure depends on your specific skin goals — along with customized recommendations from your dermatologist.
“Q-switched lasers can specifically target pigment and can be useful for treating individual spots,” notes Dr. Chwalek. This type of device is generally most ideal for a few isolated sun spots (versus large areas of skin). That’s because it’s a highly focused device — it will only affect these targeted areas, not your overall chest.
If you’re looking to treat larger areas, Dr. Chwalek recommends Intense Pulsed Light (IPL) and Fraxel, which “are useful for treating overall photodamage and creating a more even skin tone.” She adds, “Laser treatments, specifically Fraxel, have the added benefit of stimulating collagen and improving wrinkles as well as skin texture.” Both these devices generally require a series of three to six treatments to be most effective, and can reduce sun spots and other areas of discoloration, redness from broken capillaries, fine lines, and generally improve overall skin texture and tone.
It’s important to note, though, that the primary difference between the two treatments is that IPL is not a laser. Rather, it utilizes a broad spectrum of wavelengths via bright, flashing pulses of light instead of the singular wavelength of a laser. While it’s able to treat a wider spectrum of skin issues, ranging from pigmentation to hair removal, it’s generally a less targeted, less potent, and less expensive treatment. (So, if your sun spots are severe, it might not be your best option.) Fraxel, on the other hand, is a true laser that works with steam to help stimulate collagen production to explicitly resurface the texture and tone of your skin.
Of course, each type of topical and in-office treatment has its own unique benefits. The best way to figure out what strategy is best for you and the sun spots on your chest is to meet with a dermatologist. They’re the experts, and can assess your skin to help you achieve your skincare goals. Meanwhile, keep layering on that SPF and whatever you do — don’t forget that your face ends at your décolletage.