If you spent a regrettable amount of time sunbathing in your twenties, you might be wondering how to get rid of sun spots now. The freckle-like dots of pigmentation that show up on skin as a result of routine UV exposure are extremely common — but that doesn’t mean you have to live with them if you’re not a fan. Many people feel they look older (and that their skin looks less “flawless”) as a result of having sun spots, but luckily, there’s no shortage of products and treatments designed to address them. Rather than go through a process of trial and error, we consulted two dermatologists to tell us the most effective ways to banish sun spots for good. Read on to discover how to fade sun spots — either via a professional treatment, or from the comfort of your home.
First Off, What, Exactly, Is a Sun Spot?
“The medical term we use is lentigo — it’s a collection of pigmentation that results from exposure to the sun,” explains NYC-based board-certified dermatologist Anne Chapas, MD. “In response to ultraviolet light, our skin tries to protect itself by creating a pigment called melanin,” she says. This small blotch of pigment that appears on the skin is what we know as a sun spot. The problem? “We see them as imperfections in the skin tone,” Dr. Chapas notes.
To ensure your sun spots are nothing more than cosmetic annoyances, your dermatologist should perform a skin check before you start thinking about removal options. “The first thing we do when someone comes into the office is examine them with a device called a dermatoscope,” says Dr. Chapas. “It’s a skin microscope that lets us see the pattern of pigmentation under the skin, and the different patterns are associated with either benign and malignant lesions.” Once your derm has confirmed that your sun spot is benign, they’ll give you the green light to start considering cosmetic removal options, Dr. Chapas says.
In-Office Treatments For Sun Spots
Once you’ve gotten the go ahead, your derm may recommend a range of different professional options to fade the sun spot. Usually, options range from lasers to intense pulsed light. It’s important to consider each of the in-office treatments for sun spots.
As always, talk to your doctor before starting any new treatment.
In-Office Sun Spot Treatment #1: Intense Pulsed Light
Best for: Fair skin tones
“My treatment of choice for sun spots, for the right candidate, is intense pulsed light, or IPL,” says NYC-based board-certified dermatologist Hadley King, MD. “IPL targets pigment areas using intense pulses of light over a range of wavelengths,” she explains. This technology is not ideal for everyone, though: “IPL is safe for use in lighter skin tones, but the risk of burning the skin increases with darker skin tones,” Dr. King notes. (Discover one writer’s experience getting IPL here.)
In-Office Sun Spot Treatment #2: Quality-Switched Laser
Best for: Fair to medium skin tones
These quality-switched, or “Q-switched” lasers work in a similar fashion to IPL: “These give a discrete energy type of light that’s absorbed by the excess melanin in the skin, and that absorption creates a heat energy that breaks down the melanin, and causes the surface of the skin to make a little scab,” explains Dr. Chapas. “Then, that scab peels off on the face after about five to seven days, and usually the skin is back to its background color after that.” As with IPL, the heat created by these lasers targets pigment, so they’re not typically recommended for darker skin tones (which have less contrast between the sun spots and the skin itself).
In-Office Sun Spot Treatment #3: Pico laser
Best for: Deep skin tones
Chapas and King agree that darker skin tones pose a challenge with IPL and lasers, because there’s a greater risk of skin injury when there’s more melanin in the skin itself — not just in the sun spots. There’s also another risk to be aware of: the wrong laser or setting can also increase pigmentation in darker skin tones. Laser treatments trigger your body’s inflammatory response, which tells your body to start healing the area zapped by the laser. However, for many, that inflammatory response can result in PIH (post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation), and thus, dark spots.
That all said, if you have a deeper complexion, your best bet will generally be the newest, most advanced lasers: “We use a laser that [pulses] about 1,000 times faster than the Q-switched laser, called the picosecond, or ‘pico’ laser,” explains Chapas. “The way these devices remove sun spots is more with acoustic energy and less with heat, so they’re a little bit safer for darker skin types,” says Chapas. (That heat is what tends to trigger PIH.) She adds that, as is the case with any laser treatment, you’ll still experience the same result — a temporary darkening of the spot, followed by a crusting and peeling, revealing less pigmented skin underneath that blends in with the rest of your complexion. Talk to your provider about what’s best for you and your skin’s needs. (Learn more about the best lasers for deeper complexions here.)
At-Home Treatments to Remove Sun Spots
If you and your doctor determine that lasers aren’t the best option for you, “topical treatment options can also be very helpful,” says Dr. King. If you prefer to treat your sun spots at home, many of the same topical treatments your dermatologist uses are available over-the-counter in lighter strengths.
At-Home Sun Spot Treatment #1: Antioxidants
Over time, you may be able to fade the appearance of sun spots with antioxidants. “Antioxidants and vitamin C can help [reduce the appearance of] sun spots.” says Dr. Chapas. In fact, she applies an antioxidant serum every morning to fade current spots and help prevent new ones. (Try the best-selling BeautyStat® Universal CTM Skin Refiner, $80, and read a full review here).
At-Home Sun Spot Treatment #2: Acids
With regular use, exfoliating acids can help brighten pigmented spots. Dr. King suggests azelaic acid, kojic acid, and phytic acid (all potent brighteners!), while both she and Dr. Chapas suggest tranexamic acid. “Topical tranexamic acid can be beneficial for some people,” says Chapas. Apply a serum containing this ingredient once a day to gradually fade spots over time. Another option: “You can also exfoliate the melanin away with light acids like glycolic and lactic,” says Chapas. Try buying pre-soaked pads so you can easily swipe them over your entire face (just avoid the eye area!) before bed each night. We’re fans of the Dr. Dennis Gross® Alpha Beta® peels ($88) — (read our review here).
At-Home Sun Spot Treatment #3: Hydroquinone
You could also consider hydroquinone, a bleaching agent, to help brighten up dark patches. Dr. Chapas says that the ingredient blocks melanin synthesis, making it useful for lightening sun spots. While hydroquinone creams are widely available, they are not ideal for all people. Discuss this option with your doctor to determine whether it’s safe for you.
Hydroquinone has not been FDA-approved. Talk to your doctor before starting any treatment with it.
At-Home Sun Spot Treatment #4: Retinol
Sometimes, it seems like there’s nothing retinol can’t do: In addition to improving overall skin tone, texture, and firmness, the ingredient may help lighten the appearance of sun spots. For this reason, “We use a lot of retinol and [prescription] tretinoin on patients,” Dr. Chapas confirms. These popular age defying ingredients work by sloughing away pigmented skin cells on the surface. Dr. Chapas incorporates retinol into her own nighttime skincare routine, noting that it helps keep her skin looking even. Try the SkinMedica® Retinol Complex series ($62 to $93), which includes three retinol strengths to choose from and “work up” to.
Retinol shouldn't be used by women who are pregnant, considering getting pregnant, or nursing. Please consult with your doctor before use.
How to Prevent Future Sun Spots
Regardless of what type of home or in-office treatment you choose, prevention is the most important step in your sun spot-fighting regimen. “The number one thing I recommend my patients to do is wear a physical sunscreen every day of 30 or higher, because we know that light can darken spots,” says Dr. Chapas. (She calls herself a “huge sunscreen wearer” for this reason.) Your skin is especially vulnerable after peels, exfoliants, or laser appointments, so wearing sunscreen while undergoing any of the above treatments is a must. Try Elta MD® UV Physical Broad-Spectrum SPF 41 ($33), which is gentle enough to use after a light chemical peel.
Learn more tips for reducing sun spots and improving overall skin tone:
- 7 UPF Garments that are Equal Parts Stylish and Smart
- If You’re Obsessed With Sun Protection, You Really Need This Accesory
- Berries, Salmon & More Foods That Are Essential to Eat If You Want Gorgeous Skin
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