If your skin is starting to develop age spots, know you aren't alone—it's quite common. Also called dark spots and liver spots, age spots often look like large freckles. Fortunately, there are ways to help prevent them from developing and treatment options to lessen their appearance if you don't like them.
Portrait of senior woman with age spots
Credit: Getty Images / Westend61

As we get older, your skin may start to show your age (m-hm, I hear that groan, I'm right there with you!). Those darker spots—where there's more pigment—go by quite a few different names: age spots, dark spots, liver spots. They're all the same thing. "They are produced by an increase in melanin," explains Brittany Cohen, Licensed Medical Aesthetician in the Greater Philadelphia Area. "Dark spots can occur for a few reasons—cumulative and prolonged sun exposure, acne scarring which can cause post inflammatory hyperpigmentation, and hormonal changes."

Age spots typically appear as you get older, but sometimes they develop as early as childhood. And some folks have a hereditary predisposition to developing age spots. The good news is that age spots typically aren't cancerous and usually don't lead to cancer either, according to the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery. But it is still recommended that you have them checked by a doctor or dermatologist.

How to Prevent Age Spots

Age spots are especially common in people who have spent a lot of time in the sun. "Staying out of the sun, applying sunscreen, and wearing protective clothing are the key factors to dark spot prevention," says Cohen. For generally healthier skin, there are several foods that can help reduce the appearance of aging by fighting inflammation and supporting healthy collagen formation, like kale, berries, nuts, bone broth and salmon. But for age spot specifically, appropriate sun protection is your best bet in staving them off.

How to Treat Age Spots

There are many ways to treat dark spots—either with a topical treatment (think: creams, serums) or cosmetic procedures. "Ninety percent of what I treat is age spots, but to be clear, the use of both topical treatments and cosmetic procedures will not necessarily get rid of dark spots altogether. Both treatment types will help to lighten and brighten those unwanted dark spots," says Cohen.

1. Topical Treatments

Start first with topical treatments that inhibit melanin production. For instance, retinoids, vitamin C creams and/or serums, hydroquinone, and chemical exfoliants. "Some of these items are over-the-counter and others will need a prescription from a dermatologist," says Cohen. She added that those products range significantly in price from $75 to $200.

2. Cosmetic Procedures

Cosmetic procedures are also an option. And although they are more costly compared to topical treatments, they are usually more effective. That said, Cohen advises starting with topical solutions as your first line of treatment: "I put my patients on a skin regimen that includes topical treatments prior to doing chemical peels, laser, or micro-needling because it primes their face. Also combining topical and cosmetic treatments gives you optimum results."

"Cosmetic procedures can include anything from laser treatments like IPL (Intense Pulse Light) or PicoSure laser, which starts around $450 per treatment, to Fraxel laser treatments, which can cost around $1500 per session," says Cohen.

Laser treatments work by emitting energy and target melanin—the darker the spot, the more energy is emitted. You may experience mild pain, swelling, and redness after treatment, up to one week depending on how deep the laser treatment is. And multiple laser treatments are sometimes needed to achieve the desired results. Always consult a doctor before trying a new form of treatment.

3. Chemical Peels

Another cosmetic procedure option is a chemical peel. "My favorite way to treat brown spots is with chemical peels! Chemical peels contain different acids such as TCA (trichloroacetic acid), phenol, glycolic, salicylic, or retinoic to name just a few of the more popular ones," says Cohen. Some chemical peels contain just one acid, while others are a combination of multiple acids. When applied to the face they cause injury to the skin, which promotes a wound healing response and results in unwanted dark spots sloughing off. "Medium and deep peels work best, and should only be performed in a doctor's office," says Cohen. You may experience skin tightening as a result of the peel, and your skin may also be red and irritated and eventually flake or peel. A chemical peel typically costs a few hundred dollars, and like laser treatments, you may need multiple peels to achieve the results you want.

Bottom Line

Age spots are purely cosmetic—you don't have to treat them. In fact, treatments are not a sure fire way to eliminate their appearance. However, there are several topical treatments and cosmetic procedures that can help lessen their appearance. And be sure to always use adequate sun protection to help prevent them from forming. Regardless of how you feel about age spots, be sure to have them regularly checked by a professional. The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends a full skin check once a year (and potentially more frequently, if you're at a higher risk).