What Causes Brown Spots and How to Get Rid of Them


Dark spots, age spots, sunspots, liver spots, freckles, hyperpigmentation patches—the names for skin spots are seemingly endless, and unfortunately, the list of causes behind these pesky patches is just as long and varied. What causes one person’s brown spots may have nothing to do with why another person has them. However, there are some more common causes to keep an eye on for prevention and reduction.

Sunny, Sunny, Sunny Days

There’s truth behind the term “sunspots,” since sun exposure is one common cause of brown spots. UVA and UVB rays (two variants of ultraviolet light from the sun) penetrate the skin and cause a spike in melanin production. This is the skin’s way of preventing further damage, as melanin absorbs and scatters UV radiation. That’s why folks with naturally darker skin tend to burn less often than those with lower melanin levels. However, with time and added sun exposure, people without naturally melanin-rich skin will see that darker pigment appears to clump together and gathers at the skin’s surface, resulting in the appearance of those pesky sunspots. The solution to developing more sunspots is simple: wear broad-spectrum sunscreen and minimize your exposure. 

Even in winter months, applying proper SPF protection before heading outdoors should be a daily habit. The sun’s rays are actually amplified when there is snow around, exposing us to almost double the UV rays as they are reflected off the snow. The higher the elevation, the higher the UV radiation. To be exact, for every additional 1000 feet in elevation, UV radiation increases by 5%. Therefore, make sure you prepare ample sun protection for your next ski adventure!

Fluorescent Foes 

The sun isn’t the only source of UV radiation. While UVA and UVB are fairly familiar, particularly during the summertime when sun safety becomes an even hotter topic, there’s a little-known third type of ultraviolet light to be wary of: UVC. Usually scattered by wind and air, UVC rays from the sun aren’t a major concern. However, a study published in the scientific journal Photochemistry and Photobiology reported that some worn fluorescent bulbs produce high levels of UVC that can cause hyperpigmentation (and even skin cancer) with extended exposure over time. The culprit: a worn-off phosphor coating that’s common when older bulbs go unchecked. Keep a closer eye on table or desk lamps using fluorescent bulbs and older tanning bulbs, or simply ditch the fluorescent bulbs in favor of LEDs. However, if you’re stuck with fluorescents, which is one of the ways that your skin ages indoors, then it might be wise to start wearing sunscreen if you’re sitting at your desk all day. 

The Hormone Balance

Another factor wreaking havoc on melanin production is a fluctuation in hormone levels. The key hormones that can affect your skin are testosterone, estrogen, androgens, triiodothyronine, and thyroxine.  Birth control, stress, menopause, pregnancy, and some medications cause fluctuations in estrogen and progesterone specifically, two hormones known to spike melanin production when they’re found at higher levels. This can cause melasma, a form of hyperpigmentation characterized by brown splotches on the face, hands, and pretty much anywhere else on the body. The American Academy of Dermatology reports that more than five million Americans have melasma. It is most commonly known to affect those with Fitzpatrick skin types 3-6. The best bet is to try natural alternatives to even out hormone levels when possible and use natural creams, serums, or treatments, when safe, to reduce the appearance of brown spots. 

Advanced Age 

Advanced age sounds nicer than old age, but the point remains: the greater the years, the greater the brown spots that appear. This goes back to the points about hormones, sun exposure, and the clumping of melanin over time. Add to that the decline in elastin and collagen production, and the skin’s loss of natural volume and color with age, and we have a more pronounced appearance of existing age spots.

For the most part, the appearance of many brown spots can be faded through a variety of topical and treatment options. Look for topical anti-aging creams and serums that contain soy, kojic acid, niacinamide, ellagic acid, and liquorice, among other ingredients, to help break down those odd spots of discoloration and even out skin pigment.

If your skin naturally has relatively little melanin (lighter skin types), Intense Pulsed Light (IPL) treatments are your best bet for fading the occasional brown spot. These treatments (often called “photofacials,” meaning facial treatments using light) deliver bursts of light to multiple layers of the skin to target and zap the pockets of melanin that create those spots and blotches.

However, if your skin is naturally high in melanin then IPL treatments can have the opposite effect: talk to a treatment provider to get more info so you can make the right choice for your skin health.

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