Aging provides plenty of perks—greater confidence, more wisdom, and discounted movie tickets, to name a few. But growing older also brings a few downsides: age spots, for instance, which boldly advertise your senior status.
Age spots—benign, flat areas of hyperpigmentation—usually pop up on the hands and face, most commonly on the forehead. These tan, brown, or gray flecks are also called “sun spots” because they occur largely as a result of sun damage. Ultraviolet (UV) rays activate the skin’s pigment-producing cells, called melanocytes. Too much UV exposure damages the melanocytes, causing them to crank out excess pigment (also called melanin) or to clump together and form dark spots on the skin.
But the true cause of age spots begins deep within the skin, believes Benjamin Johnson, MD, founder of Osmosis Pür Skin Care. “Excess UV exposure causes damage to the dermal-epidermal junction, which prevents delivery of antioxidants to the epidermis,” he explains. “The skin ages sporadically, and we can’t always say why a spot shows up in one place versus somewhere else.” However, Johnson suggests that spots form in areas that have endured so much trauma from excess sun exposure that they no longer receive adequate anti-oxidant supply from the dermis. This results in free-radical damage to the melanocytes, which triggers irregular melanin production and compounds the problem.
Conventional treatment for hyperpigmentation includes bleach, specifically hydroquinone or tretinoin (Retin-A), which carry serious health risks like cancer, reproductive toxicity, and skin allergies. Also common are cryotherapy (freezing) and light therapy (either laser or intense pulsed light). Although effective and relatively safe, both of these treatments can cost thousands of dollars.
Luckily, we’ve found safe, natural ways through diet and lifestyle to lighten and prevent age spots. But bear in mind: Even though they’re benign, age spots signal overexposure to the sun—a risk factor for skin cancer—and some can resemble malignant growths, so ask your healthcare provider to examine any suspicious discoloration.
Once you’ve determined your spots are purely cosmetic, try these simple solutions to watch those telltale signs of aging fade away.
Solution 1: Up your antioxidants.
“Antioxidants are always good internally for the antiaging effect, but we can also benefit externally from these free radical–scavenging ingredients,” explains Myra Michelle Eby, founder of MyChelle Dermaceuticals, a bioactive skincare line. “Vitamin C, L-ascorbic acid in particular, is very good for reversing hyperpigmentation due to its bleaching effects.”
Solution 2: Try beta-glucan.
According to Johnson, age spots typically signal a buildup of debris between the dermis and epidermis. He recommends using topical beta-glucan (a soluble fiber found in oats that stimulates skin-cell renewal) to clear the debris, boost circulation, and repair the damage at the dermal layer.
Solution 3: Raid the refrigerator.
Look no further than your fridge for age-spot fighters. Stephanie Tourles, a holistic aesthetician and author of Organic Body Care Recipes (Storey Publishing, 2007), has had success using several food-based concoctions to lighten skin, even though studies on their efficacy are lacking. Yogurt, for instance, contains lactic acid, which lightens and exfoliates skin. Tourles recommends applying 1 tablespoon plain, organic yogurt to your clean face, neck, and chest and letting it sit for 20 to 30 minutes before rinsing with lukewarm water. Do this once or twice a week, and follow with moisturizer. Warning: Don’t apply the yogurt mask to sunburned or windburned skin, or if you’ve recently waxed your face or had a chemical peel, because it could cause further irritation.
Solution 4: Use enzymes.
“Natural food enzymes, when applied to the skin over time, accelerate exfoliation of dead cells on the skin’s surface, which then stimulates the formation of new skin cells,” Tourles explains. “Existing age spots will gradually fade away over time.” These enzymes are found in raw papaya–pulp masks and raw pineapple juice, which you can dab on your skin with a saturated cotton ball. You can also buy enzyme-rich skin creams and masks. Tourles suggests looking for products with enzyme derivatives from not only papaya and pineapple, but also cherry, pumpkin, grape, pomegranate, and raspberry.
Solution 5: Avoid the sun.
This may seem obvious, but guarding your skin from the sun becomes increasingly important after age spots appear. “Once your skin hyperpigments or clumps melanin, you must always wear sun protection, otherwise the spots will return again and again,” Eby warns. “Wear hats and lightweight clothing when out in the sun for extended periods, and always use a natural sunblock that contains minerals to reflect the UV rays.”