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Age Spot vs Skin Cancer - 5 Differences to Look For

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It's common to develop new spots on our skin as we age. From patches of freckle-like marks to small red dots, most people will develop an age spot or two. But as it's impossible to get to know your skin inside out, how can you tell the difference between cancerous growths and harmless skin changes?

While they are harmless, age spots can be unsightly and as you'll read below, it can be difficult to distinguish between them and a suspicious spot. So let's discuss what they are, how to avoid them, and how to tell them apart from skin cancer.

What are age spots?

Age spots are areas of the skin with increased pigmentation. The small, dark spots are flat and vary in size. While harmless, age spots usually appear in areas that get a lot of sun exposure such as the arms, shoulders, face and hands and unlike freckles, they do not fade. They are the skin's way of protecting itself from further sun damage.

Doctor inspecting man for skin cancer

Age spots are usually solar lentigines but they are sometimes called liver spots or sunspots. However, they are different from sunspots which are actually precancerous growths called actinic or solar keratosis. The main difference is that while age spots are flat, sunspots often feel rough and scaly.

Age spots can also be seborrheic keratoses. Linked to skin tags, these can sometimes be scaly or wart-like, flat or raised.

Cherry hemangiomas are another type of age spot. These harmless red dots are very small and are caused by an overgrowth of blood vessels in the skin.

What do age spots look like?

Age spots, or liver spots, are usually flat, tend to be found grouped together and range from pink to tan to dark brown. Normally oval-shaped, they can range from freckle-sized spots to more than 10mm in diameter. They are most common in people over 50 years of age with light skin but can also affect sun-exposed areas in younger people.

What are the treatment options for age spots?

Age spots can be lightened using methods such as a chemical peel or laser treatment. However, these treatment options are only considered for cosmetic reasons because liver spots are harmless. However, it is important to minimise prolonged sun exposure to prevent further skin damage and lower your risk of developing skin cancer.

What causes age spots?

Age spots tend to appear when melanin, which gives skin its colour, is produced in high concentrations due to sun exposure. While anyone can develop age spots, it is more common in people with fair skin and those who use tanning beds or don't use sun protection. There are other factors that may make you more susceptible:

  • Pollution
  • Smoking
  • Poor diet

Prevent age spots and protect yourself against new age spots by wearing a wide-brimmed hat and wearing sun protection clothing with an ultraviolet protection factor of 50+ when undertaking outdoor activities. You should also wear sunscreen every day, whether you're exercising, spending time at the beach, watching the kids' sporting matches or not planning to go outside at all.

Can I just ignore age spots?

Although age spots are harmless, they shouldn't be ignored. Because as you have read, it can be difficult to differentiate a harmless age spot from skin cancers such as melanoma in the early stages. Therefore, you should have any areas with hyperpigmentation checked out by a doctor. Even if you are free of skin cancers, your doctor will be able to give you advice on how to prevent age spots and areas of your skin that need to be closely monitored.

Here are the 5 Key Differences Between Age Spots and Skin Cancer

As well as knowing how to protect yourself from sun damage that leads to unsightly age spots and dangerous skin cancers, you need to know how to tell the difference between the two. This will help you to detect skin cancer at an early stage because early detection not only increases your chance of successful treatment, it could also save your life.

1. Painful spots that bleed or ooze

Age spots are not painful and do not bleed or ooze. So if you have a spot displaying these symptoms you should see your doctor as soon as possible.

2. Rapid changes to age spots

The warning signs of melanoma can help you detect skin cancer in its early stages. Be on the lookout for an irregular border, a spot that is growing darker or becoming lighter, those that grow or shrink suddenly and changes to the surrounding skin.

Age spots tend to change colour from pink to brown over a long period of time. However, rapid changes to a spot, in size, shape or colour, are signs you should see your doctor immediately.

3. Age spots that itch

As skin ages, it can become dry and itchy. Both age spots and skin cancer can cause itchiness, so it's important to keep an eye out for other skin changes that may indicate there is a problem.

4. New age spots that look unlike the rest

The appearance of new age spots that look unlike those surrounding it should also prompt you to see a doctor.

5. Family history of age spots and skin cancer

If you have a personal history or family history of skin cancer you should mention this to your doctor during your regular skin check. You should also mention if age spots run in your family as both have a genetic component.

Still not sure if it's an age spot or skin cancer? Talk to a Doctor

Examination of mole

In most cases, age spots are a normal part of growing older and not something to worry about. You may not like them for cosmetic reasons but these early signs of damage are an important reminder to avoid sun exposure and protect your skin with sunscreen on a daily basis. It's never too late to start caring for your skin.

Whether you have solar lentigines, other types of age spots or it's something more serious, only your doctor can tell for sure. Caught in the earlier stages, skin cancers can be treated very successfully. So put your mind at ease and visit one of the highly trained doctors at a SunDoctors clinic. Skin checks take just a few minutes and are non-intrusive. Give them a call today on 13 SKIN (13 75 46) or book online.

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