It can be unnerving to discover a skin spot that you've never seen before. Could the new lump or bump be a sign of something sinister, or is it merely a harmless age spot?
Find out the difference between age spots and melanoma and when to call the doctor...
What are sunspots?
Sunspots are medically known as actinic keratoses (AK) or solar keratoses and are often mistaken for age spots or dry skin. They have the proclivity to crop up on areas of the body that have had excessive sun exposure over time. Often seen on the face, hands, neck, forearms, legs or head, sunspots are considered a warning sign that the skin is damaged.
The use of appropriate sun protection is the best form of protection against these red and scaly spots.
What causes sunspots?
Sunspots are more prevalent with age, but younger people can also develop them. They are caused by long-term exposure to the sun's ultraviolet light. The following factors can increase the risk of developing sunspots:
- Playing or working outdoors without pertinent sun protection.
- History of getting sunburn.
- Fair skin.
- Light-coloured hair such as red or blonde.
- Using tanning beds or tanning lamps.
- Years of intense sun exposure.
It's important to note that despite being mostly harmless, sunspots can still develop into the early stages of skin cancer. A skin check appointment to gauge an early diagnosis will offer peace of mind.
What are age spots?
Age spots, also called liver spots, are often the price paid for spending too much time in the sun and can be found in all skin tones. They tend to rear their head from about age 40 and beyond.
Age spots are a form of hyperpigmentation that lie flat on the skin. Usually larger than the size of a freckle, their colour can vary from tan to brown and even black. You will notice that the size and shape of age spots can vary and are commonly found on the face, chest, hands, shoulders and arms.
What causes age spots?
For many, age spots are an inevitable trade-off for spending too much time in the sun. By middle age, most people have experienced high levels of UV exposure resulting in changes to the integrity of the skin. Risks and causes associated with age spots include:
- Accumulated sun exposure.
- Tanning beds and solariums.
- History of frequent sunburn.
- Menopause due to depleting levels of protective oestrogen.
- Family history of age spots.
- Lighter complexion.
Real age spots don't require treatment but indicate sun damage, so it's always best to seek extra information from your doctor.
What is melanoma?
Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world, including squamous (SCC) and basal cell carcinoma (BCC) as well as melanoma. Melanoma is the third most common diagnosed cancer in Australia, with about 18,000 people diagnosed in 2022. With this in mind, it is essential to understand melanomas and their characteristics.
Although rarer than BCC's and SCC's, melanoma is the deadliest skin cancer. It generates within the skin's pigment cells, referred to as melanocytes, and can radiate throughout the body via the blood and lymphatic system.
What causes melanoma?
The fundamental cause of melanoma is overexposure to the sun's UV radiation. Unsurprisingly, this is the reason why 95% of melanomas develop. The risk factors that underpin the development of melanoma include:
- Unprotected and long-term sun exposure.
- There are already numerous moles on the body or face.
- History of tanning and sunburn from childhood.
- Moles that have an abnormal asymmetry.
- Previous diagnosis of any type of skin cancer.
- Red hair, light skin, blue eyes or skin that is susceptible to sunburn.
- Family history of melanoma diagnosis.
- Specific inherited genetic variations.
Age spots vs Sunspots vs Melanoma spots - How do they compare?
It can be quite confusing to distinguish between sun spots, age spots and melanoma, but they do have some distinct differences as well as commonalities.
- All typically develop due to over exposure to the sun.
- All can be prevented with sun safety practices including wearing sunscreen.
- On appearance of any spot, it is advisable to seek advice.
- Age spots generally appear as brown marks on the skin of people aged 40 and above.
- Sun spots can appear at any age, are red or skin coloured and scaly or rough.
- Age spots present flat on the skin.
- Sun spots can be flat or thickened.
- Melanomas can feel firm and resemble a sore.
- Melanoma can present as a mole that can change shape and be irregular.
- Melanomas have jagged, irregular borders.
- Most melanomas are black or brown, but can also be pink, red, purple, blue and white.
- Bleeding can occur from melanoma spots.
- Melanoma moles can be itchy and crusty.
- Age spots and sun spots aren't painful.
How to Identify a Suspicious Spot or Growth
Most moles or spots on the skin are harmless, but it is vital to understand the "skin you're in" and recognise any changes. The ABCDE rule for identifying skin cancer is a valuable acronym to help with self-evaluation. If you notice any of the following, seek professional advice:
A is for Asymmetry: one half of the spot does not match the other half.
B is for Border: the spot has a ragged, irregular or badly defined border.
C for Colour: there is no uniformity in colour but presents with shades of black, brown or tan and patches of white, red or blue.
D is for Diameter: even though melanomas are greater than 6mm or about the size of a pencil eraser, they can be smaller. Look for any changes in size.
E is for Evolving: This is the most critical warning sign. Check for changes in size, shape, colour, height and if there is any crusting, bleeding or itching.
Other Signs of Melanoma to Look Out For
Like most things, melanoma doesn't always fit into these rules. Note any new changes or the appearance of new spots on the skin. Growths that look different to all the other moles on the body should also be investigated. There are many resources that can help 'spot the difference' between moles on the skin. Other signs of melanoma to look out for are:
- A lesion or sore that won't heal.
- Swelling, discolouration or redness that creeps beyond the border of the mole.
- Any changes in pain, tenderness or itchiness.
- A change in the mole's surface such as oozing, development of lumps and bumps, scaliness or bleeding.
When to see a doctor for your spots
There is no doubt that early detection is vital when faced with a cancerous mole. Recognising the warning signs of melanoma will pave the way for an expeditious diagnosis and lead to a better prognosis. Treatments for melanoma have improved exponentially, but prevention and a timely diagnosis are still the best options.
Regularly do a self-skin check and follow the ABCDE rule to cover all bases. Check your body completely, even areas not exposed to the sun, including the soles of the feet and under the nails. Use a good light and a mirror for difficult spots like your scalp or back. Enlist the help of a family member, friend or partner to also check for you.
In addition to your own evaluations, visit your doctor for a formal check at least once a year. They will also help you understand your level of risk.
SunDoctors skin cancer clinics use the latest technology and expertise to diagnose and treat all forms of skin cancer. With an emphasis on providing patient care that exceeds expectations, book an appointment to get the best advice on your skin health.