How to Tell the Difference Between Sunspots and Skin Cancer


Sunspots — those marks that aren’t freckles or moles — are signs you’ve spent your fair share of time soaking up the sun. “Sunspots are your skin’s response to daily exposure to ultraviolet rays,” says Mona Gohara, MD, associate clinical professor of dermatology at Yale School of Medicine. These small, round flat lesions can show up anywhere on your body, but very frequently appear on the face. They’re most often tan or light brown, and can measure up to the size of your fingertip.

Sunspots are also called solar lentigos, liver spots (although they have nothing to do with your liver) or age spots. This is because sunspots tend to pop up on your skin when you’re past the age of 40.

Don’t like the look of your sunspots? Worried they might turn into something scary, like skin cancer? Read on to learn all the essential info on sunspots on your face, and how you can treat and prevent them.

What causes sunspots?

Sunspots are a key sign of photoaging — in other words, UV rays prematurely aging your skin. A sunspot is a form of hyperpigmentation, or an area that’s darker than your normal skin tone. Hyperpigmentation occurs when your skin cells produce too much melanin, which gives your skin its natural tone. If your skin has had years of exposure to UV rays, it will produce melanin that’s clumped, or will make melanin in extra-high concentrations, according to Mayo Clinic — and this in turn creates sunspots. The more solar damage, the more sunspots you can get; Harvard Medical School reports that sunspots can form due to severe sunburns.

If you have fairer skin, you’re more likely to get sunspots. In fact, it’s estimated that 90% of white people have sunspots by the time they’re 60, although people with darker skin tones can get them, too. “Whether and when you will get sunspots, and how many you will get, is dictated by your genetics and by how much total cumulative solar damage you receive during the course of your life,” says Whitney A. High, MD, professor of dermatology & pathology and director of dermatopathology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine Anschutz Campus in Aurora, Colorado.

How are sunspots treated?

There are a wide range of options when it comes to removing sunspots, or making them less noticeable. It’s important to consult your dermatologist about which of these treatments are best for you.

“Retinol can be very helpful, as can vitamin C,” says Dr. Gohara. Vitamin C is thought to stop melanin production, making hyperpigmentation fade. Don’t take any medication on your own, though–your doctor will know the correct type of retinoid, for example, to get the job done. For example,“tretinoin (a retinoic acid) is actually a derivative of vitamin A, and with consistent use, it can even out pigmentary abnormalities, including sunspots,” says Dr. High. Your dermatologist can also use a freezing spray to get rid of sunspots.

Prevention of sunspots

“First of all, know that even if you get your sunspots lasered, once you go back out in the sun without protecting your skin, your sunspot will come back,” Dr. Rogers cautions. “Don’t ever lie out in the sun for the sake of getting a tan. Use a broad spectrum sunscreen any time you’re outside, applying it to any part of your body exposed to the sun.”

If your doctor recommends vitamin C to help minimize sunspots, you can use it as advance care as well. “A vitamin C serum can help prevent sunspots,” says Dr. Rogers. “I tell my patients to apply three layers of protection: serum, moisturizer and sunscreen.” Avoid the sun at its strongest times of the day (between 10AM and 4PM), wear a wide-brimmed hat, and stay in the shade.

“Sunspots are one of the first signs of sun damage,” Dr. Gohara sums up – but by making these smart moves, you can stop them from becoming a lasting problem.

Sunspot vs. skin cancer

Sunspots by themselves don’t pose any health risks. Rarely, though, a sunspot can change into melanoma. A sunspot larger than 1–2 centimeters would be more likely to become melanoma. “The good news is that this does not happen suddenly — some experts have stated that it may take 30–50 years for a malignant lentigo to develop fully,” says Dr. High.

It’s wise to keep an eye on any sunspots you have, however. “Sunspots have a smooth border,” says Heather D. Rogers, MD, FAAD, clinical assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle. “They’re very uniform. Melanoma has jagged edges. Another way to tell the difference is color. Sunspots will get darker in the summer, as they are exposed to more sun, and will lighten in the winter. Sunspots will never be black, however — melanoma can be. In fact, 95% of melanomas are dark, while sunspots will be darker than normal skin, but will stay within a lighter brown range.”

Still, don’t take a chance. “Anything you see on your skin that is changing, such as getting bigger or darker, or has an irregular edge, should be seen by your dermatologist,” says Dr. Gohara. The Skin Cancer Foundation also recommends getting any lesion the size of a pencil eraser or larger checked out.

Headshot of Lisa Mulcahy

Contributing Writer

Lisa is an internationally established health writer whose credits include Good Housekeeping, Prevention, Oprah Daily, Woman’s Day, Elle, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Parade, Health, Self, Family Circle and Seventeen. She is the author of eight best-selling books, including The Essentials of Theater.

Headshot of Caroline Chang, M.D.

Board-certified dermatologist and founder of the Rhode Island Dermatology Institute

With more than a decade of experience, board-certified dermatologist Caroline Chang, M.D. is nationally recognized as a top doctor in both medical and cosmetic dermatology. She is also the founder of Rhode Island Dermatology Institute, the state’s first direct care dermatology practice with the goal of providing high-quality, customized care.

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