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Skin Cancer or Age Spots? How to Tell the Difference

With age, cumulative exposure to UV radiation increases…and so does the likelihood of skin changes. Sun damage often causes hyperpigmentation that is completely harmless (even if aesthetically displeasing to your eye). However, sometimes areas of hyperpigmentation can be an indication of skin cancer. Here’s how to tell the difference.

What Is an Age Spot?

An age spot is an area of darkened skin—tan to dark brown in appearance and round, usually between ⅛” and ¼” in diameter—on areas of skin that get lots of sun exposure. In the dermatology world, these spots are called lentigines.

Age spots vary in color and size compared to the other two most common “dark spots”:

  • Cherry hemangiomas—red dots usually less than in ⅛” diameter caused by an overgrowth of blood vessels near the skin
  • Seborrheic keratoses—flat or raised light brown to black spots with a wart-like appearance

All three of these hyperpigmentation types are benign and not linked to skin cancer. However, skin cancers can look very similar, so you need to know how to carefully examine age spots.

Age Spots Develop over Time

If you’ve had a freckle or a mole “forever,” it’s typically not something to worry about. Similarly, age spots that have developed over summers of outdoor activities do not pose a health risk. But if you see a new spot of darkened skin that seems to have come from nowhere, there is reason to get the spot checked.

Age Spots are Evenly Colored and Textured

Age spots are typically uniform in color—ranging from tan to dark brown—and surface; in other words, age spots (and harmless moles) are evenly flat or raised. Suspicious skin lesions that warrant further examination often vary in color across the lesion. For instance, the area may be light around the rim but darker in the middle or vice versa. Suspicious lesions may also have an irregular texture—e.g., raised around the border, sunken in the middle, scaly, etc.

Age Spots Are “Naturally Dark”

Although an annoying reminder of time’s endless march forward, age spots at least “blend.” In other words, age spots are darker, but the darkened tone is a natural shade progression of your base skin tone. And, since age spots are in your natural skin tone’s color family, they may be effectively masked with makeup. Pre-cancerous or cancerous, lesions, on the other hand tend to be significantly darker.

Age Spots Respond to Lightening Treatment

Because age spots are simply areas of hyperpigmentation, they generally respond to skin lightening treatments, including chemical peels and skin brighteners. Lesions caused by malignant growth typically do not respond to similar treatments because the skin cells are mutated/mutating and/or replicating at an abnormal rate.

Help! I Can’t Tell the Difference!

If any age spot concerns you, see your primary care provider or dermatologist. You may be out the copay and feel silly, but that’s a far lesser price to pay than the agony of wondering if you might have skin cancer, or worse—delaying diagnosis and treatment.

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