Fact: nobody loves lines and wrinkles. But here’s another fact: recent research has revealed that what bothers women even more than those crow’s feet and laugh lines is uneven pigmentation on face and body. Call them sun spots, age spots, liver spots, dark spots – or, if you want to get technical about it, ‘solar lentigines’. Whichever name they go by, that same piece of research showed that when someone else looks at your skin, uneven pigmentation increases your perceived age far more than laugh lines do. Discolouration, it transpires, makes us look a staggering 10 to 15 years older.
That research is echoed by our own experiences: when we meet readers, most of them seem to accept their lines and wrinkles, but feel very self-conscious about sun spots – because not every single woman does have them. As a result they cause a lot of anxiety.
And the most accurate of those afore-mentioned names for patches of darker pigmentation certainly is ‘sun spots’. The reality is that it’s exposure to the sun’s rays that triggers them – with the current ‘plague’ of pigmentation challenges in no small measure related to previous decades of sun exposure when we were a little less clued-up than we are today about the need for sun protection. (We’re sure we’re not the only ones out there who can remember women in the 70s not so much sunbathing as sun-backing, with tinfoil used to intensify the sun’s tanning action on their faces…!)
The sun link explains why age spots tend to show up on areas of the skin that have been most exposed to the sun – hands, arms, face and especially the décolletage, that area of the neck and chest that seems specifically angled to pick up sun damage. (Don’t confuse them with freckles, meanwhile, which are a hereditary characteristic you’re born with – and whose relationship to the sun is still unclear.) The browner areas you’re seeing are actually visible melanin – the pigment responsible for skin colour – which is produced by skin calls called melanocytes, in the top layer of skin. This ‘hyperpigmentation’ process is essentially the same as with tanning – only it happens more chaotically, and the results last longer. What you see are ‘clumps’ of melanin, if you like.
Hormones can play a role with pigmentation, too. Turns out that around 70 per cent of women of childbearing age experience periods of hyperpigmentation –a.k.a. melasma or chloasma – when light to dark brown blotches make an unwelcome appearance, usually across the central part of the face. Pregnant women are particularly vulnerable (which gives rise to the nickname ‘mask of pregnancy’), but the Pill and HRT are implicated, too: it’s thought that increased oestrogen triggers melanin production. Very often, over time, those particular hormone-related pigmentation problems go away of their own accord, as oestrogen levels dip again. (In the case of HRT, of course, that may depend on how long you go on taking it.) But in general, it’s in the run-up to menopause and menopause itself that the less ‘temporary’ type of sun spot makes itself known – and these are definitely harder to budge. In almost every case, these sun spots are the visible manifestation of chronic UV damage, accumulated over the years.
So: now we know what causes these skin woes. But when it comes to treatment, what actually works? Happily for women affected by sun spots, this is an area of skincare research where millions are currently being spent, to try to identify compounds that can play a skin-whitening, brighening role. (It’s a ‘baby boomer’ thing: as more and more looks-conscious women hit their late 40s, 50s and up, the problem of sun spots has soared up the skin woe charts.) Soy, licorice, mulberry extract, red clover, bearberry and kojic acid are the ‘great whitening hopes’, it turns out, in over-the-counter treatments. Licorice, for instance, is particularly useful; it’s been studied for over 20 years and has proved one of the most promising botanicals for targeting age spots: a soothing, healing, anti-inflammatory treatment that also targets melanin, helping to diffuse it. Azaleic acid – from barley and wheat – and kojic acid (derived from fermented mushrooms) also feature in the anti-age-spot armoury.
The skin never forgets, though: sun damage is cumulative. So while you’re treating your sun spots and being sure to consume the most skin-friendly foods, it’s also vital to protect skin with an SPF30, every single day – or you’re just wasting your time and money on those creams. (You’ve got to give skin the best chance to recover, while you’re treating it.) Even if you don’t have a single age spot yet, but you dread them, then you should be adding in an SPF30 daily protection cream (and preferably higher). Yes, even on a cloudy day. And yes, even in autumn and winter, which we’re hreading towards now. Our particular favourites (which we regularly rave about elsewhere) include This Works In Transit Skin Defence, and Innovative Skincare Extreme Protect SPF30 , both of which do a fantastic job at shielding skin. (And despite the very respectable SPF level, neither leaves a tell-tale white film on skin, blending in perfectly on application.)
And in the summer months or on holiday, be absolutely sure to go for high protection creams during summer months for face, hands and chest, and ideally amass a collection of fab sunhats. If you like a deeper tan, remember: that’s what fake tans and bronzers were invented for.) As for sunbeds? The advice is ridiculously simple: Don’t. Go. There.
The good news, meanwhile, is that while you’re waiting for longer-term treatments to kick in – and alas there’s no such thing as an overnight miracle when it comes to fading age spots – make-up can prove a real confidence boost, working wonders at minimising their appearance. (On the face, at least, though you could try this on the chest or even the arms, too.) Ideally, smooth a primer into skin, then wait 5 minutes for it to sink in and create the perfect ‘canvas’. With a little brush, dot on a matte yellow- or peach-based corrector or concealer (a deeper peach tone works for women of colour) with a brush, then press it in with your finger. (Don’t sweep the concealer on; this needs to be ‘spot-targeted’ – in this case, ‘age-spot-targeted’.) Then, as required, apply cream or liquid foundation over the top – or brush on a mineral powder base; many women have told us they find these mineral make-up products brilliant for concealing age spots, because of the naturally light-reflective action of the mineral pigments. But above all, try not to feel self-conscious if you do have these ‘sun spots’. Sure, you can camouflage them. Yes, you can help prevent them getting worse, and even to a certain extent reverse the damage. But as we’re always telling women: when other people look at you, they truly don’t notice the flaws that seem so huge to you, when you look in the mirror. They see the overall picture: your smile, your earrings, that great shirt – and they listen to what you’re saying. They’re not focusing on your ‘sun spots’ – so try to fret about them a little less, yourself…?