Do dark spots get worse in the sun?

Dark spots, also known as hyperpigmentation, are a common skin condition that can affect people of all skin tones. They appear as patches of darker skin, often on the face, hands, and other frequently sun-exposed areas. Many people wonder if sun exposure makes dark spots worse. This article will examine whether sun exposure exacerbates dark spots, the causes of hyperpigmentation, how to prevent it from worsening, and effective treatments.

Do dark spots get worse with sun exposure?

Yes, sun exposure is one of the main factors that can cause dark spots to worsen over time. Ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun can trigger increased melanin production in certain areas of skin, resulting in hyperpigmentation and darker patches.1

When skin is frequently exposed to UV rays, melanocytes (pigment producing cells) become more active in order to protect the skin by producing more melanin.2 This excess melanin is deposited in certain areas, forming dark spots and an uneven skin tone.

In addition, sun exposure can cause dark spots that already exist to darken further and expand in size. It also prolongs the amount of time the hyperpigmentation remains visible.

Therefore, unprotected and excessive sun exposure is one of the primary extrinsic factors that makes dark spots more pronounced and persistent. Using proper broad-spectrum sunscreen and avoiding excessive sun can help prevent dark spots from worsening due to UV damage.

How does sun cause dark spots?

The UV rays in sunlight cause damage to skin cells and increase inflammation. In response, the body produces more melanin in affected areas, resulting in hyperpigmentation.3

Specifically, UVB rays penetrate the top epidermal layer of skin and trigger melanocytes to ramp up melanin production. UVA rays penetrate deeper into the dermis, causing production of enzymes that lead to irregular melanin distribution.4

With repeated UV exposure, this process of inflaming and stimulating pigment cells leads to more pronounced and lasting dark spots on sun-exposed skin.

What causes dark spots?

Dark spots have several potential causes, including:

– Sun exposure – As discussed, UV radiation triggers excess melanin production leading to hyperpigmentation.5

– Hormonal changes – Fluctuations in estrogen and progesterone can cause an increase in melanin. This is why dark spots frequently appear during pregnancy (melasma) and menopause.6

– Skin injuries/inflammation – Dark spots can develop after acne, rashes, cuts, burns, and other skin traumas that leave inflammation and skin discoloration.

– Medications – Certain prescription drugs like hormone treatments, chemotherapy drugs, antiseizure medications, and antibiotics may induce skin pigmentation changes.7

– Excess pigment – Darker skin tones have more active melanocytes. Hyperpigmentation can occur when excess melanin clusters form.

– Aging – Melanin production decreases, but uneven pigmentation increases with age due to sun damage accumulated over time.8

– Genetics – A family history of dark spots may increase risk of developing hyperpigmentation. People of Asian, Hispanic, and African descent are more prone.

Common types of dark spots

There are several types of dark spots with different underlying causes:

– Lentigines – Also called liver spots or age spots. Caused by sun exposure and aging.

– Melasma – Pigmentation triggered by hormonal changes, often during pregnancy or due to birth control pills.

– Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation – Dark spots resulting from acne, injury, burns, etc.

– Solar lentigines – Sun spots with well-defined edges caused by chronic UV damage.

– Ephelides – Freckles that increase with sun exposure due to genetics.

Can you prevent dark spots from worsening?

While it’s difficult to prevent dark spots completely, you can take measures to keep them from worsening or appearing in the first place:

– Avoid excessive sun exposure – Wear broad spectrum SPF 30 (or higher) sunscreen daily and limit direct sun exposure to prevent UV damage. Wear sun protective clothing and hats. Seek shade during peak hours (10am-2pm).

– Use skin lightening products – Ingredients like hydroquinone, kojic acid, vitamin C, niacinamide, and retinoids can help lighten existing dark spots and prevent new ones.9 Apply diligently as directed.

– Exfoliate regularly – Gentle exfoliation removes dull surface cells and promotes skin cell turnover, helping fade dark spots over time. Use scrubs and chemical exfoliators 1-2 times per week.

– Avoid irritants – Hydroquinone, benzoyl peroxide, alpha hydroxy acids, and harsh scrubs can worsen hyperpigmentation if skin becomes inflamed. Discontinue use if irritation occurs.

– Wear sunscreen indoors – UV rays can penetrate through window glass. Wear sunscreen if sitting near windows for long periods.

– Manage skin conditions – Treat acne, rashes, and infections to minimize inflammation and prevent post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.

– Check medications – If medications are causing pigment changes, discuss alternatives with your doctor.

How can you get rid of dark spots?

If preventing dark spots isn’t effective, there are professional cosmetic procedures and targeted treatments that can help lighten and remove hyperpigmentation:

Topical creams and serums

– Hydroquinone – The gold standard for inhibiting melanin production. Available in 2-4% concentrations by prescription.10

– Retinoids – Derived from vitamin A, retinoids increase cell turnover to help fade dark spots. Prescription strengths are most effective.

– Vitamin C – Antioxidant that inhibits melanin synthesis and protects skin from UV damage when used with sunscreen.11 Look for L-ascorbic acid formulations.

– Niacinamide – Also known as vitamin B3, it suppresses melanin transfer to skin cells to reduce hyperpigmentation.

– Kojic acid – Derived from mushrooms, it prevents formation of melanin. May cause irritation.

– Azelaic acid – Reduces production and accumulation of melanin. Naturally found in wheat, barley and rye.

Chemical peels

Chemical peels exfoliate the top layers of skin to promote regeneration of new, evenly pigmented skin. Glycolic, lactic, salicylic, and trichloroacetic acid (TCA) peels can be performed. Multiple treatments are usually needed for optimal results.


This minimally invasive treatment uses a wand to spray fine crystals across skin, gently “sanding” off the surface. This triggers new skin growth and a more even complexion. A series of sessions is required.

Laser treatments

Lasers target melanin with beams of highly concentrated light. The melanin absorbs the light, destroying pigmented cells. Types used include Q-switched lasers and intense pulsed light (IPL) devices. Multiple treatments are required.


This “resurfacing” treatment uses a rotating instrument to remove the top layers of skin. As the area heals, new skin grows with improved texture and color. Chemical peels may be combined for enhanced effectiveness.


Also called cryotherapy or freeze therapy. The dermatologist applies extreme cold to the affected area, freezing and destroying abnormal pigment cells. Some blistering occurs, followed by healing and lightening of the dark spots.

Home remedies

Natural remedies may help lighten dark spots when used consistently over time in conjunction with sun protection. Options include:

– Lemon juice – Contains citric acid that may inhibit melanin production and gently exfoliate surface skin cells. Apply fresh juice and avoid sun exposure. Irritation is possible.

– Yogurt – Lactic acid found naturally in yogurt can gently peel the skin to reveal brighter skin. Look for plain, unflavored yogurt.

– Aloe vera – The enzymes in aloe vera juice or gel may help fade dark spots and soothe sun damaged skin.

– Apple cider vinegar – Has mild exfoliating acids that may improve hyperpigmentation. Always dilute before applying to avoid burns.

– Onion juice – Contains antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Apply fresh juice to spots twice daily. Can cause irritation.

– Castor oil – May stimulate collagen production and new skin cell growth. Apply to spots nightly, washing off in mornings.

– Vitamin E oil – As an antioxidant, it neutralizes free radicals that can worsen dark spots. Capsules can be punctured and applied.

Are dark spots a sign of skin cancer?

While dark spots are primarily a cosmetic concern, it’s important to monitor any pigmentation changes for signs of skin cancer such as melanoma. See your dermatologist promptly if you notice a spot that:

– Appears suddenly or is rapidly changing in size, shape, or color

– Has an irregular border that is notched, scalloped, or undefined

– Exhibits variations in color with black, blue, red, or white hues

– Has a larger diameter than 6 millimeters, about the size of a pencil eraser

– Is asymmetrical from one half to the other half

– Evolves over weeks to months, repeatedly scabbing or bleeding

When to see a dermatologist

Consult a board-certified dermatologist if:

– You are concerned about any pigmented lesions being potentially cancerous

– Dark spots do not respond to over-the-counter treatments after 2-3 months

– Hyperpigmentation is widespread and causing significant cosmetic concerns

– You have a history of discoloration or melasma related to pregnancy or hormone disorders

The dermatologist can examine your skin and determine if any spots require biopsy. They can also recommend prescription strength topical treatments or procedures to most effectively eliminate dark spots.

How can you prevent dark spots from forming?

While you can’t always prevent hyperpigmentation completely, the following tips can reduce your risk of developing dark spots:

– Wear sunscreen daily with SPF 30 or higher on any exposed skin. Reapply every 2 hours when outdoors.

– Avoid excessive sun exposure by seeking shade, covering up with clothing, and avoiding peak hours.

– Use chemical exfoliating products with AHA or BHAs regularly to accelerate skin cell turnover. Start with 1-2 times per week.

– Wear broad spectrum UVA/UVB sunscreen even on cloudy or overcast days. UV rays still penetrate clouds.

– Treat any skin inflammation such as acne, rashes, cuts, and burns promptly to avoid post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.

– Use skin lightening creams with ingredients like hydroquinone, kojic acid, or vitamin C to inhibit melanin production.

– Have any suspicious moles or pigmentation evaluated by a dermatologist to rule out melanoma.

– Take medications as directed and discuss any skin pigmentation changes with your doctor.

– Maintain healthy skin by eating a balanced diet with antioxidants and avoiding smoking.

What’s the best sunscreen for dark spots?

The best sunscreen to prevent dark spots from worsening contains:

– Broad spectrum SPF 30 (or higher) – Protects against both UVA and UVB rays

– Zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide – Physical sunscreen ingredients that reflect UV rays

– Anti-oxidants – Ingredients like vitamin C and green tea extract fight free radicals

– Water resistance – Maintains protection when swimming or sweating for 40-80 minutes

– Non-comedogenic formulas – Won’t clog pores or cause acne

– Once daily application – Convenient to apply liberally and reapply

Some top sunscreen recommendations include:

La Roche-Posay Anthelios EltaMD UV Clear
EltaMD UV Elements Revision Skincare Intellishade
Obagi Sun Shield Matte Colorscience Sunforgettable Brush

Be sure to apply 1/4 teaspoon to cover the face alone. Reapply every 2 hours of sun exposure or after swimming/sweating.

Do dark spots go away on their own?

It’s rare for dark spots to resolve completely on their own. Some factors that determine if they will fade over time:

– Location – Spots on constantly sun-exposed areas less likely to fade

– Origin – Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation more likely to resolve vs sun or age spots

– Extent of UV damage – Spots with deeper solar elastosis damage may persist

– Age – Hyperpigmentation caused by photoaging less likely to resolve

– Genetics – skin tones with more melanin may retain spots longer

– Pattern of sun exposure – Continuous UV exposure impedes spot fading

With strict sun avoidance and diligent use of skin lightening products like hydroquinone and vitamin C, some dark spots may gradually lighten over several months. However, they often do not resolve entirely without advanced skin treatments.

Seeing a dermatologist is recommended if dark spots have not meaningfully improved after trying over-the-counter bleaching creams consistently for 2-3 months along with sun protection. Advanced clinical treatments offer more significant dark spot removal.


In summary, sun exposure is one of the primary external factors that can worsen dark spots, also called hyperpigmentation. The UV radiation triggers increased melanin production, causing dark patches on frequently sun-exposed areas of skin. While dark spots may have various underlying causes, prevention is key to avoiding worsening of hyperpigmentation. Diligent use of broad spectrum sunscreen, protective clothing, skin lightening ingredients, and avoidance of excessive sun can help minimize additional damage. However, most dark spots are unlikely to completely resolve on their own. Seeking treatment from a dermatologist offers the best chance for significant removal of stubborn sun and age spots. With a multi-pronged approach, it is possible to achieve clearer, more evenly pigmented skin.

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