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Brown Spots and Age

Brown spots, or hyperpigmentation, increase with age and with increased sun exposure.  These spots are clusters of melanin, and the clusters are caused by overproduction of melanin due to prolonged sun exposure and due to age.

The skin pigment melanin is formed by special skin cells called melanocytes, and the melanocytes make up about 3% of the total cells in our top skin layer (epidermis).   Melanocyte cells live on the bottom of our top  skin layer, and they produce melanin when triggered by either UV light or other inflammation or just aging.   Melanolyte cells are shaped like the roots of a tree that distribute melanin to the surrounding cells, thus gives us the sun-tan look.

Melanocytes only

In “These Tenacious Age Spots”, I explained how an overproduction of melanin can cause it to form clusters and show up on our skin as dark patches.   I want to further explore why these spots show up a lot more with age, and how to avoid them and how to get rid of them.

As we grow older, the number of melanin-producing cells, melanocytes, decreases.   The number of active melanocyte cells decreases 10-20% per decade of our adult life, and the remaining melanocyte cells have to work extra hard to produce melanin to keep our skin protected from insults of UV light and other irritations.  This overproduction of melanin is not uniform, and it causes patchiness of the inflamed skin.  This is called post inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH).

Melanin is primarily distributed in the top layer of skin cells, which eventually die and are shed by the epidermis. This is why a tan eventually fades. However, some melanin can also move deeper into the skin, into the skin’s middle layer , the dermis.  Unfortunately, these melanin particles can be stuck in this middle layer for a very long time, producing long-lived spots and patches of pigmentation.

We now have a better understanding why brown spots increase with age, and becomes very persistent on aged skin.  Localized excessive melanin production in overly active melanocyte cells causes a patchy look on our skin; The melanin stays in our skin longer due to the slower turnover of the top layer skin cells in older people, and some melanin moves deeper to the middle skin layer (dermis) and stays there semi-permanently.

Age spots, along with wrinkles, are the most significant signs of ageing.  Age spots alone can add years to a person’s perceived age.  The easiest and most effective way to avoid age spots is prevention.  We should avoid the attack of UV light by wearing hat, wearing sunglasses, and using sunscreen.  We should also take care to minimize any source of skin irritation by avoiding harsh detergent, fragrance, and any pore clogging ingredients in skincare and makeup products.

To control or eliminate age spots, we can control the production of melanin and/or the transfer of melanin to normal skin cells.  The ingredients used in topical skincare cream are outlined elsewhere.  We can also reduce age spots by increase the skin cell turnover rate, so the melanin is flushed out faster.

For  semi-permemant age spots, one might consider visiting a dermatologist and look into laser removal or intense pulsivated light (IPL) treatments.