For some people, when they see a sun spot on their face, the first thing they’ll do is reach for the potato-honey combo they saw on Reddit and start smearing it on their face. Not only are these DIY home remedies ineffective, but they also won’t address the larger issue: Sun spots can be a sign of unprotected sun exposure, which can lead to skin cancer.
Luckily, sun spots are easy to treat and prevent. Start with a preventive skincare routine that includes sunscreen, moisturizer, and antioxidants. For treatment, skip the lemon slice to the face and consider dermatologist-approved treatments like tretinoin, proven for safety and efficacy. Your skin will thank you.
What are sun spots?
Sun spots (aka age spots, liver spots, and solar lentigines) are a form of hyperpigmentation due to sun exposure. They’re flat brown spots or patches that show up on sun-exposed skin.
People with fair skin, light eyes and hair, freckles, moles, and a history of skin cancer are more likely to get sun spots and experience other effects of sun damage. But anyone can get sun spots, and it’s worth it for your skin health to adopt good practices to treat and prevent them.
Sun spots themselves are harmless, but they could mean you’re at increased risk of skin cancer from ultraviolet (UV) rays. The good news is, sun spots are easily treatable, and it’s never too late to start a skincare regimen to prevent sun damage.
How do you treat sun spots on the face?
You can minimize the appearance of sun spots on your face through effective dermatologist-approved products at home as well as in-office services offered by a dermatologist.
Treat sun spots on the face with dermatologist-approved products at home
There are several skincare ingredients that can help fade the sun spots on your face. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) suggests getting a topical product with active ingredients like retinoids (such as tretinoin, retinol, adapalene, or tazarotene), vitamin C, kojic acid, glycolic acid, or azelaic acid. Several of these can be purchased over the counter, though more potent ingredients like retinoids require a prescription.
2% hydroquinone is another choice to treat sun spots, but it’s more intense than most people need. Hydroquinone acts as a bleach by decreasing the pigment-producing cells in your skin. It usually works on fair skin tones, but it may worsen dark spots on medium-to-dark skin tones. The FDA has gone back and forth on the safety of this ingredient, so talk to your derm first to make sure it’s right for your skin.
One of our favorite actives for treating facial sun spots is tretinoin (aka retinoic acid). If you’re familiar with retinol, a quintessential wrinkle smoother and acne fighter, tretinoin is its more powerful cousin. Tretinoin and retinol are both part of the retinoid family, but studies have found tretinoin to be 20x more potent, so it shows results faster.
A lesser-known benefit of retinoids? They help to even skin tone by distributing the pigment in your skin1. So it’s more like taking a Tide stick to lift stains out of jeans and less like throwing your jeans into a bucket of bleach.
In one study with Black patients, tretinoin was effective in treating hyperpigmentation with minimal overall lightening2. A clinical trial with Chinese and Japanese patients found similar results3. And a study on white patients noted tretinoin’s long-term effects—dark spots had not returned by the six month follow up after the treatment ended4.
Retinoids are a part of sun spot treatment and prevention. Instead of one-time treatments every time sun spots appear, develop a daily skincare regimen that will treat your sun spots now and hold off future spots.
Get professional in-office treatments for sun spots on the face
Besides a daily routine, there are several one-time skin treatment options that you can get from a dermatologist. Many of these are in the range of $700-$2,000, so do your research before you get attached to a treatment plan.
Intense pulsed light (IPL) treatments target and destroy the excess pigment cells in sun spots. IPL generally has few side effects other than minor sensitivity after treatment. It usually requires 3–5 treatments.
Laser resurfacing is more intensive and painful but typically only requires one session to treat sun spots. This laser treatment lightens sun spots by removing the outer layer of skin on hyperpigmented spots to make way for new skin growth. Your doctor may give you an anesthetic or sedative for the procedure and painkillers afterward.
Microdermabrasion is generally the most cost-conscious in-office treatment for sun spots — in the range of $100-200 per session. It stimulates new cell growth by removing the outer layer of your skin. Microdermabrasion will make you more sensitive to the sun’s UV rays, so limit sun exposure and use sunscreen liberally while your skin recovers.
Avoid DIY remedies
There are dozens of DIY remedies for sun spots online, like apple cider vinegar, lemon juice, garbanzo beans, horseradish, and that potato-honey combo we mentioned earlier. But none of these have significant scientific backing—or any at all—and can do more harm than good 5.
Lemon juice, horseradish, and apple cider vinegar are bound to irritate your skin and dry it out—or even cause blisters. Yikes!
Rather than dunking your face in apple cider vinegar, use a dermatologist-approved formula with studies that prove its safety and efficacy.
What is the best skincare routine to prevent sun spots on the face?
Treatment and prevention of sun spots can be one and the same. The best skincare routine to treat and prevent sun spots is one that’s simple, promotes healthy skin, and provides a barrier to sun damage. Use a morning routine to prepare your face for sun exposure and a nighttime routine to restore the skin.
Morning skincare routine to prevent and treat sun spots
- Cleanse to remove impurities (like pollutants, dirt, and bacteria) and overnight oil build-up.
- Treat with a vitamin C antioxidant serum to neutralize free radicals from the sun’s UV rays.
- Hydrate the face with a nourishing moisturizer to maintain skin health.
- Protect your skin with a broad-spectrum sunscreen—with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30—applied 15 minutes before sun exposure and every two hours.
Nighttime skincare routine to prevent and treat sun spots
- Cleanse to remove impurities—this is even more important after exposure to pollutants throughout the day.
- Repair DNA after sun exposure with niacinamide.
- Treat with a retinoid serum to keep skin pigmentation even and promote healthy cell production.
- Hydrate with a nourishing moisturizer.
This is just a base for sun spot prevention and treatment. Skincare is super personal, so continue to experiment with what works for you and stop using anything that irritates your skin or makes your sun spots worse. A derm can help you find less irritating products or suggest lower concentrations of your actives to help you find the right balance.
Beyond your skincare routine, wear protective clothing such as long sleeves, pants, UV-protecting sunglasses, and a wide-brimmed hat.
Get the best retinoid for sun spots with an online consultation
Following these steps, you can prevent and treat sun spots on your face. If you’re looking for the best retinoid to treat and prevent sun spots, tretinoin has over 50 years of research to back up its safety and efficacy. It’s 20x more potent than retinol, and it’s easier than ever to get this derm-grade retinoid at home.
Now you can get an online consultation without the cost and hassle of an in-person consultation. Dear Brightly works directly with providers, making it easy to get derm-grade retinoids tailored to your skin, if applicable.
Sensitive skin or retinoid newbie? Your provider may start you on a low-strength formula to give your skin a chance to get used to it before ramping up to the concentration ideal for your skin.
Got questions? Skincare can be confusing, but we’re here to help. If you have any questions, feel free to reach out at email@example.com.
- Boswell, C. (2006, March 01). “Skincare Science: Update on Topical Retinoids” Aesthetic Surgery Journal.
- Bulengo-Ransby, Stella M. et al. (1993, May 20). “Topical Tretinoin (Retinoic Acid) Therapy for Hyperpigmented Lesions Caused by Inflammation of the Skin in Black Patients” New England Journal of Medicine.
- Griffiths, Christopher E.M. et al. (1994). “Topical tretinoin (retinoic acid) treatment of hyperpigmented lesions associated with photoaging in Chinese and Japanese patients: A vehicle-controlled trial” Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology.
- Rafal, Elyse S. et al. (1992, February 06). “Topical Tretinoin (Retinoic Acid) Treatment for Liver Spots Associated with Photodamage” New England Journal of Medicine.
- Luu, Lydia A. et al. (2019, September). “Apple cider vinegar soaks [0.5%] as a treatment for atopic dermatitis do not improve skin barrier integrity” Pediatric dermatology.