Splashed across a kid's cheeks, freckles are charming. But later in life, extra facial pigmentation -- in the form of brown patches or changes in tone and texture -- sends a different, less adorable message: You're aging. And believe us, people notice. A recent Procter & Gamble Beauty study found that skin tone alone can impact a woman's perceived age by as much as 20 years.
So here's what you need to help diminish the damage you likely did to your skin this summer. Your non-negotiable first step? Wearing a broad-spectrum sunscreen that provides UVA and UVB protection. If you won't wear it every day, then you might as well stop reading right here. (Here's how much sunscreen you need.)
Know what causes the spots
Surprise: Age spots aren't caused by getting older. Instead, you can blame them (and nearly every other form of unwanted pigmentation) on the sun. "Sunshine is an attack on the skin, and one way the skin defends itself is to make pigment," explains Ranella Hirsch, M.D., a cosmetic dermatologist in Cambridge, MA, and president of the American Society of Cosmetic Dermatology & Aesthetic Surgery.
And the older most people get, the greater the amount of sun damage they've accumulated, so the spots are more numerous and more visible. "That's why sunscreen and sun avoidance are key to any therapy you try," says Debra Wattenberg, M.D., assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City .
How to treat them at home
Try hydroquinone. This bleaching agent, available in department and drugstores or by prescription, works by interfering with an enzyme that helps your skin produce melanin, the brown pigment that shows up as spots. (Dr. Hirsch recommends using hydroquinone in conjunction with a prescription-strength retinoid, such as Renova or Tazorac, which helps lighten by exfoliating the skin.) Look for it over the counter in concentrations up to 2 percent; prescription versions will usually have 4 percent.
Enlist the help of your dermatologist
"Dermatologists and plastic surgeons have a whole arsenal of light-based treatments available," says Dr. Friedman, who recommends pigmented-lesion lasers such as ruby, Nd:YAG, or Alexandrite for specific spots, and the Fraxel laser for allover improvement of irregular pigmentation.
Another option: glycolic, alpha, or beta hydroxy acid peels, which slough off the surface layers of skin, softening the appearance of uneven tone. Some doctors will combine peels with laser or light therapy, and they will almost always prescribe at-home treatment as well. "In-office procedures are quicker, but they work best when accompanied by home therapy," says Dr. Wattenberg.
Costs for most in-office treatments vary depending on several factors (the size of the area being treated, the severity of your condition, and the going rates where you live); the average is about $500 per session for pigmented-lesion lasers; $1,000 for Fraxel; $150 and up for peels. (Bonus: Many of the treatments will also help with wrinkles.)
Protect your results with sunscreen
Sunscreen is the most important thing in treating hyperpigmentation, because just as the sun tans your skin, it also intensifies any dark spots, explains Ana A. Cardenas, M.D., a Bakersfield , California , dermatologist. And women of color are not off the hook, she adds. In fact, the greater concentration of melanin in Indian, Latina and African-American complexions is very responsive to sunlight, making these skin tones more susceptible to discoloration. (And here's how to prevent skin cancer.)
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Reprinted with permission of Hearst Communications, Inc.