Sunspots, liver spots, age spots, solar lentigines (their medical name) — whatever you call those small brown spots that form on your hands, face, or other sun-exposed areas, one thing’s for sure: they tend to become more prevalent with age. So if you have one or two, prepare yourself for more.
These little areas of hyperpigmentation are a part of the “natural” ageing process, developing when years of sun exposure trigger pigment-producing cells (called melanocytes) in your skin to produce more pigment in a small concentrated area.
In these areas, the excess pigment is deposited in response to sun injury, sort of the way scar tissue forms after a cut or puncture wound. Unlike moles that “stick out” above the skin, sunspots aren’t raised at all; run your finger over a sunspot, and it feels just as smooth as the skin around it.
But just because sunspots are harmless, that doesn’t mean they should be ignored. The problem with sunspots (and with moles, for that matter) is that skin cancer in its earlier stages can look very much like a flat, brownish spot (see below). That means if you ignore an area of hyperpigmentation on your skin, you could be delaying care for what may turn out to be a deadly melanoma.
While a sunspot forms when the melanocytes overproduce pigment in a tiny area of your skin, skin cancers form when the cells themselves reproduce in an abnormal and rapid fashion. Eventually, these cancerous cells can spread to other areas of your body (a process called metastasis) and cause more widespread disease and even death.
So how can you tell the difference between a sunspot and an early skin cancer? The key lies in understanding and identifying the subtle differences in the way cancers and sunspots look.
Sunspots vs. Skin Cancers
Here’s one of the major differences between sunspots and melanoma: Sunspots tend to crop up on areas of your skin that have had a lot of sun exposure over the years. On the other hand, melanoma — the deadliest type of skin cancer — can appear anywhere, even in areas with no sun exposure or limited exposure to UV rays.
But there are other ways to tell the difference between a benign skin change and an early skin cancer. Generally, skin cancer detection relies on the “ABCDE” system developed by researchers and used worldwide:
- Asymmetry: If you draw an invisible line down the centre of a noncancerous growth or lesion, the two sides will be almost identical in most cases; in skin cancer, the sides will look different.
- Borders: Noncancerous growths tend to have smooth edges or borders while skin cancers have irregular borders.
- Colour: While most moles are one consistent colour, skin cancers tend to have more than one colour, like red, brown, black, pink, or even blue.
- Diameter: Most melanomas have a diameter larger than a pencil eraser (about 6 mm); however, some melanomas can be quite small, especially in their early stages.
- Evolution: Any spot or growth that changes in size, shape, colour, or any other characteristic is more likely to be a melanoma.
Recently, Cancer Council announced an update to the diagnosis guidelines to include elevation, firmness, and growth (EFG).
- Elevated: The mole is raised above the skin
- Firm: The spot is solid to the touch, firmer than the surrounding skin and doesn’t flatten if pressed
- Growing: The mole is gradually getting larger
While these indicators can provide a good starting point for evaluating a discoloured spot on your skin, the differences between a sunspot and an early melanoma or other cancer can be extremely difficult to detect without proper medical training. And even a little delay of care can be enough time for melanoma cells to proliferate and even spread to other areas of your body.
That means any change in your skin needs to be evaluated by a dermatologist as soon as possible to determine if the spot is benign or if it’s a type of skin cancer that needs immediate treatment.
Sunspots: An Early Indicator of Skin Cancer Risk
If you’ve already been diagnosed with sunspots, there’s another reason to see your dermatologist for a skin cancer screening. That’s because even though sunspots are pretty ugly, they’re actually doing you a kind of favour by showing up. How?
If you have sunspots, that means you’ve had a lot of sun exposure during your lifetime. And that means your risk for developing skin cancer is probably elevated — perhaps very elevated.
So while your sunspots may be benign, they’re a good reminder that you need to have your skin evaluated for skin cancer, to detect those subtle differences between benign lesions like sunspots and cancerous growths like basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma.
Most people should have a skin cancer screening once a year, but people at an increased risk for skin cancer may need to be screened more often to look for changes that could indicate skin cancer cells are present.
If you have any concerning sunspots or changes that you’ve noticed in your skin – call your dermatologist or schedule a MoleMap today.