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Sun spots signal damage to skin

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In Hawaii we’re lucky to have clear skies and sunny days year-round — ideal conditions for hiking, surfing or relaxing on the beach. But as we’re enjoying our favorite outdoor activity, it’s easy to forget that without the proper protection, the sun’s powerful UV rays can damage and age our skin.

Sun exposure can lead to premature wrinkles, skin redness from dilated blood vessels, loss of skin elasticity, and sun spots, which appear as flat brown or black blemishes on the skin. Though they are often known as age spots or liver spots, sun spots — the technical term is solar lentigines — are actually signs of sun damage that can occur at any age.

Sun spot treatments

While sun spots are generally harmless, many people remove them for cosmetic reasons. Over-the-counter and prescription topical creams have long been the norm in treating sun spots, but it can take weeks to months to see results. With advances in technology, laser treatments are becoming a popular and effective way to treat a host of skin problems, including sun spots.

Laser treatment offers a number of benefits: The entire process is non-invasive, takes only about 30 minutes and involves minimal discomfort. The laser delivers a precise pulse of light energy that’s absorbed by the darkened parts of the skin. The sun-damaged, brown discoloration eventually turns into a crust that flakes off several days later, resulting in skin tone that’s more evenly colored. Patients have described the experience as a slight stinging sensation, similar to a rubber band snapping on skin.

In the right hands, lasers are quite safe, but they are also powerful instruments. Check to make sure a board-certified and licensed dermatologist or physician assistant is operating the laser during your treatment.

The cost of laser treatments depends on the size of the area treated and the number of pulses required. At the Aesthetic Center by Kaiser Permanente, laser treatments to remove brown spots and broken blood vessels from sun damage for face, neck and hands start at $468, $314 and $203, respectively. For skin resurfacing, a full facial treatment starts at $736, and for partial, $493. (Since brown-spot removal often requires several treatments, the prices include multiple visits.)

Preventing sun spots

Even though you can treat your sun-damaged skin with lasers and prescription creams, it’s much easier to avoid getting sun spots in the first place. Your skin is your largest and most exposed organ, so protect it. Apply sunscreen daily and wear protective clothing.

Look for sunscreens with "physical" blockers such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide as the active ingredient. If you’re in the sun for an extended period of time, don’t forget to reapply sunscreen at least every two hours.

And remember that sun damage can be much more than skin deep. Melanoma is on the rise nationally and here in Hawaii, so take every precaution and protect yourself whenever you’re out enjoying our beautiful weather.

Dorothy Maurice is a board-certified physician assistant at The Aesthetic Center by Kaiser Permanente, located at the Mapunapuna Medical Office. For more information, call 432-5670.

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