- White sun spots develop due to a combination of two factors: aging and excessive sun exposure.
- Typically, these white marks are benign and do not indicate a predisposition to skin cancer or any other serious skin conditions.
- There are many options to correct white sun spots, including in-office laser procedures, microdermabrasion, and prescription creams.
We’re all well-aware that the sun is the No. 1 threat to perfect skin, but this often doesn’t become fully apparent until we develop real issues that stem from spending too much time basking in the sun’s glow.
One way the power of the sun manifests itself through our skin is via white sun spots. Also known as Idiopathic Guttate Hypomelanosis (IGH skin), these frustrating white spots are totally benign, meaning that you don’t need to worry about them from a medical standpoint. However, these spots can easily make people feel self-conscious and want to cover them up.
What are white sun spots?
At their core, these little, discolored marks are your body’s way of telling you that it’s had too much sun exposure. They often develop after a long vacation or a summer spent lying in the sun, and may be accompanied by a sunburn and discoloration in the surrounding skin.
Such spots can measure from 1 to 10 mm wide (though they’re typically between 1 and 3 millimeters wide). They are flat with a whitish color.
They’re more common in people with lighter skin tones since lighter-toned individuals are generally more susceptible to sun-damaged skin, particularly those aged 40 and older.
According to the American Osteopathic College of Dermatology (AOCD), these white dots can be blamed on a decrease in melanin in the skin and its pigment-producing cells called melanocytes. Regular exposure to the sun and its damaging UV rays causes the skin to thin and flatten, which can lead to the change in skin tone in the affected area.
Like the graying of hair or the slowing of collagen production, the body’s ability to produce significant amounts of melanin weakens as we age. Excessive sun exposure, even over a period of years, only worsens the body’s ability to produce enough melanin.
Sun damage is to blame for a wide range of different skin discoloration issues; it causes dark spots — also known as age spots, brown spots, or liver spots — and, of course, contributes to fine lines and wrinkles.
The sun doesn’t only impact those with lighter skin tones however. Contrary to popular belief, even people with dark skin are susceptible to developing these white patches and other sun-related skin damage. This is why wearing broad-spectrum sunscreen daily is so important.
Are they dangerous?
Let’s clear this up right off the bat. White sun spots are almost always benign, so there’s little need to worry if you see them pop up on your body. The white areas are also not known to increase your likelihood of developing skin cancer, although sometimes a doctor will request a biopsy if they believe there’s an indication of something more serious that should be investigated.
Occasionally, these spots are confused with other, sometimes more serious, skin disorders such as tinea versicolor, warts, vitiligo, and pityriasis alba. If you notice that your spots are spreading, see a doctor immediately.
Make sure to always get professional medical advice from a board-certified dermatologist if you believe that your condition could be something more serious.
Treating white sun spots
If you have a few white spots that just won’t go away, there are several treatment options available. All of these treatments work to equip your skin cells with the proper tools to ward off depigmentation. Often that means using active ingredients and techniques that stimulate the production of melanin, which effectively helps even out skin.
While most of the time white sun spots aren’t caused by a skin fungus, the skin fungal infection tinea versicolor looks very similar to Idiopathic Guttate Hypomelanosis and the two are often mixed up. If a doctor deems your condition to be tinea versicolor, antifungal products will help reduce the appearance of these stubborn white spots.
Besides using cosmetic procedures and the right skincare products, many patients also turn to cosmetic cover-ups in order to mask the affected area. This might mean using self-tanner, makeup, or clothing to mask the hypopigmentation.
Topical steroids are sometimes recommended for extreme cases of skin depigmentation. They work by suppressing the immune system and blocking the autoimmune destruction of the melanin-producing melanocytes. In other words, they allow the body to produce more melanin.
However, topical steroids come with some serious side effects, so regular and long-term use is not recommended.
The cream or oral medication is really just a highly concentrated form of vitamin A, known to speed up cell turnover rate, which evens out discoloration.
There are safe topical medications that can be used to even out white spots in the skin. Some commonly prescribed options include pimecrolimus and tacrolimus.
These medications are often recommended for treating vitiligo, a skin condition that causes large, permanent white splotches. They are officially classified as topical immunomodulators so, like steroids, they’ll block the immune system from suppressing melanin production.
Intense pulsed light (IPL) lasers are commonly used to treat various forms of hypo and hyperpigmentation, including white sun spots and age spots. These lasers gradually remove the top layers of sun-damaged skin, effectively allowing new healthy skin to grow in its place.
In general, patients report a solid improvement after three to five sessions. The treatment is largely considered low risk, with little discomfort and few side effects.
This popular treatment works in a similar manner to laser treatments. Essentially, microdermabrasion removes the top layer of the skin through the use of tiny, rough particles. Home remedies can be used for extreme exfoliation, but in-office treatments are recommended for more serious cases.
This treatment is effective at evening out skin tone, but some forms of microdermabrasion are considered somewhat rough, and should not be used by people with sensitive skin.
In particularly extreme cases, such as with vitiligo, surgery may be an option for treating major skin discoloration. Two common forms of surgery are used in such scenarios: skin grafts and melanocyte transplant.
During skin grafting, a cosmetic surgeon will use skin from another part of your body to cover the affected area. Melanocyte transplant surgery requires a doctor to collect top-layer skin cells from a “healthy” part of your body and transplant it beneath the white spots.
Some experts report that cryotherapy — the process of spraying liquid nitrogen onto the skin, effectively freezing and destroying certain skin tissue — yields positive results in the treatment of white sun spots.
Destroying the skin not only gets rid of the pigmentation issues, but also encourages new tissue growth, which creates a more vibrant and even complexion.
Preventing white sun spots
As you can imagine, preventing any kind of sun-related skin disorder or condition comes down to your skin care regimen. Make sure to use a high-quality SPF 35+ sunscreen every single day — not just when you plan to spend the day outside — to prevent the skin from developing white spots, wrinkles, and other common skin conditions.
You can also up your sun protection game with UPF clothing to block out even more UV rays. The Skin Cancer Foundation’s prevention guide offers more ideas on how to protect your skin from damaging sun rays.
Sadly, we can’t simply turn back the hands of time and erase our days slathered in oil in the tanning bed or at the beach. However, doctors do have the next best thing, and in the case of white sun spots this means cosmetic treatments and topical medications.
As long as you stick to a solid skincare regimen — that includes the regular use of sunscreen — and understand how to properly treat your particular skin ailments, you’ll be ahead of the game when it comes to having fabulous, flawless skin.
- “Prevention” Skin Cancer Foundation. (n.d.) skincancer.org/prevention
- “New surgical techniques hold promise for treating vitiligo.” American Academy of Dermatology. (13 March 2012). aad.org/media/news-releases/new-surgical-techniques-hold-promise-for-treating-vitiligo
- Ignelzi, R. J. (15 April 2013). “Sun damage to skin need not be permanent” San Diego Union-Tribune. sandiegouniontribune.com/news/health/sdut-sun-skin-laser-dermatologist-2013apr15-story.html
- “Idiopathic Guttate Hypomelanosis” American Osteopathic College of Dermatology. (n.d.). aocd.org/page/IdiopathicGuttateH