White Sun Spots: Treating Idiopathic Guttate Hypomelanosis
- White sun spots develop due to a combination of two factors: aging (melanin decreases as we age) and excessive sun exposure.
- The majority of the time, these white marks are totally benign and do not indicate a predisposition to skin cancer or other serious skin conditions.
- There is a wide range of treatments available to correct white sun spots, from in-office laser procedures and microdermabrasion to prescription creams.
We’re all well-aware that the sun is the No. 1 threat to beautiful, 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), these frustrating white spots are totally benign (so don’t worry if you’ve got one, two, or a whole patch of them) but may cause you to feel self-conscious and want to cover them up.
What are white sun spots, exactly? 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 summer spent lying in the sun, and may be accompanied by sunburn and discoloration in the surrounding skin.
Such spots usually measure from 1 to 10 millimeters wide (though they’re most often somewhere between 1 and 3 millimeters wide) and are flat with a whitish color. They’re more common in people with fair skin color — no surprise there, since lighter-toned individuals are generally more susceptible to sun-damaged skin — among 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, of course, its damaging UV rays) and other factors cause the skin to thin and flatten, which can lead to a 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 discriminate when it comes to skin types or tones. 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 very 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 he or she believes there’s an indication of something more serious that should be investigated.
Occasionally, these spots are confused with other (sometimes more serious) skin disorders, including 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 your condition could be something more serious.
Treating White Sun Spots
If you’ve got a few white spots that just won’t go away, there are several treatment options available, all of which work to equip your skin cells with the proper tools required 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. Thus, if a doctor deems your condition 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 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 prescription-strength form of Retinol, tretinoin is proven to help treat a wide range of age-related skin issues, including fine lines and wrinkles. It may also help you get rid of those frustrating white spots.
The cream or oral medication is really just a highly concentrated form of vitamin A, which is known to speed up cell turnover rate, which evens out discoloration.
Besides steroids, there are other, safer 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 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 3-5 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 also 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, 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.
We recommend upping your sun protection game with UPF clothing to block out even more UV rays. Reference the Skin Cancer Foundation’s prevention guide for more ideas on how to protect your skin from damaging sun rays.
The Bottom Line
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. But doctors and researchers 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 (yep, that includes sunscreen, sunscreen, 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.
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