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  • Share your skin goals and snap selfies

  • Your dermatology provider prescribes your formula

  • Apply nightly for happy, healthy skin

What causes brown spots on your face? Experts explain

Spoiler alert: The sun is a primary cause of facial hyperpigmentation—so always remember your SPF!

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Curology Team
Nov 10, 2022 · 7 min read

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Brown Spots
We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.
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Age spots, sunspots, liver spots—can you spot the difference? If not, don’t worry—we’re here to break it all down. 

Here we’ll explain some of the more common types of brown spots (aka hyperpigmentation) and what causes brown spots on the face. We’ll also share how to recognize when brown spots may not be hyperpigmentation, and instead another skin condition. Last, we’ll drop tips from the experts on how you can reduce the appearance of brown spots and, in some cases, prevent them from occurring in the first place. 

What are brown spots?

Brown spots are areas of skin that are darker than the surrounding skin. The good news is most types are  harmless and painless, so there’s no need to treat them unless you absolutely want to. The better news? Some types of brown spots can fade on their own with time. 

They can result from an overproduction of melanin, which is responsible for skin, eye, and hair color. Melanocytes, which are special pigment-producing cells, are also involved in hyperpigmentation. They can increase in number and increase melanin production - both leading to hyperpigmentation.¹ 

There are different types of brown spots that may appear on your face, including sunspots, post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH), or melasma. But their formation shares some common characteristics. An external factor (like sun exposure, in the case of sunspots) activates melanocytes in the skin, signaling the production of melanin. Excess melanin winds up in the skin’s uppermost layer, and voilà! Brown spots form.²   

Here are more specifics on three of the more common types of hyperpigmentation: 

  • Sunspots (aka age spots, liver spots, or solar lentigines) happen when melanocytes in the skin release melanin to protect against the sun’s UV rays. Melanin absorbs the sun’s rays and redistributes them. When the body produces too much melanin, dark spots (sunspots) can form. This is also what causes liver spots and age spots—the three are one in the same!

  • PIH(aka post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation) occurs when excess melanin is deposited into the skin following an inflammatory event,³ such as acne, insect bites, or a burn. Dark spots are left behind once the inflammation clears, but they typically fade with time. This is different from acne scars, which leave a permanent depression or raised area on the skin.

  • Melasma is a skin condition that appears as light to dark spots and patches across the central face. What causes melasma remains somewhat of a mystery, but research shows that genetics and hormonal changes (which include pregnancy, oral contraceptives, or hormone replacement therapy) may play a role.⁴ Clinical research shows that melanocytes are larger and more biologically active in areas where dark patches of skin occur. People with melasma on the outer layer of skin may have more melanin in their deeper skin layers. Melasma is exacerbated by UV rays, which stimulate melanocytes to produce more melanin—darkening pigmentation in the skin.⁵

Hyperpigmentation and Skin Dark Spot Types

Should I worry about brown spots on my face?

Areas of the body frequently exposed to the sun—like the face, hands, and neck—are prone to flat brown spots (or tan to dark brown, gray, or black spots) varying in size and shape. Sun spots are typically harmless and do not progress to any type of cancer. But that doesn’t mean all spots are harmless. If your spots change in shape and size, it’s important to have them checked out by a licensed dermatologist or dermatology provider promptly. 

Along with sunspots, other spots can appear on your skin. Here’s how to distinguish between the different types of spots: 

  • Seborrheic keratosis appears as brown, yellow, white, or black rough areas of skin that are slightly raised. They’re also not harmful but can be hard to distinguish from melanoma.⁶

  • Actinic keratosis is referred to as “pre-cancer.” These spots are rough and scaly and, without treatment, can progress to squamous cell carcinoma, a type of skin cancer.⁷  

Learn the ABCDEs of catching skin cancer early

According to the Centers for Disease Control, skin cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the United States, and the culprit is overexposure to UV light from the sun. That doesn’t mean you need to rush to see a healthcare professional with every new freckle, but you should know what to look for. Use the ABCDE acronym for early detection of melanoma to help you tell the difference between your spots:⁸

  • A: Asymmetry. A portion of the spot looks different from the rest. 

  • B: Border. The spot has irregular borders or is poorly defined. 

  • C: Color. Color varies from one area to the next.

  • D: Diameter. The spot is the size of a pencil eraser or larger. 

  • E: Evolving. The size, shape, or color changes.

And just because it is so important, we’ll say it again: If you notice any changes in the shape, size, or color of brown spots, get them checked out.

Melanoma ABCDEs infographic illustration

How to remove brown spots on the face

While you can fade dark spots, you may not be able to completely remove all of them. So, your best bet is to try to prevent them by applying a broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF 30 daily to sun-exposed skin. 

Remember, most brown spots are harmless, but that doesn’t mean you have to keep them if you don’t want them. There’s no “best” treatment for brown spots on the face—everyone’s skin is unique, and what works for one person may not work for another. Fortunately, there are a lot of treatment options you can try. Here’s a list of some proven ingredients and procedures that reduce hyperpigmentation: 

  • Topical ingredients like hydroquinone, tretinoin, tranexamic acid, niacinamide, azelaic acid, and vitamin C can help with different types of brown spots. While some of these are available over the counter, a dermatology provider can help you get better results faster. Here’s what you need to know about these ingredients:  

  • Hydroquinone is a prescription-only ingredient that prevents excess melanin formation. When hydroquinone is used with sunscreen, it can improve pigmentation changes from melasma, PIH, and sun exposure.¹⁰ 

  • Tretinoin is a prescription medication used to treat signs of premature aging, like dark spots and acne.¹¹ It increases cell turnover to decrease hyperpigmentation and treat or help prevent acne from forming.

  • Tranexamic acid is an ingredient that can reduce hyperpigmentation associated with melasma and PIH.¹² It works by blocking melanocytes from producing too much melanin. 

  • Azelaic acid is an anti-inflammatory and antibacterial used to treat inflammation and can help improve melasma¹³ and acne-induced PIH.¹⁴ Azelaic acid is available by prescription and over the counter.

  • Niacinamide is used to treat brown spots on the face. It’s a form of vitamin B3 available over the counter or added to prescription products. 

  • Vitamin C is an antioxidant that helps improve signs of photoaging by decreasing melanin production.¹⁵  

  • Dermabrasion and microdermabrasion are in-office resurfacing procedures that removes skin layer to reveal healthier, even-toned new skin below. Dermabrasion removes more layers of skin and uses a rapidly spinning brush to “sand” down age spots. Microdermabrasion removes only the top layer and uses tiny crystals. These procedures should only be performed by a licensed dermatology provider.

  • Chemical peels can be performed at home or by a skincare specialist. In-office cosmetic procedures tend to work more quickly and efficiently than at-home options. Both use a chemical exfoliant, like alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs), to remove dead skin cells and boost collagen production. Glycolic acid, citric acid, and lactic acid are popular chemical exfoliants available over the counter. 

  • Laser treatment and intense pulsed light treatment remove hyperpigmentation in deeper skin layers and boost collagen production, revealing more naturally pigmented skin. These procedures can successfully improve melasma, sunspots, and PIH in some patients. 

Many of these treatments will leave the top layer of skin irritated, so to avoid sun damage, wear sunscreen or protective clothing when going outside.

Curology Micellar Custom Formula Cleanser Moisturizer

Curology can help

Curology doesn’t diagnose or treat skin cancer—it’s important to see your in-person dermatology provider or medical provider if you notice brown spots on your skin that are abnormally shaped. But if treating hyperpigmentation on your face is on your to-do list, Curology can help! Our dermatologists designed a dark spot formula using ingredients like hydroquinone, kojic acid, and vitamin C to treat sunspots, PIH, and melasma. We also treat skin concerns related to acne, signs of aging, and rosacea.

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

Subject to consultation. 30-day trial. Just cover $4.95 in S&H.
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Signing up is easy. Simply answer a few questions and snap a few selfies so our experts can get to know your skin. If Curology is right for you, you’ll be paired with one of our dermatology providers, who will create a personalized prescription formula. Your dermatology provider is also available to assist you with any questions you may have about your routine or skincare products.  

Best of all, your first month is free.* Just pay $4.95 (plus tax) to cover shipping and handling. Our skincare experts will also send you other products recommended for your skin.

FAQs

What are brown spots?

Brown spots are areas of skin that are darker than the surrounding skin. The good news is most types are  harmless and painless, so there’s no need to treat them unless you absolutely want to. The better news? Some types of brown spots can fade on their own with time.

Should I worry about brown spots on my face?

Areas of the body frequently exposed to the sun—like the face, hands, and neck—are prone to flat brown spots (or tan to dark brown, gray, or black spots) varying in size and shape.

Here’s how to distinguish between the different types of spots: 

  • Seborrheic keratosis appears as brown, yellow, white, or black rough areas of skin that are slightly raised. They’re also not harmful but can be hard to distinguish from melanoma.

  • Actinic keratosis is referred to as “pre-cancer.” These spots are rough and scaly and, without treatment, can progress to squamous cell carcinoma, a type of skin cancer.

What are the ABCDEs to catch skin cancer early?

Use the ABCDE acronym for early detection of melanoma to help you tell the difference between your spots:

  • A: Asymmetry. A portion of the spot looks different from the rest. 

  • B: Border. The spot has irregular borders or is poorly defined. 

  • C: Color. Color varies from one area to the next.

  • D: Diameter. The spot is the size of a pencil eraser or larger. 

  • E: Evolving. The size, shape, or color changes.

And just because it is so important, we’ll say it again: If you notice any changes in the shape, size, or color of brown spots, get them checked out.

How to remove brown spots on the face?

Here’s a list of some proven ingredients and procedures that reduce hyperpigmentation: 

Topical ingredients like hydroquinone, tretinoin, tranexamic acid, niacinamide, azelaic acid, and vitamin C can help with different types of brown spots. While some of these are available over the counter, a dermatology provider can help you get better results faster.

• • •

P.S. We did the homework so you don’t have to:

  1. Wang, R. F., et al. Disorders of Hyperpigmentation. Part I. Pathogenesis and clinical features of common pigmentary disorders. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (2022). 

  2. Brenner, M., & Hearing, V. J. The protective role of melanin against UV damage in human skin. Photochemistry and photobiology. (2008).

  3. Silpa-Archa, N., et al. Postinflammatory hyperpigmentation: A comprehensive overview: Epidemiology, pathogenesis, clinical presentation, and noninvasive assessment technique. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (2017).

  4. Gupta, A.D., et al. The treatment of melasma: A review of clinical trials. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (December 2006).

  5.  Sheth, V.M. and Pandya, A.G. Melasma: A comprehensive update: Part I. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (October 2011).

  6.  American Academy of Dermatology.Seborrheic keratosis: An Overview. (n.d.) 

  7.  Salmon, N., et al. Managing actinic keratosis in primary care.Practitioner. (October 2016).

  8.  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Basic information about skin cancer. (n.d.). 

  9.  American Academy of Dermatology. Skin cancer types: Melanoma signs and symptoms. (n.d.).

  10. Schwartz, C., et al. Hydroquinone. In StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing. (2022).

  11. Baldwin, H. E., et al. 40 years of topical tretinoin use in review. Journal of drugs in dermatology. (2013). 

  12. Souza I.D..S., et al. New topical tranexamic acid derivative for the improvement of hyperpigmentation and inflammation in the sun-damaged skin. Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology. (February 2021). 

  13. Gupta, A.D., et al. The treatment of melasma: A review of clinical trials.Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (December 2006).

  14. Hollinger, J.C., et al. Are natural ingredients effective in the management of hyperpigmentation? A systematic review.The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology. (February 2018).

  15. Al-Niaimi F., et al. Topical Vitamin C and the Skin: Mechanisms of Action and Clinical Applications. The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology. (July 2017).

* Subject to consultation. Subscription is required. Trial is 30 days. Results may vary. 

• • •
Our medical review process:We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Nicole Hangsterfer Avatar

Nicole Hangsterfer, PA-C

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