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In a previous post, Out Damn’d Spot, Out I Say, we discussed how to tell what kind of brown spots you have, so you know what needs to be done to get rid of them. They are of very different causes and presentation, and have very different treatments. And it’s always a good idea to know what you have got, before you decide what you need to do. Let’s start with the easiest to treat, relatively speaking, brown discoloration from past sun exposure.

To recap, here is what you see:

  • In the mirror: Scattered pin-head to quarter size flat brown or reddish brown spots on face, neck, chest, forearms, and hands. Some may be scaly.
  • Diagnosis: Actinic damage from past sun exposure, most commonly in lighter skinned people. Freckles are small, relatively regular in size and distribution, flat and most common in redheads. There are two kinds of actinic, or “sun spots”. Actinic pigmentation are flat brown or reddish brown spots, irregular in size and distribution, but not scaly. Actinic keratoses, or AK’s, are also scaly or crusty.
  • Treatment: Daily sun protection with clothing and sunscreen, prescription retinoid creams such as Retin A or Refissa, over the counter Retinol, prescription or over the counter bleaching creams, Intense Pulsed Light (IPL), Chemical Peels, Particle Free Precision Microdermabrasion/Dermal Infusion such as SilkPeel, LED treatments such as GentleWaves, and laser treatments such as Fraxel Laser. For pre-malignant sun damage treatments are liquid nitrogen destruction, prescription medications and photodynamic therapy such as IPL/PDT.
  • Ease of treatment: Moderate.

So, now you know how you got where you are—spots, and blotches from sun damage.

  • Freckles are small pinhead size brown to red to tan flat spots and are found on any part of the body that’s exposed to the sun, like the face, nose, shoulders and chest. They become darker in the summer and fade in the winter. Freckles can occur on all skin tones, but they’re more common in those with fair skin, red hair and light-colored eyes, and occur from childhood onward. Freckles give character and individuality, and many people with freckles like them and don’t desire removal, but remember the reason for them is overexposure to the sun and are a sign of sun damage.
  • Sun spots are isolated discolorations appearing from prolonged sun exposure over extended periods of time. They are random in distribution, vary in size and color from tan to reddish brown, to dark brown, larger than freckles, usually flat. They’re most common on the hands, sides of the face, chest and neck, and any other part of the body that’s regularly exposed to the sun. Most common in lighter skin types, but can occur in anyone who is exposed to sun over a period of time. Sunspots usually tend to show up on the skin later than freckles, but as early as your 20’s and 30’s if you have light skin or have had significant sun exposure. Over time, as they become pre-malignant actinic keratosis they may become scaly, and accompany the crinkly texture changes, broken blood vessels and wrinkles of chronic sun damage.

Home Treatments:

  • Daily Sun Protection: Of course, as with much of life, the best offense is a good defense. And the defense is sun protection started at an early age and continued though out life. And it is even more important if you have skin type I or II and live in a sunny climate such as southwestern US, southern US, the tropics or Australia; work or recreate outdoors; or grow up on the beach. I have gone over this before, and I know you don’t want the lecture again. If you do, read my previous post Quit Complaining and Wear Your Damn Sunscreen. The vitamin D issue? Topic for another day.
  • Prescription Retinoid creams such as Retin A or Refissa: Retinoids are compounds which are able to penetrate the top layers of skin. Retinol is the naturally occurring form of Vitamin A and is converted to the biologically active form, retinoic acid, in the skin. Prescription retinoids are forms of retinoic acid, and are stronger than retinol. Retinoids have well documented anti-aging, sun damage reversal and acne treatment effects, and are considered the gold standard in both anti-aging and acne treatment. Prescription tretinoin, or the other prescription retinoids include Retin-A, Retin-A Micro, Refissa, Renova, Differin, Tazorac) that come in creams and gels. I have been using one form or another of prescription tretinoin for 25 years. The key is to use the right form. I use currently use Refissa (it is the old Renova 0.05% now a branded generic), tretinoin 0.05% in an emollient base. It is much easier to tolerate than Retin-A, and even easier to tolerate than Renova 0.02%. Creams are much easier to tolerate than gels. The key is to have your face completely dry before you put it on at night, and use it on a regular basis, not intermittently. When your face is damp you absorb more and it is more irritating. When you use it, get dry and red, stop, get better and start again, your skin peels, reforms just in time to peel again when you restart it. And your skin never gets tolerant of it. You can do it every other night or even every third night to start and work up. Be very careful with exfoliants, which can cause microscopic abrasions which allow the tretinoin to penetrate and cause inflammation. Even using a washcloth or facial cloth, synthetic cotton balls (use 100% cotton), cleansing brushes, or a makeup brush to apply loose mineral powder can cause you to not tolerate it.
  • Over the counter Retinol: In general, the strength of pure time-release retinol in medial grade, non-prescription products is 0.1-0.5%. The percentage may increase up to 1.5% if the product is actually a mixture of retinol, retinyl palmitate and retinyl acetate.
  • Prescription or over the counter bleaching creams: Prescription hydroquinone, non-prescription hydroquinone and other over the counter bleaching creams are often helpful in addition to the other methods we are discussing. That is a complicated topic, and one which we will discuss in depth when we discuss the bane of pigment problems, melasma, later. So you will just have to stay tuned, and return later.

Office Treatments:

  • Intense Pulsed Light (IPL): A series of 3-5 Intense Pulsed Light treatments (called IPL, Photofacial, or Photorejuvenation) reduces broken capillaries, redness, brown pigment, age spots, and freckles. It is ideal for those who have lighter skin, with discolorations and little or no textural problems, because it targets the pigment in cells and broken blood vessels to destroy them, while not disrupting the other, lighter parts of the skin. Red areas get redder for 24 hours, and dark spots get darker for 5 days, and then peel off.It is absolutely essential that you use daily sunscreen, and avoid sun exposure for 3 weeks before treatment, to reduce the natural pigmentation in the surrounding normal skin. Patients with skin types III and up must be especially careful. If you don’t you are at risk of getting burned. Also it is essential that you are evaluated and treated by a physician who is trained and experienced in the skin. IPL is a great procedure when properly done, but one that takes skill to do right. We see patients who have had treatments by individuals with little training or experience and who then develop burns, more pigment, or who are given many low energy treatments with little results. IPL also can be used to improve the red and brown discoloration on the neck, chest, back of the arms, and hands from sun damage. The healing time is longer and the risk of burns higher if you don’t follow sun protection or if done by an inexperienced or untrained operator.
  • Chemical Peels: At-home products with glycolic or fruit acids and a series of in-office light chemical peels can improve discoloration by peeling off the top layer of pigmented skin cells, and allowing better penetration of other surface treatments. They are best when used with home retinoids, prescription hydroquinone or other skin lighteners. Skin may be red, dry and flaky for up to 5 days.
  • Particle Free Precision Microdermabrasion/Dermal Infusion such as SilkPeel: Particle-free microdermabrasion uses a treatment tip to exfoliate the skin. SilkPeel Dermal Infusion uses a diamond treatment head to precisely exfoliate accompanied by application of bleaching solutions at controlled intensity. It removes surface pigment, and allows better penetration of prescribed home skin treatments. A plus is that there is no redness or flaking after treatment.
  • LED Treatments such as GentleWaves: GentleWaves LED Photomodulation uses a painless light emitting diode treatment to stimulate collagen and elastin production and improve mild brown discoloration over a series of 8 or more treatments. There is no downtime, but should be used with other treatments, and improvement is variable.
  • Fractional Laser Treatments Patients who don’t respond well to the treatments above or who also desire improvements in mild to moderate wrinkles, large pores, surface irregularities, or acne scarring are candidates for fractional laser treatments such as Fraxel Laser Treatment or Active FX. Fractional lasers deliver energy deeper into the skin through thousands of deep tiny columns breaking up deeper pigment, resurfacing sun damage, irregular surface changes, wrinkles and scars. There are two main types, ablative requiring less treatments, but have a longer recovery time and discomfort during treatment and non-ablative which require more treatments, have less recovery time and discomfort during treatment.

We will talk more bleaching creams, treatment of premalignant sunspots and laser treatment later.

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