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With approximately 9,500 people in the United States being diagnosed with skin cancer every day, it’s no wonder that any unusual spot on your skin can create some anxiety.
The good news is, a lot of times, these discolored spots are actually harmless marks known as liver spots, sun spots, or age spots. What’s the difference? Read on to learn more!
Liver Spots 101
First, it’s important to note that any time you notice a discolored spot on your skin that looks unusual, it’s a good idea to have a professional look at it. Melanoma is an extremely deadly (although very rare) type of skin cancer that resembles some types of liver spots. Don’t take a chance with this, it’s just not worth it!
That being said, it’s a good idea to learn about age spots so you understand what you’re dealing with if you find out that you have them. What causes liver spots and what do they generally look like? Here’s what you need to know about the three most common types of liver spots.
These are small red dots that resemble the eraser of a pencil. They’re quite common and can appear anywhere on your body. They’re caused by an overgrowth of blood vessels in your skin and they’re not linked to cancer in any way.
Brown spots on legs and other parts of the body are quite common and often turn out to be lentigines. They’re flat spots that are usually dark-to-tan colored and look a lot like freckles.
Most commonly, they’re about the size of a pencil eraser to the size of a dime. However, they can also be smaller or much larger. They usually appear on areas of the skin that have previously been exposed to significant amounts of sun. They’re also linked to skin tags, which are another type of benign skin growth.
Black dots on the skin sometimes turn out to be seborrheic keratoses. These marks can either be flat or raised and can range in color from pale to black. They’re often scaly or look like warts, although they are not warts.
There are many possible causes of these spots, including age, sun exposure, and genetics. Most people who are over age 50 will develop these spots on their hands, face, and neck. The good news is, liver spots don’t require any treatment and don’t develop into skin cancer spots.
Skin Cancer Spots
Skin cancer spots, and particularly melanomas, can sometimes resemble seborrheic keratoses or lentigines.
Melanoma may arise from a pre-existing mole or it can grow on normal skin. If it starts in a mole, it’s usually smooth and raised. However, when it develops on regular skin, it usually begins as a flat growth that is brown or black.
It will then either grow out or down. If a mole or discolored spot on your skin begins to change shape or color or develops a bump, it’s important to see a dermatologist to confirm that you haven’t developed skin cancer.
When trying to determine, for example, whether you’re dealing with age spots on your face or cancer, it helps to consider your risk factors. Some people are more likely to develop skin cancer, including those who have:
- Fair skin
- Naturally light-colored hair (blond or red)
- Family history of skin cancer
- History of prolonged sun exposure or severe sunburns
- A large number of moles located on the skin
It’s a good idea for everyone – whether you have any of these risk factors or not – to perform regular self-exams to check for unusual spots that could be linked to skin cancer. Once a month, look at your skin in a mirror and check yourself from head to toe.
When doing this, it’s helpful to remember the ABCDE rule which helps you determine whether a spot is likely to be skin cancer, rather than a simple liver spot.
- Asymmetry – this occurs when one part of a mole looks significantly different in shape from the rest.
- Borders – a harmless liver spot usually has a sharp border. Watch out for spots that have irregular, uneven, or blurry edges.
- Color – a non-cancerous mole is usually all one color. If a spot has variations in color or shading, it could be a problem.
- Diameter – any spot that is more than 6 millimeters in diameter (about the size of a pencil eraser) should always be checked.
- Evolving – the last red flag is any significant change in the spot’s color, size, shape, or texture.
If you notice one or more of these issues, call your dermatologist right away.
Avoiding Liver Spots and Skin Cancer
Although they’re not related, the methods for avoiding liver spots and cancer are essentially the same. This includes doing your best to stay out of direct sunlight between the hours of 10 am and 3 pm and avoiding tanning beds.
Apply sunscreen any time you go outdoors (even on cloudy days), and reapply it regularly. You may also want to use cosmetic products that have at least a 10 to 15 SPF. If you’re going to be out in the sun for an extended period, consider wearing a wide-brimmed hat and cover your skin with clothing
More Information to Keep You Healthy, Wealthy, and Well!
Now that you know the difference between harmless liver spots and potential skin cancer, you can breathe easy! Visit your dermatologist once a year for a skin cancer screening, and always schedule an appointment if you notice something that doesn’t look right.
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