Wisdom Spots

Wisdom spots are common in adults over 50 and appear on the skin of the face, hands, arms or shoulders and are mostly harmless and easily removed or lightened. Wisdom spots can be prevented by limiting sun exposure and using sunscreen on a regular basis when outdoors.

What are wisdom spots?

As people age, sun damage becomes more concentrated on certain areas of the body and often appears as brown patches. These patches are often called wisdom spots, age spots or liver spots. Technically these spots are known as seborrheic keratosis and can often be raised or bumpy. In most cases, they are non-cancerous tumors and very common in older people.

Some people are genetically prone to developing wisdom spots and can expect them to form if one or both of their parents was affected by the condition. Wisdom spots are not contagious but they do multiply in a cluster formation. Sometimes appearing as large as one half inch in diameter, wisdom spots are usually seen on the chest, stomach, face, scalp, neck or back.

Are wisdom spots cancerous?

Wisdom spots are not typically cancerous; however, sudden changes in the skin or irritated, painful spots should be checked by a doctor right away. Most seborrheic keratosis or wisdom spots don’t usually cause symptoms. If they are in a location that has friction from clothing or jewelry, they may itch or bleed.

What are the causes of wisdom spots?

Wisdom spots are caused by the pigmentation of cells becoming overactive due to exposure to the ultraviolet rays of the sun. Over time or frequency, these skin cells appear when the melanin clumps together or is produced in greater concentrations.

An accumulation of aged basal skin cells results in a flat spot on the skin. This spot can influence the appearance of the neighboring cells, spreading through a certain area of the skin. When the aged cells die, they protrude or stick out in a cauliflower like shape. As the spot ages, the color darkens and the spot becomes more apparent. The same pigments in your skin that give you sunburn or a tan accumulate into wisdom spots.

True wisdom spots are not cancerous, but any change in them may indicate skin cancer is forming. It is a good idea to have your skin examined by a dermatologist annually to make sure wisdom spots are not showing any signs of cancer.

Risk factors

While anyone can develop wisdom spots, the following groups are more likely to develop them over time:

  • Fair skin
  • Red hair
  • History of frequent sun exposure for work or hobby
  • Sunburn frequency

What are the symptoms of wisdom spots?

People of all skin types can develop wisdom spots, which typically include the following symptoms:

  • Flat, round or oval areas with a darker color than surrounding skin
  • Brown, black or tan discoloration
  • Appearance on the backs of hands, shoulders, upper back, scalp, face or tops of feet
  • Range in size from a freckle to one half inch in diameter
  • Can appear in groups

How to treat wisdom spots

Unless you are experiencing irritation due to the location of your wisdom spots, no treatment is required for them. Your doctor may want to biopsy the wisdom spot area if it seems suspicious or there has been a change to the size, color or shape.

Though wisdom spots do not turn into skin cancer, they may be treated for cosmetic reasons. Some patients opt to have wisdom spots surgically removed if they are unsightly or if they become inflamed or irritated.

Cryotherapy with liquid nitrogen may be used to remove the wisdom spots, which at first turns them red and then causes them to fall off.

Curettage, or scraping, of the wisdom spot is another method of removal. Both cryotherapy and curettage require local anesthetic and have a short recovery time. These treatments may leave traces behind that are lighter or scarred where the wisdom spot has been removed.

Laser treatment of wisdom spots is the latest technology available to people who want to get rid of them for cosmetic reasons. There are also topical agents on the market that lighten and brighten the wisdom spots. These topical treatments have the following active ingredients:

  • Azelaic acid
  • Alpha hydroxyl acids
  • Hydroquinone
  • Topical Cysteamine
  • Tretinoin

Most wisdom spots do not grow back after removal, but every patient is different and some experience re-growth of their wisdom spots, especially if they don’t take preventive measures with their skin.

When to see a doctor about wisdom spots

See your doctor if you have any skin changes, especially to wisdom spots, which include the following:

  • Color change, lighter or darker
  • Increasing size
  • Irregular shape or border
  • Combinations of colors
  • Sudden itching
  • Redness, tenderness or irritation
  • Weeping or bleeding

Prevention of wisdom spots

If you are genetically pre-disposed to developing wisdom spots, they may appear on your skin no matter what you do. To conceal or fade the wisdom spots you have and prevent more from forming, try the following tips:

Lighten and brighten

Small, light wisdom spots can benefit from topical treatments that contain hydroquinone, which is the best-known skin-bleaching ingredient on the market. When using topical bleaching agents, wisdom spots will become lighter and less noticeable and may even disappear. Topical bleaching agents are usually applied twice daily to the spots. Using a moisturizer with glycolic acid can smooth out skin that has bumpy wisdom spots. These topical treatments usually take between six months to a year to begin working.

Natural remedies

There are natural remedies in the form of plant extracts that have been reported to lighten the appearance of wisdom spots. Try extracts of licorice, aloe and yeast or those containing flavonoids. Sliced lemons applied directly to wisdom spots sometimes lighten them due to the acid in the lemon juice. Use caution when attempting a home remedy such as lemon juice, which may irritate the skin.

Protect your skin

Stay out of the sun completely, if possible, or at least cover up exposed skin with long sleeves, long pants, hats and gloves. Make sure your hat has a brim wide enough to protect your neck and ears as well as your entire face.

Use a broad-spectrum sun block, which protects from both UVA and UVB rays, with a protection factor of at least 30 SPF. Apply sun block at least ten to fifteen minutes before you expose your skin to the sun and reapply as directed by the manufacturer.

Don’t forget your lips; the skin on your lips can show wisdom spots even more easily that the rest of your body. Be sure your lipstick or lip balm has an SPF of 15 to 30.

Stay in during peak sun hours

The most intense UV rays occur during the hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. during the spring, summer and autumn months. In the winter months, the hours shorten to 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. If you participate in an outdoor sport or activity such as gardening or golf, do so early or late to avoid these UV-intense hours. If you can’t avoid being out during these hours, hit the shade when you can.