How to Tell a Sunspot from Melanoma

Jen Hayes, MD|March 21, 2016

Sunspot or Melanoma_mainA solar lentigo (also known as a sunspot, liver spot or age spot) is seen in almost everyone I see over the age of 60. These spots are caused by sun exposure. This is why they appear in areas that see the sun the most such as the face, shoulders, arms, chest and hands. People who have used tanning beds may have them anywhere. They are usually small (less than the size of a pencil eraser) but occasionally can be quite large (up to an inch in size). They are brown in color with either smooth or irregular borders. This is important to know because a melanoma, a deadly form of skin cancer, often has irregular borders too. It’s important with any pigmented spot to review the ABCDE rule for helping identify those skin growths suspicious for melanoma:

  • A is for asymmetry: Does one half of your mole look different than the other half?
  • B is for border: Do the borders look jagged or blurred?
  • C is for color: Is there is more than one color?
  • D is for diameter: Is the spot bigger than the size of a pencil eraser?
  • E is for evolving: Is the spot is changing in any way?

When you are looking at a flat, brown spot on your skin, the most important thing is to distinguish a solar lentigo (sunspot) from a lentigo maligna melanoma. There are several types of melanoma, but this one can fool people. Lentigo maligna is an early form of melanoma that occurs in chronically sun-exposed skin. Lentigo maligna often shows these concerning signs:

  • Large size: greater than the size of an eraser
  • Irregular shape
  • 2 or more colors
  • Smooth surface

When a concerning spot like this develops a raised spot within it, it’s often a sign that the melanoma has progressed in stage. I use a device called a dermatoscope that can help me decide to biopsy brown or black spots. This greatly magnifies the mole to allow me to look deep into the pigment of the spot to determine whether it has concerning features. Here at Advanced Skin Care and Dermatology Physicians, we sometimes use a special lamp called a “wood’s lamp” to clarify where the borders of a pigmented spot are. Citrix Sunscreen SPF 40 Sunscreen is one of the most important parts of protecting your skin from the harmful UVA and UVB rays that can cause skin cancer. As Dr. Bailey explains,

Choosing a sunscreen can be a very daunting task since there are so many choices, but don’t just pick one and be done with it. The value of your skin depends on your sunscreen.

For more on what sunscreen Dr. Bailey recommends, check out our sun protection page. (Hint: my favorite is our Citrix!) The bottom line is that whenever you see a spot that has any features in the ABCDE rule, don’t hesitate to reach out to a Board-Certified Dermatologist. One of the most rewarding things about being a dermatologist is being able to catch and treat skin cancer in its earliest stages. This is why we recommend an annual full body skin exam to catch skin cancers. Call us today to make an appointment!

Dr. HayesDr. Hayes - Board Certified Dermatologist

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