1. Your cycle
  2. Health
  3. Symptoms and diseases

Flo Fact-Checking Standards

Every piece of content at Flo Health adheres to the highest editorial standards for language, style, and medical accuracy. To learn what we do to deliver the best health and lifestyle insights to you, check out our content review principles.

FAQ about Brown Spots on Skin

Skin changes as we age, and weather, pregnancy, illnesses, and diet can also affect the appearance of our skin. Read on to learn more about brown spots on skin.

Skin color is a combination of two things: the amount of melanin in the body and the distribution of that melanin within the skin. If you notice brown spots on your skin, what you are seeing is an area of hyperpigmentation. Hyperpigmentation is caused by overactive pigment cells. When these cells produce too much melanin, the melanin can “clump” together, creating the brown patches on the skin that so many deal with. Those brown patches on the skin may also be referred to as sunspots.

There are two extremely common hyperpigmentation disorders: melasma and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH).

Melasma affects around 5 to 6 million individuals. It is common across all races and ethnicities, and 90% of cases occur in women. Melasma is often responsible for dark spots on the face or neck, and it can also affect the chest and arms. Though many people specifically complain of brown spots on the skin, melasma can actually range from brown to bluish-gray. Melasma develops and progresses slowly. Its appearance can be caused by excessive exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light, medications (like oral contraceptives), underlying genetic factors, pregnancy, or hormonal changes.

Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation is hyperpigmentation that involves areas of the skin that have previously been inflamed. The most common causes of PIH are acne, allergic contact, irritant reactions, psoriasis, or trauma (burns or friction, for example). It may also be caused by cosmetic procedures like chemical peels, cryosurgery, laser therapy, or fillers. Depending on where the inflammation occurs, the dark spots on the skin caused by PIH can show up anywhere on the body.

Melasma affects around 5 to 6 million individuals. It is common across all races and ethnicities, and 90% of cases occur in women.

Sometimes, dark patches on the skin are caused by metabolic conditions, vitamin deficiencies, medication, skin neoplasms, autoimmune or infectious disorders, or protein deposits in the skin. In rare cases, what’s causing dark spots on the skin remains undiagnosed.

On their own, melasma and PIH are not dangerous. However, there are two risks associated with dark patches on the skin:

  • Existing dark spots on the skin may be misdiagnosed as harmless sunspots when they are actually a sign of a serious skin condition. 
  • Hyperpigmentation may have an underlying condition that goes undiagnosed. 

If you are one of the millions of people with dark spots on their skin, pay attention to the presence and location of the spots, as well as any changes that occur.

When treating skin discoloration, it’s important to first treat any underlying conditions (like acne or psoriasis). Dark spots on the skin, especially those related to PIH, will continue to occur unless you are also treating the cause of the initial inflammation.

When appropriate, there are a few different dark spot treatments available:

  • Medicated topical therapy — Topical therapies are first-line treatments. Standard medications include hydroquinone, retinoid, vitamin C, and azelaic acid, which are applied to the skin. Some dermatologists also utilize a triple cream, which contains hydroquinone, tretinoin, and a corticosteroid. These medications inhibit melanin production.
  • Peels — If topical therapy doesn’t work, your dermatologist may suggest a chemical peel as a second option. These acid-based peels typically use glycolic, salicylic, or trichloroacetic acid and are meant to destroy excess melanin. It’s important to remember that for some, the inflammation or irritation caused by a peel may cause PIH.
  • Laser therapy — Laser and light-based treatments may help accelerate the time it takes to remove dark spots on the skin. Like peels, these treatments help remove existing melanin.
  • Combined therapies — Optimal dark spot treatment usually includes topical therapy plus a peel or laser therapy. This combination of treatment ensures that melanin production is slowed down and that existing melanin is removed.

One of the best ways to keep tabs on the dark spots on your skin is by performing your own skin examination. Pay attention to any patches that look asymmetrical, have uneven borders, scalloped edges, or are different shades of brown, black, and tan. Changes in size and elevation are also important to keep an eye on.

Pay attention to any patches that look asymmetrical, have uneven borders, scalloped edges, or are different shades of brown, black, and tan.

Symptoms like bleeding, itching or crusting should not be ignored, as these may be signs of melanoma. If you are worried at all about any changes you’ve noticed or experience additional discomforts like recurrent fever, weight loss, pain, fatigue, or loss of appetite, see a doctor.

Preventing dark spots on the skin is helpful for both your health and your self-esteem. Here are a few easy prevention tips:

1. Wear Sunscreen

Your first prevention strategy should always be sun protection, even for those who love sunshine and having a tan. Regardless of the season or weather, broad-spectrum sunscreen that provides protection against UVA and UVB rays should be used year-round.

2. Cover Up

Physical barriers, like rash guards and a broad-brimmed hat, will also help minimize exposure to harmful rays from the sun.

3. Avoid Known Skin Irritants

For dark spots on the skin caused by PIH, do your best to avoid chemicals or circumstances which can cause your inflammation or irritation to flare up.

If you are one of the millions of people with dark patches on their skin, know that you are not alone. If you feel that yours are abnormal, you’d like them removed, or they are negatively affecting your self-worth, talk to your medical care provider about the right next steps for you. 

mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/age-spots/symptoms-causes/syc-20355859

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3938350/

https://www.aad.org/public/diseases/color-problems/melasma#treatment

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4142815/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5724304/

Read this next