Liver spots, Lentigo and Lipofuscin: What causes liver spots?

When you think “old age” you tend to think wrinkles, prune juice and liver spots (also called age spots, sun spots or solar lentigo). Interestingly, some elderly people barely have any liver spots decorating their bodies, whilst others have more spots than a speckled egg! Why do people differ in their number of liver spots, and why do we get them anyway?

Liver spot causes

First of all, it has nothing to do with the liver. Although it was once believed these spots arose due to liver problems, today we know this is not true. The name however, stuck!

The answer to why we get liver spots is a simple one: sun exposure.

If you notice where liver spots are most prevalent, you’ll find they occur on areas of skin that are exposed to the sun. The backs of hands, arms, the face, shoulders, and tops of bald heads are often the favourite places for liver spots to spring up.

How does the sun cause liver spots?

When the sun shines on your skin, penetrating ultraviolet rays cause the molecules in your body to become excited by this source of energy. If you have plenty of melanin pigment in your skin (i.e. if you’re dark skinned), the melanin molecules intercept much of this energy safely and transforms the UV-photons into harmless by-products. But in fair-skinned people the energization of the body’s molecules can lead to what’s known as “photodissociation” or “photolysis” of the molecules, which is where the high-energy UV photons break down molecules in the skin into free radicals.

With free radicals running loose in your body, they wreak havoc on the surrounding skin cells. Free radicals cause other molecules (often molecules that are parts of body cells) to dissociate and therefore leave behind a trail of damaged cells.

One group of the molecules that is often a casualty of sun-induced free radical damage are the unsaturated fatty acid molecules in the skin, found in the cell membranes amongst other places. When free radicals come in contact with them, these unsaturated fatty acids can become oxidized in the process known as “lipid peroxidation”. Sometimes, if you have enough antioxidants around, the body can curb the damage here, but if there aren’t enough antioxidants, the damaged fat molecules go to a place in the cells called the “lysosome” which is sort of like the waste disposal unit of the cell. The lysosome breaks down the unusuable sun-damaged fatty debris into waste products. One waste product that the lysosomes make is a “lipopigment” molecule called lipofuscin. Lipofuscin is the brown pigment that gives liver spots their brown colour.

When your body is exposed to sun-induced free radical damage repeatedly over years, lipofuscin accumulates in your skin, and when you have enough around, it starts to become visible as brown spots on your skin. Thus the liver spot is born.

So why do some people get more liver spots than others?

How many liver spots you have, or how old you are when you get them depends on a few factors:

  • Your genetic predisposition:
    People may have a genetic predisposition to be more or less sensitive to the sun’s rays. One example of this is that some people have genes coding for low melanin production and therefore these people are more “photosensitive” and less protected from the sun’s UV rays.
  • Your skin colour:
    Fair-coloured skin types are more prone to free radical sun damage than dark skin types because of the different levels of protective melanin.
  • How much time you’ve spent in the sun without sun protection in your life:
    If you’re in your 20s but have spent every day of your life sunbathing on the beach without proper sun protection, it is entirely possible that you could have more liver spots at 20-something than a person in their 60s who has had little sun-exposure throughout their lifetime. Note that we need some time in the sun without protection in order to make vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin. It is generally said that 15 minutes in the sun is enough for this purpose, and this minimal sun exposure shouldn’t cause liver spots. It is recommended that the daily 15 minute sun-bathe should be done when the sun is not at its hottest (10am-4pm), so early morning or late afternoon is best.
  • How often you’ve been in sun beds to get a tan:
    Sunbeds which emit UV-rays have the same free-radical-producing effect on skin. The more often people spend time in sunbeds, the more likely they are to have liver spots.
  • How many antioxidants are in your diet to carry out sun-damage control
    Antioxidants are like the firemen of the body, putting out the fires free radicals produce, and hopefully stopping the sun-damage before lipofuscin-production occurs. The more antioxidants you have in your diet, the better your chances are of evading age spots, but of course it is a combination of high antioxidants and protection from sun exposure which is optimal.
  • How many psoralens you eat before being in the sun, and how sensitive you are to psoralens:
    Psoralens are chemicals found in some foods and herbs which increase the skin’s sensitivity to the sun. Foods containing psoralens include figs, citrus fruits e.g. lime, celery, carrots, dill, fennel, and herbs rich in psoralens are angelica and St Johns Wort. Whilst for most of us this sensitivity is negligible, some people are more sensitive to the effects of psoralens than others, and for them, psoralen-rich food consumption on a regular basis combined with time in the sun may increase risk of liver spots.

How do you prevent liver spots or rid of them once you have them?
For information on this see the follow-up article: Preventing Age spots and Age spot removal.

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Every effort has been made to ensure that the information contained in this article is accurate. However the information contained in this article is for educational purposes only. Suggestions contained in this article are not intended as a substitute for consultation with a health professional. All matters regarding health and supplementation require medical supervision and careful examination of contraindications and possible interactions. The author does not accept responsibility for the use of this information, nor shall the author be liable for any loss, injury or damage allegedly arising from any information or suggestions in this article.

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One Response to Liver spots, Lentigo and Lipofuscin: What causes liver spots?

  1. Juan Kobylinski says:

    True age spots are harmless and don’t need treatment, but they can look like cancerous growths. For cosmetic reasons, age spots can be lightened with skin-bleaching products or removed. However, preventing age spots — by avoiding the sun and using sunscreen — may be the easiest way to maintain your skin’s youthful appearance and to avoid these dark skin spots.

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