Sun Spots vs. Skin Cancer: The Difference Can Be Deadly

Skin cancer and sun spots may look similar, but are actually quite different from one another. Sun spots result in cosmetic concerns. Skin cancer is a serious medical condition that can be fatal. This is why it’s important to be able to tell them apart. You can use this guide to help you understand the differences between sun spots vs. skin cancer.

What is a sun spot?

Sun spots are little, flat brown spots that develop over time on the skin as a result of sun exposure. Other names for them include liver spots, solar lentigines, and age spots. In most cases, there is no bumpiness or unevenness on the skin, just a change in color. They can range in size from tiny blemishes to spots half an inch wide, and from tan to dark brown.

Sun spots usually form on areas of the body that receive a lot of sun exposure, like the:

  • Face
  • Hands
  • Shoulders
  • Arms

Sun spots also are similar to freckles; both are caused by an excess of melanin and sun exposure. However, sun spots tend to be bigger and they don’t usually form in clusters.

Even though sun spots tend to affect older people, they are also common among younger people who spend a lot of time outdoors without skin protection. Other causes and risk factors for sun spots include:

  • Fair skin tone
  • History of sunburns
  • Using tanning beds

Can sun spots turn into cancer?

Most sun spots don’t present any kind of health risk, but melanoma and other forms of skin cancer can develop in the same areas. This is another reason why it’s important to be able to tell them apart.

Skin care for sun spots

When you’re out in the sun, dressing in protective clothing is key to minimizing sun spots. If you already have sun spots, wearing sunscreen and using an exfoliator regularly will encourage the turnover of skin cells and reduce discoloration. In some cases, a professional skin examination or skin biopsy might be necessary to receive an accurate diagnosis and plan treatment.

Treatment options for sun spots include:

  • Bleaching creams
  • Intense pulsed light
  • Freezing (cryotherapy)
  • Chemical peels

What is skin cancer?

Skin cancer develops when damaged DNA causes mutations in cells in the skin’s outer layer — the epidermis. These mutations cause skin cells to proliferate uncontrollably, eventually resulting in cancerous tumors. The majority of skin cancers develop in sun-exposed areas, but they can develop elsewhere. After just five sunburns, your risk of developing the deadliest form of skin cancer, melanoma, doubles, according to one study.

Skin cancers tend to be named for the type of cells they start in. The three most common types are:

  • Basal cell carcinoma. It starts in the basal cells, which produce new skin cells. It usually appears as shiny, flesh-colored, or pink bumps on the skin, sometimes with visible blood vessels.
  • Squamous cell carcinoma. This begins in the squamous cells and appears as a flat lesion with a scaly, crusty surface or a hard, red nodule.
  • This starts in the body’s pigment cells, the melanocytes. It usually appears in the form of a mole that changes in size and has uneven pigmentation and irregular boundaries.

Risk factors for skin cancer include:

  • Light skin tone
  • History of sunburns or excessive sun exposure
  • Precancerous skin lesions
  • Moles
  • Family or personal history of cancer
  • UV radiation exposure

Difference between sun spots vs. skin cancer

Good news: Skin cancer survival rates are high. The two most common types, basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers, are rarely fatal. When people have melanoma treated before it spreads to the lymph nodes, the five-year survival rate is 99%.

Receiving prompt treatment depends on early detection, which is more likely if you can tell the difference between sun spots vs. skin cancer.

One of the best ways to tell the difference between sun spots vs. skin cancer is to use the ABCDE method. If you answer yes to any of the questions below, it’s best to visit a dermatologist right away for a skin analysis.

  • Is the spot asymmetrical?
  • Does the spot have uneven or rough borders?
  • Does the spot have any colorations that vary from brown, black, and tan hues?
  • Is the diameter of the spot bigger than six millimeters?
  • Has the spot changed in size or appearance?

Other differences

Sun spots, unlike skin cancer, are primarily a cosmetic concern associated with skin aging and cumulative UV damage. Here are two other key differences to be aware of:

Texture

  • Flat brown patches that are uniform in color with a smooth texture
  • Spots that change in size and texture (rough, scaly or crusty)

Location on the body

  • Face, hands, shoulders, arms, chest, or other areas highly exposed to UV rays
  • Anywhere on the body

When in doubt, check it out

Sun spots, while typically benign, can indicate underlying skin damage and an increased risk of skin cancer. Florida Medical Clinic Orlando Health offers comprehensive dermatology services focused on skin health, including skin cancer prevention, diagnosis, and treatment. We treat a variety of skin conditions, including skin cancer and sun spots. Call our Dermatology Department today or use our online appointment tool to schedule a visit.

About Michael A. Montuno, MD

A graduate of the University of Florida, Dr. Michael Montuno is a board-certified dermatologist and Mohs surgeon. He has also trained as a fellow at the TriHealth Good Samaritan Hospital/The Skin Cancer Center in Cincinnati. Dr. Montuno has extensive training and experience in the diagnosis and treatment of all forms of skin cancer.

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Dermatology

Michael Montuno, MD

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