We have more than our share of sunshine here in the Lowcountry, and many of us have developed dark spots from over exposure. Sun spots can look like cancerous growths. True sun spots don’t need treatment, but they are a sign the skin has received a lot of sun exposure and are an attempt by your skin to protect itself from more sun damage.

Q: How do I know if my dark spots are sun damage or skin cancer?

A: Have your dermatologist look at spots that are black or have changed in appearance. These changes can be signs of melanoma, a serious form of skin cancer.

It’s best to have any new skin changes evaluated, especially if a spot:

• is black

• is increasing in size

• has an irregular border

• has an unusual combination of colors

• is bleeding

Q: What are the symptoms of sun spots?

A: Although sun spots typically develop in people with a fair complexion, they can also be seen in those with darker skin.

Sun spots are:

• Flat, oval areas of increased pigmentation

• Usually brown, black or gray

• Occur on parts of the skin that has had the most sun exposure over the years, such as the backs of hands, tops of feet, face, shoulders and upper back

• Can range from freckle-size to more than a half inch (1 centimeter) across and can group together, making them more prominent

Q: What causes sun spots?

A: Sun spots are caused primarily by years of exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun. Tanning beds can also contribute to the development of dark spots.

Q: What treatments are available?

A: If you’re unhappy with the appearance of sun spots, treatments are available to lighten or remove them.

Medications: Prescription bleaching creams (hydroquinone) can be used alone or with retinoids (tretinoin) and a mild steroid.

Laser therapy: Laser therapy destroys melanin-producing cells (melanocytes) without damaging the skin’s surface.

Freezing (cryotherapy): This procedure involves applying liquid nitrogen or another freezing agent to the spots to destroy the extra pigment. As the area heals, the skin appears lighter. Freezing is typically used on a single spot or a small grouping of spots.

Dermabrasion: This procedure consists of sanding down the surface layer of your skin with a rapidly rotating brush – removing the skin surface. A new layer of skin grows in its place.

Chemical peel: A chemical peel involves applying an acid, which burns the outer layer of your skin, to the spots. As your skin peels, new skin forms to take its place.

For more information about your particular sun spots concerns, call a dermatologist.

Dr. Oswald Lightsey Mikell, certified by the American Board of Dermatology and the American Board of Cosmetic Surgery, is the owner of Dermatology Associates of the Lowcountry.