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Age Spots or Skin Cancer? Here’s How to Tell the Difference

You look at the back of your hand, or your neck, or even your leg and there it is—a spot you’ve never seen before. Could it be skin cancer? Or is it a harmless age spot?

Mary Frausto, a nurse practitioner specializing in medical oncology at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center at Banner Gateway Medical Center in Gilbert, AZ, said, “It is often difficult to know if a new spot on the skin is an age spot or skin cancer. As a rule of thumb, when in doubt, get it checked out.”

That said, there are a few signs you can look for that point to one or the other.

  • Pain, bleeding, or discharge. Age spots aren’t painful and don’t bleed or ooze. You’ll want to have these areas examined for skin cancer.
  • Changing. Spots that become asymmetric, have borders that shift, get darker or lighter, or change in diameter should be checked for skin cancer.
  • Speed of changes. Age spots tend to shift from pink to yellow to tan to brown skin color over several years. Spots that are changing more rapidly should be evaluated.
  • Itching. Both skin cancer and new age spots can be itchy. Itchiness from age spots should go away on its own.
  • Family history. Both age spots and skin cancer can have a genetic component. So, if you have a family history of either, be sure to mention it when you discuss your concerns with a health professional.

Don’t expect the location of the spot to give you any clues about whether it’s an age spot or skin cancer. Both age spots and skin cancer can appear anywhere on the body.

And your age isn’t all that helpful either. If you’re 30 or older, you could develop age spots. (People with a certain genetic component can develop them at age 2 or older.) The link between age and skin cancer is tricky: Basal and squamous cell skin cancers as well as actinic keratosis are more common in older people, while melanomas occur in people of all ages.

What happens if you suspect skin cancer?

If you’re worried about a spot on your skin, you should consult a dermatologist. A dermatologist can take a close look at your skin with a special tool called a dermatoscope to see if the spot is likely to be skin cancer. If so, your dermatologist can recommend a treatment plan. Skin cancer is one of the most treatable types of cancer, and some types can be treated with lasers or creams.

The bottom line

Age spots and skin cancer can have a lot of similarities, so it can be tough to tell on your own if a spot is something you should be concerned about. If you’re worried, it’s a good idea to have your doctor or a dermatologist take a look.

A Banner Health dermatologist can help evaluate your skin and recommend any needed treatments. To find a dermatologist near you, visit bannerhealth.com.

To learn more about skin conditions and how to protect yourself, check out:

Dermatology Senior Health Skin Cancer Cancer