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White Spots on Skin from Sun: Causes, Treatments and How to Prevent

man examining skin

After spending a long day in the sun, you may have noticed that your arms, legs or face have a bunch of flat, white spots on them. What are these white spots, and should you be concerned?

As it turns out, white spots on the skin are usually a skin condition called idiopathic guttate hypomelanosis, or IGH. This condition typically affects areas that receive excessive sun exposure.

Although it may seem like they appeared on your skin within a short amount of time, they’ve likely been forming for a while now. Your most recent tan just made them more noticeable. What causes these white spots and what can you do about them?

Here are three things all guys should know about treating and preventing white spots on your skin:

  1. White spots on the skin that are caused by the sun are usually a condition called idiopathic guttate hypomelanosis.
  2. Although this skin condition is harmless, many choose to use dermabrasion and topical steroids to reduce their appearance.
  3. To prevent worsening of white spots on the skin, wearing sunscreen and staying out of the sun during peak hours is essential.

White Spots on Skin: Is the Sun Strictly to Blame?

IGH is caused by a decrease of melanin in the skin. It mostly manifests on areas that receive the highest amount of UV damage, such as the face, arms, legs and back. This leads many scientists to believe that cumulative sun damage is the primary culprit behind these small, white spots.

small white spots on arms

In a 2011 study published in the International Journal of Dermatology, researchers found a high prevalence of IGH cases in patients over 40 years of age (see claim: “…IGH is a phenomenon associated with the skin's normal aging process and repeated microtrauma to skin.”) This suggests that IGH is associated with cumulative sun exposure and, thus, becomes more noticeable as we age.

Other researchers argue that we don’t have enough statistical data to prove that chronic sun exposure is entirely to blame. Another hypothesis is that IGH is hereditary, with an earlier study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology noticing a higher prevalence of IGH in families (see claim: “...a higher prevalence of idiopathic guttate hypomelanosis in the family of patients with idiopathic guttate hypomelanosis than in the control group.”)

Treatments for IGH

Although idiopathic guttate hypomelanosis is benign, it can still take its toll on a person’s self-esteem. There is currently no cure for the skin condition; however, there are a few effective forms of treatment.

  1. Topical Steroids—If you’re struggling with the appearance of your IGH, a topical steroid may reduce its visibility. In a 1987 study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, researchers found that triamcinolone (a synthetic corticosteroid) significantly improved the appearance of white spots in IGH patients (see claim: “…intralesional triamcinolone…improved the appearance of these lesions.”)
  2. Cryotherapy—Cryotherapy isn’t without its problems (namely, burning as a side effect), but it can be an effective form of treatment for your white spots. According to a 2017 study published in The Journal of Dermatological Treatment, patients who underwent four months of cryotherapy saw significant improvement in their IGH compared to the control group (see claim: “…3% of the treated lesions comparing to only 2% of the control showed more than 75% improvement …”)
  3. Dermabrasion—Dermabrasion may be a potential treatment for IGH due to its deep exfoliation of the outer layer of the skin. You can also try using an exfoliating scrub to improve your skin tone, making the white spots less noticeable.
  4. Retinol—There is some research to suggest that retinol, specifically, tretinoin (a prescription-strength retinol) is effective at treating IGH. According to a 1999 study published in Acta Dermato-Venereologica, patients treated with topical tretinoin for four months saw an improvement in their IGH lesions (see claim: “Treatment with tretinoin for 4 months restored the elasticity, the glyphic markings, with a partial restoration of pigmentation.”)


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How to Prevent White Spots on the Skin

White spots on the skin caused by the sun can be difficult to treat. Thus, the best form of treatment is to prevent them from occurring in the first place.

One of the most effective ways to prevent white spots on the skin is by wearing a daily moisturizer with SPF on your face and sunscreen on any exposed areas of the body. Wearing sun protection is crucial for not only preventing wrinkles and fine lines, but also for reducing your risk of skin cancer.


An additional way to help prevent white spots from developing on your skin is by staying out of the sun during the hottest hours of the day. Even the highest SPF won’t block all UV rays, so remember to seek shade during the hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Protecting Your Skin from Chronic Sun Exposure

Although scientists aren’t certain of the exact causes of white spots on the skin, it’s strongly believed that cumulative sun exposure is to blame. The best way to prevent additional white spots on your skin is by being proactive about your skin with a simple skin care system. With a little TLC and sun safety practices, you can keep your skin healthy and handsome for the long haul.

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