For nearly 16 years Valerie Monroe was the beauty director at O, The Oprah Magazine, where she wrote the popular “Ask Val” column.
If you’re interested in feeling happier about your appearance—especially as you age—you might like reading what she has to say about it. For more of her philosophical and practical advice, subscribe for free to How Not to F*ck Up Your Face at valeriemonroe.substack.com.
By Valerie Monroe
Q: “I’ve noticed I’m getting more age spots on my face. How can I get rid of them?”
A: It’s obvious that you, wearing that sexy leopard shift and matching slides, are aware that some spots are considered beautiful or stylish while others are definitely not. The beautiful ones—like these on a magnificent feline—evolved for the purpose of camouflage, in an environment, O Best Beloveds, “full of trees and bushes and stripy, speckly, patchy-blatchy shadows” (said Kipling).
You, on the other hand, are most likely wearing your fashionable spots for the opposite reason: to stand out and make a statement. There’s a grab bag of explanations for the popularity of animal prints, the most prominent being that they evoke a subconscious combination of fear and arousal, power and eroticism. Not to get too into the weeds (or the bush), but since the spots worked for the leopard, it does indicate evolutionary success, which gives the look a certain power.
My friend Bernhard Fink, an evolutionary psychologist, recently reminded me that it’s never been easy or inexpensive to hunt for animal skins or prepare them for wear. Additionally, if our ancestors had a hard time securing certain goods, they had higher value. In spite of changing cultural attitudes (like those toward fur), many associations relating to status are hardwired in our brains. Hence, our continuing attraction to leopard print.
Right, the spots on your face. They could be any number of things, so it’s a good idea to have them checked by a board-certified dermatologist, says dermatologist Laurel Naversen Geraghty, MD. It sounds as if you’re looking at age spots or sun spots (called lentigines)—and we have good reason not to like them.
A couple of studies (like this one and this one) demonstrate that the facial skin age of women is influenced not only by the appearance of lines and wrinkles, but also by unevenness, discoloration, and a decrease in light reflection (how light bounces off the skin). Researchers found both men and women are remarkably sensitive to even small changes in skin color distribution. The happier news: When discoloration is removed, faces are judged to be more attractive. Speaking of hard-wiring, skin clarity, evenness of tone and a slight blush are all cues to youth, and good health, and consequently a good choice of mate (in case you’re interested).
So how to remove the offending patchy-blatchy? Geraghty suggests topical skin brighteners and especially likes bleaching creams (hydroquinone), topical retinoids (over-the-counter retinol cream or prescription tretinoin cream), or adapalene gel, in La Roche Posay Effaclar Adapalene gel. One of her very favorites, an ingredient that’s been used in Asia for some time, has finally caught on in the US. It’s called tranexamic acid; used topically, it gradually brightens and evens pigment safely, visibly, and without a lot of irritation. Here’s Geraghty’s recommendation for a product with this ingredient.
If you see no fading after around three months of consistent use, you may want to try an in-office treatment. A chemical peel, laser, or light therapy are all good choices, says Geraghty. Intense pulsed light (IPL, broad-band light, or BBL) is an in-office procedure that Geraghty says hurts but is worth it for rapid, noninvasive improvement in skin tone. (I’ve had this treatment several times and it feels like rubber bands snapping against your face. If you have an older brother, it may feel familiar.) She also loves pico lasers for stubborn sun spots. It’s the fastest laser wavelength available and is a powerful but low-pain way to reduce or erase individual spots. (I’ve also had a couple of pico treatments and thought my skin looked fresher for a few weeks. It didn’t hurt; it felt like the sting you get when skiing down a mountain in a light snowfall.)
However, Geraghty points out that none of this will help without strict, consistent sun protection, preferably with a broad spectrum spf 50+ tinted sunscreen containing iron oxide. Here’s a good one. And until your remedies start to work, you can do your own kind of camouflage in the urban (or suburban) jungle. I’ve always loved Bobbi Brown concealers. She has a new line called Jones Road and she was kind enough to send me a box of the stuff. The only thing missing was these concealer pencils, so I can’t tell you how they work—but if Bobbi made them, I’ll try them. The pencils come in 25 shades from fair to dark.
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