My mother always had an extremely healthy relationship with beauty. Throughout my life, she consistently imparted bits and pieces of the skincare wisdom she picked up during 70 years. While I took her daily SPF application to heart, my hands sadly didn't receive the memo. Even with all my experience as a beauty editor, I still wound up with sun-induced brown patches (they left my skin looking amore damaged and weather-worn than I'd care for at this point in my early 30s). Hey, no one is perfect, right? So, in the interest of learning how to get rid of sunspots on my hands, I decided to consult a few trusted professionals.
There are topical options to eliminate sunspots (many of them are already tried-and-true favorites in my current skincare lineup). Still, as an impatient millennial, I'm partial to procedures that can provide more immediate results. Luckily, an appointment with Macrene Alexiades, MD, Ph.D. FAAD and founder of New York Dermatology and Laser Surgery Center, for an Enlighten by Cutera laser treatment was just an email away. To find out more about how to get rid of sunspots on your hands, keep reading.
Meet the Expert
- Macrene Alexiades, MD, Ph.D. FAAD is a board-certified dermatologist and founder of New York Dermatology and Laser Surgery Center
- Seemal R. Desai, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and diplomate of the American Board of Dermatology
- Dhaval G. Bhanusali, MD FAAD is a board-certified dermatologist and the founder of Skin Medicinals
What Are Sunspots?
If you live on planet Earth and go outside regularly, you've probably encountered an unwanted sunspot or two in your life, but they aren't exactly the same as other forms of hyperpigmentation. As board-certified dermatologist Seemal R. Desai, MD, explains, "When exposed to sun, [pigment-producing cells called melanocytes] go wild and become hyperplastic, meaning they grow bigger and plumper, and they tend to clump together and form what's called a sunspot." Essentially, prolonged exposure to UV rays, especially when you don't have adequate sun protection, means your skin is at risk of developing sunspots.
Why Are the Hands So Susceptible to Sunspots?
With all the attention the face, neck, and decolletage receive in the beauty world, pivoting your focus to your hands might seem less than inspiring. But disregarding your hands will ultimately contribute to the formation of sunspots, making them a pivotal part of any comprehensive, total body "anti-aging" skincare regimen.
"Generally speaking, the hands tend to be exposed to UV [rays] for prolonged periods without any cover, and they are also generally neglected when it comes to sunscreen application," says board-certified dermatologist and founder of Skin Medicinals, Dhaval G. Bhanusali, MD FAAD.
As a busy New Yorker frequently crisscrossing the city to appointments, my hands are in the sunlight nearly daily. Yes, I pile on the SPF in the morning like a diligent skincare fiend, but I'm the first to admit that I don't always reapply as much as is necessary (every two-to-three hours on average, but even more frequently if you're washing your hands). After 33 years, that's left me with a smattering of unwanted spots across my hands—enough that it felt like it was time to address the pigmentation before they got any darker.
What Are In-Office Treatment Options To Get Rid of Sunspots?
There are many available procedures to treat unwanted brown spots according to Alexiades, including laser and intense pulsed light therapy, cryotherapy, dermabrasion, microdermabrasion, and chemical peels. Although there are over 50 other technologies in her office for brown spot removal, the Enlighten by Cutera system is her favorite.
"Enlighten by Cutera allows me to tailor my wavelength and pulse depending on the type of brown spot that you have so I can eliminate it in a single treatment," she says.
Benefits of An Enlighten by Cutera Treatment
- Eliminates unwanted pigment
- Works in just one session
- Relatively painless compared to other laser options
- Minimal aftercare
- You'll see full results in two weeks or less
If you want faster results from your beauty treatments, this laser will leave you extremely satisfied. Yes, you'll have to wait for some redness and minor scabs to heal, but there is zero pain involved during that process. Once your skin is back to normal, the tone is remarkably even, as if you just shaved a few years worth of sun exposure off your hands.
There are no follow-up appointments required to achieve the results that you want. While Macrene does suggest yearly appointments to maintain the tone of your skin, sticking with a comprehensive sun care routine will help to keep your previous dark marks from returning and prevent new ones from developing. However, you will finish the hard work of eliminating your current sunspots in just one trip to your dermatologist's office, which feels extremely worthwhile.
How To Prepare For An Enlighten by Cutera Treatment
"October and November in my office are what I call 'Pico season,'" Alexiades tells me via email (meaning Pico lasers like Enlighten), adding that patients need to wait four weeks after their last significant sun exposure to undergo the procedure. Since the laser targets darker pigmentation, if you have a slight tan from the summer, you might risk damaging your skin even further. Case in point: I originally asked the dermatologist to treat my hands during an earlier appointment in August, but she told me to wait a few more months for the last of my summer glow to fade.
What To Expect During A Treatment
The beauty of this laser is just how fast the session flies. After filling out the intake forms about my current health status, Alexiades provided me with a pair of goggles to protect my eyes (similar to what you might have worn in a tanning bed if you were an irresponsible teenager like me) and she began to maneuver the laser around my hands.
Enlighten by Cutera uses a small wand to deliver the trio of laser wavelengths —532 nm, 1064 nm, and 670 nm—into the skin to shatter the pigment, which sounds much more extreme than it feels. I'd compare it to the snap of a tiny rubber band, and it lasts for a fraction of a second for each spot. My treatment was complete in less than five minutes, after which she provided me with a small ice pack to sit with for another few minutes to calm some of the resulting redness, and then I was out the door.
Before & After
On the left is a photo of my hand before the Enlighten by Cutera treatment. On the right is my hand two weeks after the treatment.
Here's a look at my hands immediately after the Enlighten by Cutera laser treatment.
This is what my hands looked like four days post-laser.
One week post-treatment, there was still some visible redness that cleared up by week two.
How Do Topical Options Compare to Professional Treatments for Sunspots?
I find few places more enjoyable than sitting in a dermatologist's office, but I also understand that this often equates to more time and money than some people are willing to spend on treating sunspots. Luckily there are numerous ingredients that target hyperpigmentation from the comfort of your own bathroom—no office visit required (usually). Bhanusali cites exfoliators like kojic acid, a mild alpha-hydroxy acid, as an accessible option to fade dark spots over time as they slough off dead skin cells to reveal brighter, more even-toned skin underneath.
He also suggests products containing niacinamide, another gold star ingredient, to help brighten the skin, fight inflammation, and strengthen your moisture barrier.
You can also speak with your healthcare provider to review prescription products, giving you access to stronger ingredients, like a steroid or hydroquinone, or a higher percentage of actives. If hydroquinone doesn't appeal to you, or if you have more melanin in your skin and don't want to risk potentially making your hyperpigmentation worse, Alexiades suggests looking for products with deoxyarbutin, which is known as a comparable alternative to hydroquinone with a better safety profile.
Potential Side Effects Of A Sunspot Laser Treatment
The Enlighten by Cutera laser is nonthermal and non-ablative, meaning it doesn't use thermal energy to heat the skin (which can worsen hyperpigmentation) or remove the top layer of the skin. Although the true-red picosecond wavelength is gentler on the skin than some earlier iterations of lasers for sunspots, it can still leave small reddish blisters on the skin where your unwanted pigmented once lived.
Alexiades treated eight spots on both of my hands combined, and the resulting red marks took roughly a week and a half to fade. I will admit for the first few days, my hands looked as if I'd scratched a series of gnarly mosquito bites. Luckily, there was no further discomfort after the initial zaps.
The Cost Of An Enlighten by Cutera Treatment
Depending on your location, the provider you visit, and the number of areas you treat, the average cost of one round of Enlighten by Cutera can range from $750 - $2,000. While this may seem pricey compared to the price of a topical product, you'll see the results you want after just one round of lasers, with the treated areas healing entirely in two weeks or less.
Aftercare For A Sunspot Laser Treatment
There is minimal downtime required after an Enlighten by Cutera treatment, thankfully. Alexiades says to dap each spot with a protective occlusive, like Aquaphor, twice a day until it is healed—about four days. The red marks left over from the zaps will fade in roughly two weeks, leaving you with a much more even skin tone. She does suggest visiting your dermatologist every year to maintain your results, but wearing a daily SPF will help protect your hands from developing additional dark marks between appointments.
The Final Takeaway
As someone who is incredibly conscious of my total-body skincare routine, the near-immediate results of this treatment feel especially satisfying. My sunspots have faded into nothingness in just a few weeks, leaving my hands looking youthful and even-toned without having to remember to apply an additional serum or cream beyond my usual sunscreen.
While it is a pricier option, I know that I'll maintain the results that I'm looking for much more easily by starting in my 30s rather than waiting until I'm in my 50s, 60s, or beyond when my sunspots could be more numerous or darker (and therefore harder to treat). All in all, I'll happily budget to make this laser treatment a regular part of my beauty routine.
Miao F, Shi Y, Fan ZF, Jiang S, Xu SZ, Lei TC. Deoxyarbutin possesses a potent skin-lightening capacity with no discernible cytotoxicity against melanosomes. PLoS One. 2016;11(10):e0165338.