Dark spots on legs – symptoms, causes and possible treatments
Dark spots on your legs are fairly common. These spots or darker patches may often be the result of melanin (a natural skin pigment) concentrating in one area.
Some of these are harmless, others might be more serious – ranging from sun damage to melanoma or post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. Depending on the cause, these spots can develop further in different ways.
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What are dark spots on legs?
Dark spots on legs can be a brown/red hue or be a darker colour than the rest of the skin. This is usually because patches of the skin are producing too much melanin in that area.
Dark spots on legs are rarely a cause for concern. However, very rarely are they indicative of a deeper medical issue that may need diagnosis and treatment.
What causes dark spots on legs?
Lifestyle related causes
Exposure to sunlight prompts our bodies to produce the natural skin pigment melanin. However, too much of it may cause the appearance of those dark spots:
- Your skin may produce more melanin in specific patches than the surrounding area.
- Prolonged, extensive exposure to the sun may exacerbate the production of melanin.
- Dark spots on legs can affect people of all skin tones.
Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation may occur following acne, eczema, psoriasis, or injury to the skin. This can lead to the development of dark spots as:
- These skin lesions cause inflammation.
- Inflammation can then lead to the body increasing melanin in that area.
- Dark spots may then appear as a natural response to inflammation.
Health related causes
Medical and health conditions
Several conditions could result in dark spots appearing:
- Diabetes can result in brown spots developing on the legs due to insulin building up in the bloodstream. Generally, this mostly affects the neck.
- Venous hypertension, or venous insufficiency, can cause hemosiderin staining. This is due to the leg valves weakening, sending blood in the wrong direction.
- Melanoma – a form of skin cancer – may result in dark spots on the legs, especially in women.
- Schamberg’s disease is the leaking of the capillaries. It can cause areas of discolouration on the legs.
- Addison’s disease might also cause hyperpigmentation in areas prone to sun damage and pressure points.
Tinea versicolor is an infection that happens when Malassezia, a type of microbiota, proliferates on the skin’s surface. This can lead to dark spots because:
- Growth can be influenced by humid weather, sweating, or a weak immune system.
- Patches of discoloured skin may itch.
- It’s most common in adolescents or adults visiting subtropical climates.
- They will often disappear in cooler weather.
What are the symptoms of dark spots on legs I shouldn’t ignore?
As there can be a variety of causes for dark spots on legs, there are also different symptoms you may experience. These are some you should not ignore and seek medical advice for:
- You may notice aching, swelling, or dry and itchy skin patches – a symptom of venous hypertension. Any history of varicose veins or leg ulcers, or if you are stood for long periods at work, could bring on such symptoms.
- Scaly, red lesions, especially in sun-exposed areas, could be an early symptom of cancer known as actinic keratosis.
- Dark spots with an irregular shape, irregular border, multicoloured hue, or one that itches or bleeds. This may suggest the presence of melanoma.
How can I treat dark spots on legs I shouldn’t ignore?
There are many potential treatments for dark spots on legs, reflecting the different causes. If dark spots are concerning you, then you may want to consider one of these solutions.
Currently, there’s not much substantial evidence of how effective non-prescription treatments are. They may help in some cases or prevent more spots from developing.
- Sunscreen can help prevent spots from darkening and can be applied as a preventative measure against future spots appearing.
- Aloe vera may provide relief for sun-damaged skin, but there’s little to suggest it helps lighten existing dark spots.
- Few over-the-counter products are FDA-approved for skin lightening. Discuss with your doctor when considering over-the-counter treatments. Creams such as hydroquinone or retinoids may work.
Depending on the cause of your dark spots laser treatment may be recommended.
- Laser treatment covers several procedures. The first procedure directs beams of light to remove the skin from affected areas, while another targets the dermis to promote collagen growth and tightening of the skin.
- Such treatment may be performed over several sessions.
- Laser treatment might not work for those with darker skin, as they may heal with darker pigmentation.
Learn more about laser skin resurfacing.
Cryotherapy is the process of using liquid nitrogen to destroy skin pigment cells. As your skin heals, your dark spots may begin to lighten. This treatment is practical and quick, typically taking less than a minute per spot.
Chemical peels work by removing the top layers of the skin, allowing new, healthy layers to regenerate with a more even pigment. If done wrong, this may cause pigmentation to worsen. It can leave skin vulnerable to sun damage and inflammation during the first few weeks of treatment, so always undergo treatment from a qualified professional.
Promotes skin regeneration by piercing the skin with microneedles.The regeneration can disperse melanin clusters, leading to the lightening of spots. But it isn’t suitable for everyone so speak to a doctor before having this treatment.
Prescription creams that contain a more concentrated amount of hydroquinone, combined with retinoids and some steroids, may help relieve moderate dark spots. But, this process can take a few months to a year to see results.
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