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Not Quite a Freckle, Not Quite a Mole: Are Those Brown Spots Seborrheic Keratoses?

BSIP/UIG via Getty Images

No one could blame you for not wanting to talk about seborrheic keratoses. These weird skin growths or brown skin spots are not exactly hot conversational topics. But if you're over 40, you may have noticed such raised skin growths on some of your older family members; you may even have one or more seborrheic keratoses of your own. And since these skin growths are no freckles, they're definitely worth talking about.

What are seborrheic keratoses?

Seborrheic keratoses are common and benign skin growths. This raised skin can worry people when they first see it on their bodies — which is understandable, given its wart-like and sometimes scary appearance. At first glance, one seborrheic keratosis might look harmful — and a cluster of them may be even more disturbing. But by definition, these brown skin spots are non-cancerous skin growths. (Though to be sure that a seborrheic keratosis is what you have, any unexpected skin changes should be checked out by a dermatologist.)

If you do have a seborrheic keratosis, you're not alone. About 83 million Americans have one or more of these skin growths on the face, neck, chest, shoulders, or back, according to a 2015 study. But don't be shocked if you see a brown spot like this elsewhere on your body; seborrheic keratoses can be found anywhere on the skin, except the palms of your hands and the soles of your feet. Because many folks get these weird skin growths when they are middle-aged or older, they are often informally known as the "barnacles of aging" or "senile warts." Yeesh!

What does a seborrheic keratosis look like?

(Photo Credit: BSIP/UIG via Getty Images)

Seborrheic keratoses are usually tan, brown, or black in color, with slightly raised, flat surfaces. They're often round or oval in shape and may have a rough texture not unlike that of a wart. It’s possible to have just one of these non-cancerous skin growths, but most people develop clusters of them. Don't be surprised if they don't all look alike; some growths have that warty surface, while others look like simple dabs of wax that have been pasted on the skin.

(Photo Credit: BSIP/UIG via Getty Images)

Clearly, there are many different kinds of these skin growths, as you can see by looking at just a few seborrheic keratosis pictures.

What causes a seborrheic keratosis?

Scientists aren't exactly sure what causes seborrheic keratoses. However, a tendency to get them seems to be hereditary in some people, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. While these non-cancerous skin growths may be linked to sun exposure, they are also found on skin that is covered, so more research is needed on what causes brown skin spots like these. And even though the precise cause is unknown, it's good to know they are not contagious; if seborrheic keratoses seem to grow in number and spread to other areas of your body, just keep in mind that you may simply be developing more of this raised skin as you get older.

Seborrheic Keratosis Treatment Options

If you're wondering how to treat a seborrheic keratosis, you may be relieved to know that treatment usually isn't necessary. As long as you've had a seborrheic keratosis checked out by a dermatologist who confirms that it is benign and not cancer, you can leave it alone. But you may want to remove these brown spots for your own convenience if they become irritated or start bleeding from clothing rubbing up against them. Or you may want to get rid of the skin growths for aesthetic reasons. Luckily, there are several methods for how to remove seborrheic keratoses, according to Mayo Clinic.

One is cryosurgery, which involves freezing the seborrheic keratosis with liquid nitrogen. Though it can be effective, it's not guaranteed to work on all raised skin growths and may end up actually lightening the treated skin. Curettage, another option, involves scraping the skin's surface with a special instrument. Yet another method is electrocautery, which means burning with an electric current. There's also ablation, or vaporizing the skin growths with a laser.

If those methods sound a little intense to you, you're not alone. The good news is that the FDA just approved the first topical, non-invasive treatment of the skin growths. After years of so-called seborrheic keratosis removal cream that didn't get the job done, we finally have ESKATA, a hydrogen peroxide solution that can clear raised seborrheic keratoses without freezing, cutting, or burning the skin. This seborrheic keratosis treatment will be available for dermatologists to use on their patients sometime during the spring of 2018. Judging by the before-and-after photos released by Aclaris Therapeutics, the results look mighty promising.

(Photo Credit: Aclaris Therapeutics, Inc.)

Remember: Always talk to a trusted doctor to find out what seborrheic keratosis treatment is right for you. Keep in mind that a treatment — no matter how effective — doesn't necessarily guarantee a seborrheic keratosis "cure"; though the skin growths are unlikely to return to the same places on your body, they may pop up elsewhere later on if you are prone to them.

What about seborrheic keratosis at-home treatment?

Don't attempt to remove a seborrheic keratosis by yourself. As tempting as it may be to try new trends in seborrheic keratosis home removal, experts warn that there is a risk of infection. No matter how legitimate an at-home treatment may seem, this is one of those things that you — quite literally — shouldn’t take into your own hands.

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