If you have freckles, you’ve probably heard it all: “They’re adorable!” “They make you unique!” “They’re so interesting!” What you might not have heard is why you have them in the first place.
Can you reduce the appearance of your freckles, or reduce the chances that you’ll get more of them? Can those exotic, tiny brown spots cause any health problems?
What Are Freckles?
Freckles come in two categories: ephelides and solar lentigines. While the two types look similar – they both appear as small brown dots on the skin – there are some important differences.1
Ephelides will typically begin to develop during early childhood due to exposure to the sun. They are most commonly found on people whose hair and skin are light colored, especially Asians and Caucasians. They often fade in the winter when sun exposure is limited, and they often get lighter over time.
Solar lentigines are also caused by sun exposure, but they tend to develop after a person reaches the age of 40. They’re also usually larger than freckles. And solar lentigines aren’t just freckles – they’re also sunspots and age spots (or liver spots).2,3
How Do You Get Freckles?
It is generally accepted that one of the main factors in the development of freckles is sun damaged skin. But you might be wondering, “Are freckles genetic?” There is evidence that genetics do, in fact, play a role.
There are two main elements that go a long way toward predicting whether or not a person will develop freckles.
One is sun damage (such as a sunburn). The other is a gene known as MC1R.
This gene plays a role in producing melanin, the pigment largely responsible for skin color. People are actually born with two types of melanin: pheomelanin and eumelanin. People who have more pheomelanin tend to have light skin and freckles, while people with more eumelanin tend to have darker skin.4
What are the Differences Between Freckles and Moles?
Moles and freckles are different. A mole is usually larger and darker than a freckle and typically not linked to sun damage. However, people with lighter skin are more susceptible to developing both moles and ephelides. Freckles tend to be brown, while moles are usually brown or black.5
Are Freckles Dangerous?
Freckles are harmless. However, some people might assume that a spot on their skin is a freckle when, in fact, it is something potentially serious. For example, melanoma is a serious skin condition that can sometimes be fatal. Melanoma can arise from a mole as well as a previously benign dark spot on your skin. In some instances, melanoma can appear suddenly, on skin that was completely normal.6
Melanoma that develops from a mole tends to be darker and larger than the average freckle. It will also usually be irregularly shaped when compared to a freckle, which is circular.7 If you notice any odd spots on your skin, you should have them checked by a dermatologist as soon as you can.
Can Freckles Be Prevented?
Since there does seem to be some sort of genetic connection to ephelides (freckles), it may not be possible to prevent their appearance. That said, sun exposure at a young age is also a factor in the development of this type of freckle, so make sure you limit your child’s exposure to the sun. Everyone should always wear a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30.8
Solar lentigines can be prevented. They are caused by excessive sun exposure, so again, always wear sunscreen. If you’ll be outside for a long period of time, look for shade whenever possible. And try to stay out of the sun completely between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Those tend to be the hours of the day when the sun is at its brightest.9
Can You Get Rid of Freckles?
If you don’t like your freckles and you want to reduce their appearance, laser therapy may be an option.10 Laser therapy is sometimes used to remove or lighten freckles on the face, as well as other areas of the body. The laser drills through the layers of the skin and removes pigment cells. The body reacts by forming new collagen, a substance that helps produce new skin.11
Have a detailed discussion with your dermatologist if you want to remove your freckles or reduce their appearance. Your doctor will go over your options, and then recommend the safest most effective method to hopefully achieve your goal.
The Bottom Line
Freckles are harmless in the vast majority of instances. Many people find freckles attractive, though others want to get rid of them at all costs. While you can’t do anything about genetics, you may be able to reduce the appearance of your freckles. And you should always protect your skin from the sun’s damaging rays. This can help, as well.
Finally, if you notice any changes on your skin, including a freckle suddenly becoming darker, let your doctor check it out!