Mole vs freckle: what’s the difference? Many people have one or both of these common skin spots on their bodies. Some of us have a TON of them. But how can you tell the difference between moles and freckles, and how do you know if you should be concerned?
The Building Blocks Of Freckles And Moles
Moles and freckles are both related to melanocytes and melanin production. (If you’re thinking mela-who? keep reading.) In order to understand the difference between freckles and moles, it helps to learn about the biology that’s working behind the scenes.
Melanocytes are skin cells that produce melanin. While everyone has roughly the same number of melanocyte cells in their skin, these factors differ from person to person:
- The distribution of melanocytes throughout the skin (where they are)
- The activity level of melanocytes (how much melanin they produce)1,2
Melanin is a pigment found in the skin. It gives color to your hair, skin, and nails. It also helps protect the skin from harmful effects of ultraviolet radiation that comes from the sun.
- Fair skin produces less melanin than darker skin, which accounts for color difference.
- When skin is exposed to UV radiation, it produces melanin to protect itself.
- Uneven melanin pigment in the skin leads to freckles and moles.3,4
What Are Freckles?
Freckles are small, harmless clusters of brown spots on the skin. Freckles are a build-up of melanin on the outer layer of skin. They form as a result of overproduction of melanin by melanocyte cells, usually as a response to UV rays. They usually appear in areas that get excessive sun exposure. Here’s how to identify a freckle:
- They’re small, flat spots that are brown, tan, or red, depending on the natural color of your skin.
- They may darken with sun exposure.
- They appear in areas likely to be kissed by the sun, like the nose, shoulders, and upper back.5
What May Cause Freckles?
When the sun hits your skin, your cells produce melanin as protection. Excessive exposure to UV rays causes freckles to develop, especially in those with lighter skin tones. This is why some freckles appear in the summer months and disappear in the winter.6
There are two types of melanin that humans can produce: pheomelanin and eumelanin. The type of melanin an individual produces is dependent on a gene called MC1R.7
- People with dark hair, eyes, and skin are more likely to produce eumelanin. This type of melanin protects the skin from UV rays.
- A person with a fair complexion is more likely to produce pheomelanin. This type of melanin does not protect the skin from UV rays. Without sun protection, freckles are more likely to form.8
Types Of Freckles
- Ephelides, or simple freckles, are the most common type of freckles. They form as a result of sun exposure and sunburns. These are more common in fair-skinned people who don’t tan. They are genetic, but induced by sunlight. If you have a family history of ephelides, you have a higher chance of getting this type of freckle.9
- Solar lentigines, or sunburn freckles, are freckles that are induced by sun exposure and photodamage of the skin. They are common in people with a history of excessive exposure to the sun in childhood.10
What Might Increase Your Chance Of Freckles?
- Skin color
- Capacity to tan
- A history of freckles
- Sun exposure
- Oral birth control11
Is It Possible To Prevent Freckles?
Your best bet for preventing freckles is protecting your skin from exposure. Here are some tips from the CDC for protecting your skin from the sun.
- Wear a broad spectrum sunscreen every day. (Yep, even cloudy days.) Look for a mineral sunscreen that has SPF 45 or higher, and reapply it often.
- Use clothing for protection. Wide-brimmed hats, long-sleeved shirts, and long pants may help block UV rays.
- If you’re outside for a long period of time, seek out the shade for a break from the sun.12
Can You Get Rid Of Freckles?
Some people with freckles love how they look and wouldn’t change a thing. Others seek out a treatment for freckles. As long as you’re protecting your skin from UV rays, treating your freckles isn’t necessary. But if you want to minimize the appearance of freckles, here are a few things you can try.
Laser treatments target freckles with intense, focused light. Some laser treatments may be able to lighten the appearance of freckles.13
Antioxidant Skin Creams And Serums
Topical antioxidants may help support brighter-looking, more even toned skin.14
Retinol is an active form of Vitamin A. By supporting your natural cell turnover, retinoids may help reduce the appearance of freckles.15
Look for a high quality retinol serum that you can apply topically overnight.
A chemical peel may be an effective way to exfoliate and remove damaged skin. The new, regenerated skin is typically smoother and less discolored.16
Are Freckles Harmful?
Freckles are some of the most common skin spots and, for the most part, they are not harmful. However, they do indicate sun exposure — and that makes them worth keeping an eye on.
Individuals with any type of sun damage on their skin are at a higher risk for skin issues later in life.If your freckles are getting darker, let that serve as a reminder to double up on sunscreen and get an examination by a dermatologist. Keep an eye on your freckles, and call your doctor if they change over time.17
What Are Moles?
Skin moles are areas of growth on the skin. Moles are clusters of active melanocyte cells that have gathered in one area of your skin.18
Since moles are made of active cells, they have the potential to continue growing into something that may eventually be dangerous. The main difference between moles vs. freckles is that freckles are made of melanin, while moles are made of melanocyte cells. Because moles are made up of cells, they are often raised above the skin.19
What Do Moles Look Like?
Moles differ in appearance between individuals.
- Moles are often dark spots, but normal moles can also be brown, tan, black, blue, red, or pink. The color is typically consistent throughout the growth.
- Most moles are about the size of a pencil eraser.
- They can be perfectly round or oval, but they are typically symmetrical.20
What Are The Different Types Of Moles?
Moles are common. The vast majority of moles are harmless. There are a few basic types of moles. They are categorized by their appearance, when they appear, and their risk of becoming dangerous.
A congenital mole, or birthmark, is a common type of mole that is present at birth. About 1 in 100 people are born with moles. A giant congenital mole may pose a risk of certain skin problems later in life.21
Acquired moles, or common moles, appear on your skin after you’re born. People who have fair skin may have 10-40 of these types of moles. If a person has over 50, they are considered to be at a higher risk for having skin conditions.22
An atypical mole can appear anywhere on the body, but they rarely appear on the face. Benign atypical moles are often:
- Larger than a pencil eraser
- Oddly shaped (the entire mole is not round)
- Multi-colored 23
While many of these moles are harmless, if you discover a mole, you should consult a dermatologist for advice.
What Should I Look For When Examining My Moles?
If you have moles, keep an eye on them. A regular skin self-examination can help you spot potential issues to take to your doctor. Here is an ABCDE guide about what to look for in your self-checks:
- Asymmetrical Shape: Your mole is not a mirror image of itself.
- Border: The mole has irregular or broken borders.
- Color: The mole is many different colors, or you’ve noticed that it has changed colors.
- Diameter: The mole is larger than 6 millimeters.
- Evolving: The mole keeps changing in size, color, shape, or thickness. Most moles by adulthood should be relatively unchanging.24
What Happens If Your Dermatologist Is Concerned About Your Mole?
If you have a new mole or a mole that has recently changed, call a skin doctor right away. You’ll want to speak to a dermatologist about steps to ensure you are proactive about any potential issues. Your doctor will recommend treatment or prevention methods that are right for you.
Other Forms Of Skin Growths That May Look Like Freckles And Moles, But Aren’t
There are many types of skin lesions. Many of them are benign and not something to worry about. But it’s always good to understand and keep an eye on any type of skin growth.
- Skin tags are small flaps of tissue that hang from the skin. They are typically harmless and don’t cause any pain.
- A lentigo is a pigmented spot on the skin that’s darker than the surrounding area.
- Seborrheic keratoses is a brown or black growth that may take on a warty appearance.
- Sun spots, or age spots, are flat brown spots that develop in areas exposed to skin. They typically appear after the age of 40.
Fun fact: A beauty mark is actually just a plain old congenital mole that happens to be in an aesthetically pleasing place.25-27
Spot The Difference
Freckles and moles are both(usually) completely normal and considered to be beautiful features by many. But since they are growths on the skin, a routine check by your dermatologist is advised (whether you have freckles or moles or not). If you do, just keep an eye on them — and alert your doctor if you have any concerns.
25. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/12014-moles-freckles-skin-tags-lentigines–seborrheic-keratos es