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What Causes Freckles?

Freckles are usually flat, beige, brown circular spots that typically are the size of the head of a common nail. The spots are multiple and may develop on sun-exposed skin after repeated exposure to sunlight. These are particularly common in people with red hair and a fair skin. They may appear on people as young as 1 or 2 years of age. Most freckles are uniform in color. On different people, freckles may vary somewhat in color -- they may be reddish, yellow, tan, light brown, brown, or black -- but they are basically slightly darker than the surrounding skin. They may become darker and more apparent after sun exposure and lighten in the winter.

How do you get freckles?

Ephelides: These freckles form as a result of sun exposure and sunburns. They can appear on anyone who doesn’t protect themselves from UV rays. They show up on your face, the back of your hands, and upper body. This type tends to be most common amongst people with lighter skin and hair color. People of Caucasian and Asian descent are more prone to ephelides. Solar letigines: Like ephelides, this type tends to appear in Caucasians and adults over 40 years old.

What increases your chance for freckles?

The credit for freckles goes to both the natural environment and genetics. Your risk for burning can increase the incidence of freckles. In a study of 523 middle-aged French women, two elements predicted the presence of freckles: frequent sunburns and a gene known as MC1R, which provides instructions for making melanin. But the gene doesn’t affect all individuals the same way. There are two type of melanin: pheomelanin and eumelanin.

People whose skin produces pheomalanin aren’t protected from UV radiation and tend to have:

  • red or blonde hair
  • light skin
  • freckles
  • skin that tans poorly

People with more eumelanin tend to be protected from skin damage by UV and have:

  • brown or black hair
  • darker skin
  • skin that tans easily

Freckles vs. moles

This term when used to describe something on the skin is very nonspecific. Most of the time it refers to a brown to black flat to slightly elevated bump. The type of cells of which the bump is composed distinguish the real nature of mole. For example, a mole composed of benign melanocytes is called a melanocytic nevus.

Are freckles inherited?

Skin color is a very important factor in the susceptibility to form freckles. The tendency to freckles is inherited by individuals with fair skin and with blond or red hair. Very darkly pigmented individuals are unlikely to develop freckles.

Research in twin siblings, including pairs of identical twins and pairs of nonidentical twins have found a similarity in the total number of freckles found on each pair of identical twins. Such similarities were considerably less common in nonidentical twins. These studies strongly suggest that the occurrence of freckles is influenced by genetic factors. The variations in freckle counts appear to be due largely to heredity.

Freckles and moles almost always are harmless, but may suggest an increased risk of skin cancer. Knowing your risk and particulars of the ABCDE rubric for assessing changes in skin pigmentation will help with identifying any freckles or moles that may be dangerous. Talk to your doctor about your freckles, moles, or sun spots. They’ll be able to help identify spots for you to monitor closely.