Freckles are small tan or light tan or brown spots most often found on the face, shoulders and arms. They are usually the size of the head of a nail. Freckles are common in people with fair complexions. If you have freckles, they typically will be the similar in color, however, some people do have freckles of varying colors.
Where Do Freckles Come From?
Skin contains melanocytes, which are cells that produce melanin, the pigment that makes your skin darker. In many people, these cells are spread evenly throughout the skin and when exposed to the sun, the melanin causes a suntan. For those who are fair-skinned, melanocytes are not spread evenly but bunched in groups. When exposed to the sun, these groups of cells produce melanin and turn darker, creating freckles.
Freckles become darker in the summer months, when exposed to sunlight and fade in the winter, when the sun isn't as strong. Freckles can show up in young children - sometimes as young as 1 or 2 years old.
Freckles and Skin Cancer
Freckles are usually harmless, however, because freckles appear on people who are fair-skinned, it means if you have freckles you are at a higher risk of developing skin cancer. It is important to keep an eye on your freckles, noticing if there is any change in color (other than getting darker after being outside in the sun) or if a freckle becomes larger. While it is rare for a freckle to develop into skin cancer, you should contact a dermatologist if you see these types of changes or if you notice other lesions or spots, lesions that don't heal or growths on your skin.
Because freckles become darker when exposed to the sun's UV rays, the best way to prevent freckles is to be conscious of the time you spend in the sun and always wear sunscreen. Other sun protection measures, such as wearing wide brimmed hats, keeping your skin covered, staying in the shade and avoiding being in direct sunlight during the hours of 10:00 AM and 4:00 PM all help to reduce the number of freckles you will have.
Some people take extra steps to lighten freckles so they aren't so noticeable. Some of the ways to lighten freckles include:
- Bleaching and fading creams. Many of these can be purchased over-the-counter without a prescription in your local pharmacy or food store. These products contain wither hydroquinone or kojic acid. Use of the creams over several months will usually lighten your freckles, although it is important to use sun protection as you are darkening the freckles if you are out in the sun.
- Retinoids can help to lighten freckles. Like the bleaching and fading creams, these are applied for several months. These types of products make you more sensitive to UV rays and you need to take steps to protect your skin when out in the sun.
- Crysurgery. Your doctor can perform a freezing procedure to help reduce your freckles.
- Laser or pulsed light treatments. These are procedures performed by your doctor which can reduce or lighten freckles.
- Chemical peels may also help to lighten freckles.
Some people like how their freckles look and prefer to leave them alone. This is a personal decision - there is no right or wrong.
"Freckles," Reviewed 2012, July 30, Gary W. Cole, M.D. FAAD, MedicineNet.com