The age-old adage of “the grass is always greener” springs to mind when talking about freckles. Most who have them want rid of them and most who don’t adore them. When people are imagining the stereotypical image of the Irish person they imagine curly, red ringlets, bright green eyes and a generous helping of freckles over the bridge of the nose. Indeed, you are more likely to find freckles on those of Celtic heritage than anyone else… back we go to the Fitzpatrick Scale!!
Freckles are small, flat, brownish marks that form mostly on the face and other areas commonly exposed to the sun (ie. shoulders, back and décolletage). Freckles are inherited genetically so if you are blessed with them, you can thank the parents for that! They are a harmless mutation of the pigment regulatory gene, MC1R. They’re more likely to occur on Fitzpatrick Type I and Type II skin – pale or fair skin that always burns or almost always burns. Even though they are genetic, you will never see a freshly born baby with freckles.
Why do freckles appear?
Freckles, or ephelides as true nerds will know, are formed when pigment gathers in skin cells. When we are exposed to the sun, our skin reacts by producing melanin (AKA skin pigment) at a higher rate. This skin does this to protect the deeper layers of skin from becoming damaged by UV rays – like a black-out blind. The pigment that has accumulated in the skin cells spreads outwards into surrounding skin cells, and so the humble freckle is born!
Are freckles sun damage?
I hear this myth all the time and now that you know the origin story of freckles, you can probably see why it came about. Yes, freckles are caused by the sun in that the sun brings them out but no, they are not sun damage!! If you have true freckles, as in ephelides, the type that you receive genetically, they will intensify in colour and number in the Summer and fade in the Winter.
There is, however, a different type of freckle that is related to sun damage. These are lentigines, or solar lentigos – more commonly known as age spots or liver spots. How does one tell the difference between an ephelide or a lentigine? A lentigine stays dark even when you have not been exposed to the sun for a while, it will be larger in size and it will have a more clearly defined border.
Age spots and liver spots are both misnomers, as lentigines are neither caused by ageing or liver problems. I can practically hear a sigh of relief go across the Nerd Herd as they can move something off the “Things to Expect When I’m Older” list!! They typically develop in areas that have been sun damaged before (for example, parts of the body that have been sunburned before). They are usually harmless, but you can never be too safe.
Always take great caution when it comes to identifying these things yourself – when it comes to anything unusual on your skin, visit your GP. If what you believe to be is a lentigo is new or changing, it may be a lesion of a different type.
I hate my freckles. What can I do about them?
I firmly believe in my own motto: “be you”. Regardless of what people think of freckles, whether they are fans or foes, your skin is an organ and so its aesthetic appearance does not help it with its functions and processes. In the end, the health of your skin is what matters.
If you are self-conscious of the appearance of age spots, you can treat them with:
- IPL: What can’t IPL do?! IPL stands for intense pulsed light and it involves a broad spectrum of light (rather than a single wavelength like during laser treatments) that seeks out pigment in cells, heats them and destroys them. The fairer you are, the more likely you are to get good results from IPL. IPL may not completely remove lentigos but will significantly lighten them.
- Lightening products: I’d specifically recommend Neostrata’s ENLIGHTEN Pigment Lightening Gel (€41.95), which contains Alpha Hydroxy acids (AHAs) and Polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs) to exfoliate the skin and lightening ingredients Butyl Resorcinol, Kojic Acid and Vitamin C to brighten existing spots and prevent any new ones from developing.
Otherwise, I also rate IMAGE Cosmetics Iluma Intense Lightening Serum (€52.00), as it is soothing and contains botanical extracts, Vitamin C and grape seed extract to help to lighten up dark spots.
To summarise, freckles aren’t usually something to worry about in terms of skin health. They are reactive to the sun but ephelides are not marks from sun damage. However, solar lentigos AKA age spots ARE and thus can be prevented by wearing SPF daily!! Please remember that lentigos, moles and other lesions should be self-checked thoroughly and regularly – if something seems out of the ordinary, visit your GP.
Related articles: Irish Skin: Is Lifestyle Causing Your Skin Sensitivity?, Irish Skin: Varicose Veins and Spider Veins
age spotsephelidesfrecklesIPLlentiginesliver spotsun damage
The difference between moles, freckles, and melanomas
Both moles and freckles are very common and occur as a result of skin pigmentation. Specialized skin cells called melanocytes produce different types of melanin. The darker coloration of freckles and moles depends on how many of the melanocytes cluster together, and how much melanin those clusters produce.
Freckles are small to medium pale brown spots that usually occur across larger areas of the skin, while moles are brown or black dark spots of various sizes that often reside alone.
They are frequently caused by exposure of skin to the sun and are often temporary, whereas moles are long-lasting and are only indirectly associated with sun exposure.
Many people are born with moles, and though moles can disappear over years, most last a lifetime. Moles that develop or change quickly are the moles you need to be concerned about, as these could be melanomas — a serious type of skin cancer.
We asked three doctors some of the most common questions on mole and freckle removal.
Drs. Meinhardt, Taglienti, and Zuckerman