Are freckles a sign of skin damage?

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Freckles transcend race and culture—even age, for the most part. But do they represent something concerning about our skin?

 

What are freckles, exactly?

 

Freckles are also called ephelides. The tiny, light brown spots—typically smaller than 3mm—usually start in the middle of the face and can spread outward, even all over the body, in early childhood. As people age, their freckles generally become less noticeable.

 

They’re brown because of melanin that’s produced by skin cells that have been exposed to ultraviolet light, usually in the summer. The pigment production increases during sunny seasons and decreases as days become more overcast, which is why you might notice freckles fading during winter.

 

Are freckles a sign of skin damage?

 

Freckles themselves aren’t a sign of damage to the skin. However, people who have freckles are more likely to be sensitive to the sun’s ultraviolet rays that cause damage.

 

Because that sun damage is often the first step in the development of skin cancers, it’s important for people with freckles, especially, to protect their skin with sunscreen or other skin coverings, and to monitor any changes in their skin.

 

What DO freckles say about a person’s skin?

 

From a dermatologist’s standpoint, freckles are a sign that a patient should be especially cautious with the sun. We know that fair-skinned individuals with red hair are the people most likely to carry the MC1R gene, which is linked to the process that creates freckles, but it’s also linked to processes that can lead to the development of melanoma, a form of skin cancer.

 

What should we keep track of when monitoring freckles?

 

Just as with moles, freckles should be examined with the ABCDEs of melanoma:

 

·      Asymmetry

·      Irregular borders

·      Changes in color

·      Diameter larger than a pencil eraser

·      Evolving size and/or shape

 

Generally, freckles aren’t a cause for concern. But if you notice that your freckles are changing, you should consider seeing a dermatologist for a check-up.

 

Desmond Shipp is a fellowship-trained cosmetic dermatologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and an assistant professor at The Ohio State University.