In a nutshell, freckles are pigment clusters in the skin. A freckle, medically known as a lentigo or ephelis, is a tiny patch of normal skin where the melanocytes are producing more melanin than in the surrounding area.
Freckles can vary in size, shape and intensity or darkness, as well as how sparsely or tightly they appear. Usually, they are small, and light tan in colour. Freckles are different to moles – they are flat, not raised, and they do not affect skin texture.
The occurrence of freckles is beneath the epidermis and is merely showing through to the surface. That’s why treatment must target to the deeper layers of the skin to break up pigment and remove it – they cannot be removed from the outer layer.
Freckles can appear anywhere on the body – any skin that already contains pigment, basically. Common body areas for freckling include the chest, shoulders, forearms and lower legs, as these parts are most often exposed to the sun.
Unlike moles, they don’t pose any health concern. However, many people simply don’t like the look of them on their skin, whether it’s on their complexion or on their body.
But how are freckles caused? Why do they appear? How come they affect some skin types more than others?
Freckles get their colour from melanin, a substance that’s found naturally in the body. Melanin is responsible for colouring all kinds of parts, including your hair.
In the skin, melanin’s job is to protect the epidermis from UV exposure – it’s naturally produced by the skin for self-preservation.
Sometimes, when attacked by UV rays, the skin goes into hypervigilant mode and overproduces melanin as self-protection. This excess melanin appears in the skin as a dark spot or freckle. Think of each freckle as a little umbrella your skin has put up to help shield itself.
The visible result is hyperpigmentation – when skin becomes discoloured, uneven, blotchy or freckled with surplus pigment.
No one is born with freckles – they are always something that develops from environmental exposure. They can appear very early in life though – for some, early childhood.
Can you inherit freckles? Are you more prone if family members are freckly?
The variation of the MC1R gene that causes freckles is passed down genetically through the parents. People of Celtic heritage (Irish, Scottish), who typically have very fair skin, are more likely to have this genetic mutation than other groups – especially those with red hair. However, people of African, Mediterranean, Asian and Hispanic descent can also have freckles.