What Are Freckles, Why Do They Appear?

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Freckles are small brown spots on your skin, often in areas that get sun exposure. In most cases, freckles are harmless. They form as a result of overproduction of melanin, which is responsible for skin and hair color (pigmentation). Overall, freckles come from ultraviolet (UV) radiation stimulation.

There are two categories of freckles: ephelides and solar lentigines. Ephelides are the common type most people think of as freckles. Solar lentigines are dark patches of skin that develop during adulthood. This includes freckles, aging spots, and sunspots. The two types of freckles can look similar but differ in other ways such as their development.

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 tones and hair color. People of Caucasian and Asian descent are more prone to ephelides.

Solar letiginesLike 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

Solar lentigines

For solar lentigines, the French study also found that several different factors increased the likelihood, including:

  • dark skin

  • the capacity to tan

  • a history of freckles

  • sun exposure

  • hormone treatment, such as oral birth control

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