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Freckles: Types, Symptoms, Causes, Risk Factors & Prevention

Editor's Note: This article has been recently updated with latest information and research studies.

Freckles are small spots that occur in clusters on the face, shoulders and chest. The spots are usually light brown or tan in color. In more technical terms, a freckle, or as it is also referred to, an ephelis, is a region of concentrated melanin. This is however not to mean that these regions have a higher number of cells that produce* melanin (melanocytes) as it is the case with moles and lentigines. The occurrence of freckles is a harmless skin condition and is no indication of underlying health conditions. Sometimes however, freckles may hide the development of skin cancer.

Types of Freckles

Freckles are commonly mistaken for moles. The difference between these two types of skin conditions is that freckles are flat and smooth while moles are raised. Freckles occur in two basic types. One, there are the simple freckles. Simple freckles are small, tan in color and round. Their sizes usually do not exceed that of a nail head. The second types of freckles are the sunburn freckles. In contrast to simple freckles, sunburn freckles have a darker color, are larger and their edges appear jagged and irregular. Sunburn freckles are more common in parts of the body that are exposed to the sun such as the upper back or the shoulders.

Do All Skin Types Get Freckles?

All skin types regardless of whether they are black, white or Asian, are susceptible to the occurrence of freckles. However, freckles are much more common in people with white skin than any other skin color.

Symptoms of Freckles

Freckles may start developing from the age of five while in other people they may only develop after a long exposure to the sun. Old age freckles or age spots only occur in older individuals. The major symptom of freckles is the appearance of colored spots on various parts of the skin. The color of the spots may vary in different people but the most common colors are light brown and tan.

Causes of Freckles

A number of causes have been identified to contribute greatly towards the occurrence and development of freckles. Two major factors have been known to be the major causes of freckles. These factors are genetics and sun exposure. When the skin is exposed to the sun for long periods of time, melanin in our skin is not distributed normally. It tends to cluster around certain regions thus causing freckles to appear. Genetically, one may inherit the genes for occurrence of freckles from family members. Even the area and pattern of occurrence may be inherited. In both cases however, exposure to the sun worsens the situation.

Where Can you get Freckles?

The point at which freckles will occur on your body will depend upon genetics and sun exposure. Genetically, the pattern and region of occurrence of freckles may be passed on to family members. Additionally, regions of the body that are exposed to the sun for long periods of time are more susceptible to freckles. Generally, the face, arms and the chest are common areas on which freckles appear. The upper back and shoulders may also get freckles.

Old Age Freckles

Old age freckles are types of freckles that occur in older individuals. In most cases, they develop in people above the age of forty. Old age freckles, also called liver spots or age spots, usually appear in the backs of the hands of individuals who have been exposed to the sun for a long time in terms of years. As one gets old, the skin is less* able to regenerate new skin cells. This is what leads to the formation of freckles. Despite their name, liver spots are not in any way associated with the liver.

Why Females and Children Seem to have more Freckles than Men?

The reason why women and children have more freckles than men is not exactly known. However several reasons have been suggested. One, women and children tend to have a skin that is thinner than the male one. This means that the sun can easily penetrate the skin and affect melanin distribution. The second reason has to do with adult women and hormones. A condition called, ‘mask of pregnancy’ leads to the development of freckles due to hormonal changes.

Risk Factors

Several factors increase* the risk of getting freckles. One of them is amount of sunlight exposure. People who live in areas with more sunlight are more susceptible to freckles. Another risk factor is genetics. If a member of the family has or had freckles then chances of the condition being passed on are high. Skin color may also be a risk factor. White people are observed to have more freckles than people of other skin colors. This may be due to the easier penetration of ultra violet rays from the sun through the skin. Albinos have very high chances of freckles if the skin is not well protected. Dark skinned people are less* affected.

Diagnosis for Freckles

For freckles to be positively diagnosed, they have to be light brown or tan in color. In some cases, freckles can also be yellow. Secondly, they should be smooth and not raised. If they are raised then they are probably moles. In most cases, a cluster occurrence is another identifying factor although freckles may also appear individually.

Prevention

The best prevention measure for freckles is to avoid unprotected and prolonged exposure to the sun.