What Are Freckles

What Are Freckles

Freckles. A lot of us have them, but very few of us have ever put much thought into what they are, how we get them and why some people have so many.

What exactly are freckles and how are they formed?

Also called ephelides, freckles are small areas of the skin that appear darker than the skin around it. The reason for the darker appearance is down to melanin, a type of pigment found naturally within the skin that is responsible for its colour. People aren’t actually born with freckles, even though it might seem like it, although genetics can influence how susceptible you are to developing them.

Freckles occur when melanosomes, which are the site within cells that is responsible for everything to do with melanin, become elongated and form melanin more easily than the surrounding skin, which gives rise to the typical brown spot appearance of freckles1. While freckles are most common in people with red or blonde hair and blue eyes, they can occur in people of any skin type2

Are freckles caused by anything in particular?

As melanin is the pigment responsible for the colour of the skin, including freckles, it stands to reason that overproduction of it will have some bearing on whether or not you have freckles, and how many you end up with.

One thing in particular that has been shown to induce melanin overproduction is ultraviolet (UV) radiation, which suggests the more sun you get, the more likely you are to develop freckles. That is why freckles often fade during the winter months, or when people avoid being in the sun3

Should I be worried about my freckles?

Freckles are not something to be worried about, they are simply an indication that your skin has responded to UV exposure by triggering more melanin production, similar to a tan. However, while freckles themselves are harmless, UV exposure certainly is not. UV radiation can damage cells, leading to everything from premature skin ageing to skin cancer. Always remember to wear high SPF sunscreen when in the sun and seek shade where possible. Sunscreen not only helps to protect against UV-induced damage, it can also help to prevent or minimise freckles if that is a concern for you4

By Ian Harrison BSc (Hons), PhD.

Ian is Ego Pharmaceutical's Scientific Communications Manager. He is a medical scientist and communicator with a bachelor's degree and PhD in Pharmacology, and over a decade's worth of experience across research and industry.

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1. Breathnach AS, Wyllie LM. Electron microscopy of melanocytes and melanosomes in freckled human epidermis. J Invest Dermatol 1964;42(5):389–94.

2 Bleehen S. Disorders of Skin Colour. In: Champion R, Burton J, Burns D, Breathnach S, editors. Textbook of Dermatology Volume 2. Italy: Blackwell Science Ltd; 1998. p. 1771.

3 Rhodes AR, Albert LS, Barnhill RL, Weinstock MA. Sun-induced freckles in children and young adults. A correlation of clinical and histopathologic features. Cancer 1991;67(7):1990–2001.

4 Wilson P, Kligman A. Experimental induction of freckles by ultraviolet-B. Brit J Dermatol 1982;106:401–6.