Once upon a time, freckles were taken as a sign of good health. Today, they’re taken as a sign you’ve spent more time in the sun than your skin can safely handle.
And contrary to popular belief, they’re not just found on fair-skinned redheads and blondes. Freckles can also sprinkle the noses, cheeks, chests and hands of other skin tones as well — including Hispanics, Asians and African-Americans with fair to medium complexions.
“Skin hues are generally defined in six types,” said dermatologist Dr. Susan Taylor, director of the Skin of Color Center at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital in New York City. “Type one is the very fair skin of blue-eyed redheads — usually of Celtic heritage — and type six is the very dark skin of blacks of African heritage. Given enough exposure to the sun, types three and four will also freckle.”
So, what exactly is a freckle? Freckles — or ephelides — are small, flat, uniformly shaped dark marks. They’re usually found in sprinklings or clusters in areas routinely exposed to the sun. Freckles are caused by melanin, a protein that’s spontaneously produced by our bodies in response to injury or stimulation. So, in the case of freckles, melanin is a response to injury caused by the sun.
“You inherit your propensity for freckling,” said dermatologist Dr. Jon Morgan, a clinical assistant professor at the University of South Carolina who also has a private practice. “Actually, what you inherit is your body’s inability to repair DNA.”
Freckles generally begin in childhood. They usually first appear in summer — or whenever the skin gets prolonged sun exposure. Initially light in color, they darken in the sun. During winter — or when skin is protected from sunlight — freckles appear to lighten or even recede. Repeated sun exposure, however, can cause freckles to reappear, grow larger and darker and eventually become permanent.
The best defense against freckles is a good offense. “Stay in the shade,” Taylor said. “Wear sunblock (SPF 15) if you must be in the sun, and limit the time you spend there. Wear a wide-brimmed hat and protective, light-colored clothing to reflect the sun’s rays.”
Freckles are often mistaken for other kinds of brown spots that can occur on the skin, said dermatologist Dr. Timothy Rosio, director of the cosmetic, laser and skin surgery program and the women’s skin care program at the University of California – Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, Calif.
“People tend to label whatever brown spotting they have going on with their skin as freckles,” Rosio said. “The Eskimos have a hundred words for snow but we generally call all brown spots freckles.”
Other types of spotting commonly mistaken for freckles include solar lentigenes — age spots or liver spots. These flat brown spots are generally larger than freckles, more free form in shape and occur as we age. Like freckles, they are caused by sun damage. They, too, can darken and multiply over time.
Moles — or nevi — are often mistaken for freckles. Flat in elevation, they are actually a collection of melanocytes, the cells that produce melanin and respond to hormonal changes in women — like pregnancy and some medications — but generally not to sunlight.
Melasma — commonly called the mask of pregnancy — are flat, darkened patches that appear or worsen after exposure to the sun. They usually appear or worsen during pregnancy, and can also appear in women taking birth control pills. They are almost never seen in men.
For years, people have wondered how to fade their freckles and brown spots. Favorite old home remedies include washing with buttermilk, March snow water, water that’s collected in an oak stump and even a mixture of the dew from growing wheat, rose water and oil of lilies. Others suggested rubbing melon rind or grass wet with dew over freckles. One remedy even suggested walking backward out of your house on the morning of May 1 and then washing your face with dew.
Fortunately, there are much more effective ways of dealing with freckles today. Whether you want to simply cover them, fade them or remove them entirely, there is a method to fit every comfort zone and budget.
Embrace them. You’ve got a scattering of freckles across your face? Why not just go with the flow, advises Leslie Gilreath, makeup artist and skin care expert.
“Embrace your freckles and give your skin tone a sun-warmed glow,” Gilreath said. “Even out the contrast in your skin tone just a bit by applying a bronzing gel.” This way, you will achieve a healthy, kissed-by-the-sun look without actually doing any more sun damage to your skin.
Consider camouflaging them. If you prefer a more even skin tone but don’t like to wear a makeup foundation, try this: Choose a concealer that best matches your skin tone. Apply it to your freckles with a cotton swab. Then apply loose translucent powder with your fingers over the concealer. Blend with a brush to even out and set your makeup.
Probably the most freckle coverage comes from applying a concealing foundation in your natural skin tone, Gilreath said. Test it on your chin to make sure it matches the skin on your neck. Evenly apply the foundation, and then brush on loose translucent powder to set it.
To lighten freckles, or to banish them completely, consider the following methods. They can range in price from less than $20 for over-the-counter treatments to hundreds — even thousands — of dollars for others. “It all depends on whether you’re trying to remove a few brown spots, or a few decades,” Rosio said.
Over-the-counter drugstore bleaching creams like Porcelana and Esoterica have been around for years. They contain the active ingredient hydroquinone and can, indeed, lighten freckles and brown spots.
“The challenge it to apply the cream only to the freckle and not the surrounding skin,” Taylor said. You’ll need a lighted magnifying mirror, cotton swabs and a steady hand. “Don’t worry if you get halos around your freckles — they’ll fade,” she said.
There are also lots of different skin type-appropriate topical treatments for lightening freckles and spots. They include fruit acids (including full-strength lemon juice), vitamin C, vitamin D, alpha hydroxy acid, Retin-A, kojic acid and azaleic acid.
“Generally, you’d use a good sun block during the day and one or a combination of these topicals at night,” Morgan said. “Over time, they can help repair the damage to your skin’s DNA. It’s a good idea to consult your dermatologist about these treatments. He or she can tailor the treatment to effectively meet the needs of your specific skin type.”
Microdermabrasion is a fairly new cosmetic technique used to lighten freckles and spots. It works like this: Aluminum oxide crystals passing through a vacuum gently scrape away the sun-damaged skin and stimulate new cell growth. Often referred to as a “lunch-time” procedure, the patient can be in and out of the doctor’s office in about an hour and return to work. There’s minimal redness to the treated skin and no open wound.
Dermabrasion is a surgical cosmetic procedure that also sands down the sun-damaged skin with a rotating wire brush or a diamond fraise. A new layer of skin replaces the abraded skin. More involved than a microdermabrasion, this procedure leaves open wounds that take a week or two to heal.
Dermatologists can also lighten the appearance of freckles by freezing the spots with liquid nitrogen or dry ice. This procedure causes the sun-damaged skin to simply bubble up and peel off. “This works particularly well on the face,” Morgan said. “There’s much less scarring on facial skin than on the rest of the body, like the chest or legs.”
Lasers now are commonly used in treating pigment types and sizes, Rosio said. “The degree of precision we can get with a laser is extremely impressive,” he said. The laser light enters through the upper layer of skin until it encounters its pigment target. The light is then converted to a mechanical pulse that zaps the pigment and breaks it up into tiny bits that the body simply absorbs.
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