Freckles are a common skin problem, especially when they accumulate on the face or other visible body parts. Learn what causes freckles, what you can do to prevent them, and how you can minimize their appearance with home and medical treatments.

Freckles are small, flat, circular spots that appear on the face, shoulders, arms, upper back, and chest. Usually no larger in size than a nailhead, freckles range in color from light tan to yellow, reddish, brown, and black. Also known as ephelides, freckles aren’t a medical condition but most often just a harmless, natural consequence of heredity and sun exposure.

Still, they can be a cosmetic concern. While some people enjoy their freckles and call them “sun kisses,” others dislike them because they detract from a smooth, even appearance, especially if they accumulate in large numbers.

In many cases, freckles and their oversize relatives — age spots — can be prevented with appropriate skin care, especially sun protection. But when freckles become a problem, they can be minimized with home remedies or even erased with some medical treatments.

The Causes of Freckles

You’re most likely to develop freckles if you have:

  • Fair skin .
  • Reddish hair.
  • Green or blue eyes.

This constellation of genetic traits — and the freckles that often accompany them — is sometimes described as the “ginger” look, an uncomplimentary term that annoys freckle-faced people as much as blonde jokes annoy blondes.

But people of any skin type can develop freckles, especially if they spend a lot of time in the sun or tanning booths. That’s because freckles are usually the result of sun damage to pigment-producing cells called melanocytes, which respond by producing an increased amount of the dark pigment melanin. Freckles often subside during periods of less sun exposure — such as winter — but they can persist year-round.

Preventing Freckles

There’s nothing you can do about your heredity, but you can prevent freckles by:

  • Wearing protective clothing and sunglasses while outdoors.
  • Avoiding sun exposure from 10 a.m. through 4 p.m., when sunlight is most intense.
  • Applying a sunscreen of at least SPF 15, preferably 30 minutes before going outdoors.

When Freckles Might Be Problematic

Although freckles aren’t cancerous and almost never become cancerous, freckling is a trait that’s associated with an increased risk of skin cancer. The risk may be especially high if you had as few as four severe sunburns before age 18. You should receive medical evaluation for any new spots that are:

  • Darkly pigmented, or have an unusual combination of colors.
  • Increasing in size.
  • Irregularly shaped.

Sometimes, freckling is associated with rare genetic conditions such as xeroderma pigmentosum and neurofibromatosis.

Home Treatment of Freckles

Folk remedies for freckles include applying lemon juice twice a day to freckled areas for several weeks. There’s no proof that such remedies work, but if they don’t cause skin irritation, they probably aren’t harmful. The easiest strategy is to minimize sun exposure and — if necessary — apply freckle-concealing makeup.

In some cases, over-the-counter bleaching or fading creams may help lighten freckles. The best products include ingredients such as:

  • Hydroquinone.
  • Glycolic acid.
  • Kojic acid.

The downside of these types of remedies is that they must be applied for weeks or months and may also bleach surrounding skin, resulting in no reduction in the contrast between freckled and normal skin.

A possibly more effective option may be over-the-counter products that contain retinoids, vitamin A derivatives that accelerate the defoliation of skin and help normalize pigmentation.

Medical Treatments for Freckles

If home treatments are ineffective, your doctor or dermatologist may recommend various treatments. But be aware that most of these therapies aren’t covered by insurance because they’re considered cosmetic treatments, and that they can occasionally result in redness, scarring, or discoloration. Medical treatments include:

  • Prescription medications. Some topical ointments contain high-strength hydroquinone. Others contain tretinoin (vitamin A acid, Retin-A), tazarotene (Tazorac), and adapalene (Differin).
  • Chemical peels. Multiple applications of certain acids — including alpha hydroxy acids — burn off the outer layer of skin, enabling the growth of a new and natural-looking layer.
  • Laser therapy or intense pulsed light therapy. Various types of lasers can be used to obliterate accumulated melanin. Green laser light, in particular, may be effective at removing brown spots and freckles because it has a longer wavelength. Intense pulsed light, a non-laser light source, may also help minimize freckles.

Large freckles may respond to two other procedures often used for age spots: cryotherapy, the use of liquid nitrogen to destroy accumulated melanin, and dermabrasion, the use of a rapidly rotating brush to sand off the outer layer of skin, enabling the growth of a new and natural-looking layer. Because most freckles are relatively small, however, these procedures aren’t commonly recommended.

Freckles aren’t harmful, and they don’t require treatment. Some people even revel in their “ginger” look. But if you’re bothered by freckles, you can minimize their appearance by avoiding the sun, using home remedies, and seeking the advice of a doctor or dermatologist.



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