what causes freckles
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Freckles: An In-depth Guide

Some people hate them. Some people love them. Nobody really understands them. There are a lot of myths and misconceptions about these tiny dots on the skin. The truth may surprise you.

What Are Freckles?

Ephelides, or freckles, are flat, brown spots that appear on the surface of the skin. They are often a product of sun exposure but can be genetic.

People who spend a lot of time in the sun tend to experience freckling more often than others.

People who work outdoors will have more freckles than those who work indoors because they get more exposure to the sun.

Children are in the sun a lot, so you almost always see a few freckles appear in childhood and fade into adulthood. They are harmless.

Freckles can also be hereditary and a product of genetics. There is a specific gene that connects redheads and freckles with certain people.

Scientists have also found a freckle gene in Chinese people. While we do know that there is a freckle gene, we still don’t know why some people get freckles and some don’t or why the freckle gene forms in the first place.

Genetic scientists are always making discoveries. It is only a matter of time before they figure out the entire mystery of freckles.

What Causes Freckles?

Freckles can be a product of genetics, or they are brought on by sun exposure. Contact with the UV rays of the sun prompts the skin to amp up melanin production resulting in the tiny patches of darker skin.

Some parts of the body are more prone to getting freckles than others. Across the bridge of the nose, cheeks, arms, and upper chest are all exposed to the sun more than the rest of the body.

People who are very light skinned will develop darker, more pigmented freckles as its body comes to the defense and produces a barrier.

There is also a freckle gene that produces a protein connected to the pigment gene. This protein turns the skin pigments to the most prominent form of pigmentation in the body.

In some rare cases, the pigmentation is turned to the other type of pigmentation in the human body, that which is responsible for red and orange coloring.

How Do You Get Freckles?

Most people get freckles by being out in the sun without any kind of barrier or sunscreen. As a form of protection against the harmful UV sunrays, the body develops patches of melanin.

Visiting the beach, or sunny outdoor spot everyday will result in freckles that darken the longer they are exposed to the sun. Most younger people experience freckles which fade away in later years.

Older people experience solar letigines, which is basically the same thing. Solar letigines are a sign of aging, however.

Red heads and people with very light skin tend to be more genetically predisposed to freckling.

The people who tan evenly all summer have their melanocytes spread evenly throughout the epidermis.

Others will freckle in some places and stay pale on the rest of their skin or turn red or pink. The melanocytes are clumped together in the epidermis.

Genetically, freckles are caused by the MC1R gene. This is also the gene that gives freckles to redheads. The MC1R gene contains the recipe to make the MC1R protein. The protein is part of the melanocytes and governs over pigmentation levels in the hair and skin.

Eumelanin, the main pigment in human skin, is responsible for almost all hair colors, except red. The red, orange, and ruddy colors of hair and skin come from the rare pheomelanin pigment.

When MC1R is working correcting, it turns the pheomelanin into eumelanin. When it isn’t working correctly, the pheomelanin builds up and results in red hair and freckles. It could just result in freckles OR red hair. It all depends on how many copies of the gene are present.

People have two copies of most genes. If both copies of the MC1R gene are broken, red hair and freckles will be present. If one gene is working correctly, red hair or freckles will be present.

What confuses scientists is, broken MC1R genes do not always result in freckles. Much of the genetics on freckles is still to be discovered.

How To Get Rid Of Freckles

The easiest way to get rid of freckles is to avoid them all together. Staying out of the sun is one way but that isn’t always an option.

A capable sunscreen will also help avoid freckles. Freckles can be removed by keeping the sunscreen on at all times. The fewer UV rays the skin is exposed to, the less chance for freckles to develop. They will fade away slowly.

Another option is to use a skin bleaching cream. There are several on the market and a dermatologist can recommend the best one for you.

Freckle removal isn’t always necessary since they fade without exposure to the sun.

Chemical bleaching creams work to lighten the pigment in the skin. Results can be seen in as little as two to three weeks. Some chemicals used for bleaching can be considered dangerous.

Hydroquinone is often used in these creams. It is highly regulated in the United States and banned from several countries for its cancer-causing characteristics.

Mercury is a toxic heavy metal found in some skin whitening creams. Even small quantities of mercury can be life threatening and permanent. It can cause kidney, nerve and brain damage.

Other ingredients are not harmful in short spurts, but prolonged use is not advised and can actually darken freckles eventually.

Glucocorticosteroids can cause maladies such as cataracts, osteoporosis, acne, muscle weakness and other medical conditions can develop.

There are a lot of home remedies to get rid of freckles. They come from varying traditions and heritages across the world. Some are just trial and error from natural ingredients.

Sour Cream

It is said that once lactic acid forms in spoiled milk it can be used to fade freckles. The technique is to spread a thin layer of sour cream across the freckled area and let dry before wiping away with a soft cloth and applying moisturizer. No water or soap.

It is recommended to apply once or twice a day to treat freckles without any risk of skin irritation or dryness. Lactic acid is in a lot of skin care treatments. It is mild and nonirritating for most every skin type.

Lemon Juice

Lemon juice is an organic and surprisingly successful remedy for freckles. The citrus acid in the lemon works as a bleaching agent. Freckles can still be seen but are considerably lighter.

Lemon juice left in the sun will fade fabric and other materials. Small, thin slices of fresh lemon are placed directly on the face for 10 – 15 minutes. Rinse the skin with warm water and use a moisturizer to replace any drying from the lemon.

Another way is to make a scrub. Squeeze a whole lemon into a dish with a spoonful of brown, organic sugar. Grate a teaspoon of lemon zest into the mixture and mix well. Refrigerate for at least 20 minutes. Use it as a facial or body scrub once a week.

Not only does it fade freckles, but also removes dead skin. A quick hack for this technique is to cut a lemon in half and sprinkle the sugar on top. Use it to scrub your elbows, heels and knees for a snug fit. These treatments can be used once a week.


Some people swear by the use of honey as a remedy for freckles. Mix it with water, wheat germ, or yogurt to make a face mask. Leave it on 20 minutes and wash off with warm water and a soft cloth. This one is also good for its anti-aging and anti-bacterial characteristics.

Licorice Root

Glabridin, a component in licorice, is a tyrosinase inhibitor which stops the production of melanin pigment and can be used to fade freckles. It is easiest to use licorice extract and jojoba oil. Mix and apply nightly with a cotton ball.


The papain enzyme in exfoliates skin so that it may produce new cells which makes it a fresher look. Freckles, however, are removed because the papain enzyme is a tyrosinase inhibitor and hinders the production of melanin which causes the dark spots on your skin.

Green raw papaya contains more papain, but ripe papaya can also fade freckles. Simply mash the papaya to make a paste and apply it to the skin. Leave on for 10 to 15 minuets before washing off with a warm, soft cloth. Lemon juice is often added to papaya when used to get rid of freckles.

DIY Glycolic Acid

Glycolic acid is one of the most common alpha-hydroxy acids are used in commercial skin whitening creams. It is a fantastic exfoliant. It destroys the bonds of skin cell layers, making the outer layer of dead skin cells fall off giving way to spotless younger, smoother skin.

Synthetic glycolic acid harms skin, but the natural, DIY version doesn’t. Sugarcane is one of the top organic sources of glycolic acid. Use molasses sugar or muscovado, derived from sugarcane and is a type of unrefined brown sugar containing rich amounts of this acid, to make your own homemade glycolic acid.

For sensitive skin, however, it is better to use white sugar which is less grainy and somewhat softer on your skin.

What Is The Difference Between Freckles And Other Skin Spots?

Freckles are harmless. They pop up and fade away with the seasons, in most cases. Unfortunately, that is not the case with many other skin issues.

Acne scars can be mistaken for freckles, as can blood blisters, sun spots which are actually called Solar letigines, moles, and skin tags are all different things with different risks.


Moles can be black, brown, or skin-colored. They are raised from the skin and appear individually or in groups. Almost everyone has one or two moles on their body somewhere.

They are generally harmless but can be a sign of skin cancer. Doctors recommend keeping a careful eye on any moles you notice. Pay attention to the asymmetry, diameter, color, border, and progression in any area. If it starts to look different, pay a visit to a dermatologist.

Moles can be removed whether they are cancerous or not. A mole is formed when melanocytes gather in a group. They produce melanin, the pigment that darkens and protects the skin.

Besides the epidermis, they are found in hair follicles. They form a unit that causes the mole to form. In rare cases, this coloring agent causes skin diseases and other maladies.

Skin tags

Skin tags are tiny flaps of skin that form a sac-like shape connected by a thin strip of skin. They usually form where there is a lot of skin friction, such as under the arm, waistline, neck, and groin. They appear after time in place where your clothes or shoes rub. They look much like warts but with less structure.

They increase with age and are not present at birth. While anyone can get them, especially as you grow older, studies have shown that they are genetic. So, it runs in the family. Approximately 25% of the adult population experiences skin tags. They are also called acrochordon, as well as pendunculated fibroma, and fibroma pendulans.

Skin tags can be removed with over the counter medicines from any drug store. They can also be removed by a doctor in a short, out-patient procedure. They are usually harmless but in rare cases can turn to skin cancer.

Solar letigines

Solar letigines are sun-induced spots. There are other types of letigines. Ink spot lentigines appear mostly on the trunk of the body. They usually have an irregular edge. They are a dark black color and are small and dense.

Simple letigines are the most common. They are small with an irregular shape. They are brown or tan in color. Sun spots can turn into cancer. It isn’t very likely that one singular spot will turn into cancer but it you have several, or continually expose it to sun, the chances rise.

Experts recommend keeping a close watch on any spots that occur on the skin. If it changes shape, color, or consistency, a doctor should take a look at it as soon as possible.


Lentigo is another term for spots on the skin. Most people refer to this malady as age spots. They appear in older people and are the result of years of sun exposure and weather affects.

Freckles have had a special place in American hearts throughout popular culture.

In the 1950’s Doris Day was known for her freckled face, always associated with wholesome, happy people.

Lucille Ball was the ultimate freckled feminine celebrity. Funny, silly, eternally happy, she helped enforce the world’s view of people with red hair and freckles as being the class clowns.

Ron Howard played Opie on The Andy Griffith Show and Richie Cunningham on Happy Days. Both characters were wholesome, decent fellas with hearts of gold.

It wasn’t until later, beginning in the 1970’s, that the media began to depict freckled faces as something with a dark side and vixens on nighttime soap operas began to show up with freckles and red hair.

From Pipi Longstocking to Wendy’s Hamburgers, freckles stand out from the crowd no matter where they are in our lives. Evidence of the miracle and beauty that is human.