Freckles, or ephelides, are a benign skin discoloration caused by an increase in melanin pigment in the epidermis. Interestingly, it is not due to an increase in the number of melanin-producing cells, called melanocytes, but rather to an increase in melanin production by the existing melanocytes.
A second curiosity is that although melanocytes produce melanin, they do not store it. They synthesize it within vesicles called melanosomes and send it to the keratinocytes, which are responsible for its distribution. Melanin not only serves the purpose of changing our color and choosing our chromatic range, but it also plays a crucial role in protecting us against ultraviolet radiation.
Because their function is to protect against UV radiation, these small skin spots are more commonly found on the face, shoulders, and upper back—areas that are often exposed to sunlight.
In general, freckles are benign, but there are certain signs that indicate when a freckle should be treated.
Freckles can be divided into two types based on their origin. First, there are congenital freckles, which are present from birth. Second, there are freckles that appear during childhood, adolescence, or adulthood, which are more common.
Freckles are more frequent during childhood and adolescence and tend to fade with age, although sun exposure can cause them to reappear. They are also often associated with an individual’s ability to produce melanin.
It has been observed that individuals with a lower melanin synthesis tend to have a higher presence of freckles. This suggests that people with a significant number of freckles are more sensitive to sunlight.
When Genes Give You Freckles
There is also a genetic component. As a result, there will be people who have freckles and others who don’t, even if they have very similar skin and/or have been exposed to the sun for the same amount of time.
Studies have linked the presence of the melanocortin-1 receptor gene (MC1R) and its variants to the development of freckles. It is not uncommon for individuals with specific variants of this gene to have an abnormal number of freckles, although it does not have to occur in all cases.
This gene has also been associated with an increased risk of developing skin cancer, as individuals carrying the MC1R gene have a higher sensitivity to the sun and show regular changes in skin pigmentation.
And why do red-haired people often have freckles? Exactly, it’s because of genes. Red-haired individuals have mutations in the MC1R gene. In fact, the MC1R gene is more closely related to red hair than to freckles themselves.
Therefore, redheads are more likely to have freckles because they are more affected by solar radiation, as pheomelanin (the chemical responsible for lighter hair colours) is photosensitive. For this reason, they are more prone to sunburn and should protect themselves with higher SPF (sun protection factor) creams.
For individuals who are more prone to freckles, such as redheads and those with fairer skin, it is important to regularly check their freckles and moles for any changes or suspicious irregularities. This way, if a melanoma (a highly aggressive type of skin cancer) is developing, it can be detected in time.
And the ultimate responsible for the many variants of the MC1R gene, at least in Europe, has been natural selection. Because genes dictate, but selection kills. Melanin serves the purpose of protecting against UV radiation, but in high latitudes like Northern Europe, the strong UV-laden sun is not exactly a serious problem. However, UV radiation is necessary for vitamin D synthesis. The end result: lighter skin tones to absorb all the UV they can. Over thousands of years, these skin types of struggles to tan and do not tolerate the sun well. Because where they came from, there was barely any.
Melanoma and other concerns about freckles
Melanoma can be well controlled if detected early and surgically removed. It is important to know what signs to look for to determine if a freckle needs to be treated:
- Asymmetry. Freckles are usually round and symmetrical. If any of them lacks this shape, it could be an initial indication.
- Border. It is important to check if the border is irregular.
- Colour. If it changes colour or if there is the presence of two or more colours.
- Diameter. If it is larger than 6 millimetres or if it is growing in diameter.
- Sensation. If the freckle is painful, itchy, or if there is an unusual tight or uncomfortable feeling in that area of the skin.
- Prominence. Something as simple as the freckle looking different, with an abnormal appearance compared to other freckles, can make a difference between a benign melanin spot or a serious problem in the future.
However, the main sign that a freckle is melanoma is the appearance of a new freckle. Approximately 75% of melanomas arise as dark spots on the skin.
In addition, there are other types of cancers besides melanoma that can appear as spots on the skin, including various carcinomas.
Even if you are not prone to develop freckles or melanoma, it is important to take precautionary measures to prevent their occurrence. Remember that having a tan complexion is nice, but having a sunburned complexion is not. Nobody likes sunburns. Some recommendations include:
- Avoid sun exposure during peak radiation hours, which is between 12 pm and 4 pm.
- Protect the most delicate parts of the body, such as the face, neck, chest, and upper back, with clothing or umbrellas.
- Apply sunscreen 30 minutes before sun exposure and reapply every 2 hours. Also, use sunscreen year-round and not just in the summer.
It is important to know our bodies and our genes to understand who we are and what can affect us more. Despite taking precautions with the skin, genetic predisposition sometimes favours the appearance of freckles. Regularly observe your freckles, especially those that move or grow, and consult a specialist if you detect any anomalies. This can help you treat freckles in a timely manner.
We cannot help you distinguish a friendly freckle from a lethal malignant tumour, but we can help you know your melanin levels or your likelihood of being a redhead with a tellmeGen DNA test. Because not everything in life is about being a hypochondriac.