, The Fascinating Science Behind Freckles

The Fascinating Science Behind Freckles

I’ve had freckles for as long as I can remember. As a kid, I loved the way the little spots matched
my hair and the specks of brown in my eyes. I missed them when they faded in the fall and winter and wondered why I didn’t have nearly as many as my mom and sister come summer. Other than that, though, I didn’t give them a whole lot of thought. Until, overnight it seemed, everyone wanted this thing I’d always had — there were freckle filters on Snapchat and TikTok, freckle henna kits, freckle tattoos (as in the needle kind). For the first time, I became fascinated by the scientific phenomenon of my newfound beauty currency. And I learned a thing or two (or eight).

1. “Freckles” is a slang word. 

It comes from the Old Norse — you know, like all great slang — and appeared in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: “A fewe freknes in his face y-spreynd.” Freckles also go by the medical term “ephelides,” from the ancient Greek “éfilis,” which translates to “rough spot on the face.” In reality, freckles are not rough or raised. They are well-defined brown spots that show up in sun-exposed areas, most commonly on the face, arms, chest, and neck.

2. You won’t find a single newborn with freckles.

Typically, freckles don’t appear until two to three years of age for the simple reason that babies and young toddlers are usually shaded from the sun and don’t accumulate enough UV radiation for freckles to form, explains Rebecca Marcus, MD, a dermatologist in Dallas.

3. Genetics determine whether you’ll get freckles. 

If you are part of the approximately 2 percent of the world’s population with naturally red hair, you are especially likely to get freckles because they are caused by a genetic variant of the MC1R gene that also gives you red hair, explains Rachel Maiman, MD, a dermatologist in New York City. But that doesn’t mean you have to have a certain hair color — or skin color — to have freckles. “The MC1R gene variant is more common in Caucasian and Asian people, but it is possible for people of any ethnicity to have this variant as well,” says Dr. Marcus. If you are a redhead who was assigned female at birth, you may be even more likely to get freckles, according to a study published in the journal Forensic Science International, though more research is needed to understand their association with biological sex.

, The Fascinating Science Behind Freckles

Marie Bärsch/Blaublut-edition.com

4. Without the sun, there would be no freckles.

Freckles are born from an increase of pigment (melanin) that is flipped on by UV rays. Sometimes freckles form after a sunburn — typically, three to five days later — but you don’t have to experience a burn or tan or sun damage to get freckles. All you need is some sun exposure in your life plus the variant of the MC1R gene. Even so, you probably won’t keep getting new freckles every time you step outside: “They usually develop until you are in your mid 20s,” says Dr. Marcus.

5. Freckles aren’t the same as sun spots. 

Sun spots, or solar lentigines, are flat, brown spots, tend to be larger and more irregularly shaped than freckles and take many years to fully develop after repeated sun exposure. Sun spots are seen on a wide range of skin types and tones, and “most commonly begin to appear
around age 40,” says Dr. Marcus.

6. A freckle typically does not become cancerous. 

“Beauty marks,” such as moles, can turn into melanoma over time, but freckles are innately benign, says Neda Mehr, MD, a dermatologist in Newport Beach, California. That said, the presence of freckles can signal your susceptibility to developing skin cancer, says Dr. Marcus. In case you haven’t gathered this yet, we just want to clarify: Freckles are your skin saying, “Hey, look here! I’m very sensitive to the sun!” It all comes back to that MC1R gene, which also makes skin more sensitive to UV rays.

7. Freckles aren’t (necessarily) forever. 

This is another big difference between freckles and sun spots, which won’t go anywhere without treatment. Generally, freckles fade during the winter and are more prominent in the summer, when sun exposure is at its highest. (Bonus fun fact: The German word for freckles is “sommersprossen,” or “summer sprouts.”) But even in the summer, Dr. Marcus adds, it is possible to minimize freckles with a combination of broad-spectrum sunscreen and UV-protective clothing. Freckles tend to fade as you get older (one reason for the freckle trend is that they look youthful), but if, for whatever reason, you want them gone now, you can get rid of them, says Leslie
Baumann, MD, a dermatologist in Miami. It often takes two sessions (at about $300 each) with a pigmented-lesion laser, the same kind that breaks up sun spots. “Before we had lasers we used chemical peels,” says Dr. Baumann. “But the pigment is deep, so laser is better.” (For that same reason, skin care with brightening claims won’t do anything to alter freckles.)

8. In 2022, freckles can be faked. 

As we said, anyone obsessed with these spots can get the look without setting foot in the sun. Options include dotting them on using makeup that you likely already have (brown pencil eyeliner or brow pencils) or playing with freckle pens (Freck Beauty, Jason Wu, and ColourPop all make them). If you’re looking for something that lasts longer than 24 hours, henna freckles can stick around for a few days, softening over the next two to three weeks, while tattoo freckles will be with you for about one to three years, fading gradually. “For someone considering freckle tattoos, it is extremely important for them to check out an artist’s healed work,” says Bethany Wolosky, a tattoo artist in New York City, who has been doing freckle tattoos for about five years. For example, they shouldn’t turn orange over time. And if the idea of tattooing your face makes your knees weak, Wolosky says, “I use numbing cream so most of my clients feel very little discomfort. It can be pinchy in some areas, but nowhere near the pain level of a traditional tattoo.”

This story originally appeared in the August 2022 issue of Allure. Learn how to subscribe here.

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