What's This Thing On My Face: This Edition, Freckles

A dermatologist explains why we get freckles and (if you don't think they suit your face) how to make them go away.

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Freaking out about a bump, blemish or rash? Alongside our expert advisor Dr. Anthony Rossi, dermatologist, assistant professor at Cornell’s Weill Medical College and source of all our freckle knowledge, we’re here to help you figure out why they’re there (and, if you don’t love the way they look, how to make them disappear).

What are these tiny brown spots all over my face?

Those appear to be ephelides—better known as freckles.

I can see that. But why are they there?

Our skin contains pigment-producing cells called melanocytes. When these cells are exposed to UVA or UVB rays, they pump out dark pigment (a.k.a. melanin) in an attempt to protect the skin from the sun’s harmful rays by either reflecting or absorbing them. Freckles are simply skin cells that produced excess melanin—and thus are darker than the surrounding skin.

Are they dangerous? Are freckles hosting a war against my face?

While freckles, for the most part, are benign, they’re also a sign that you’re experiencing excessive sun exposure, which can eventually lead to skin cancer. So if you’re noticing constant freckling in large quantities, make sure you’re wearing a hat and applying broad spectrum sunscreen of at least SPF 30 every two hours you’re under the sun.

Can I make them go away if I want to?

Freckles usually fade—or even disappear—during the wintertime, because that’s when they’re less exposed to UV radiation. If you’re looking for a more immediate solution, the best cure is prevention, which begins by identifying whether or not you’re particularly prone to freckles in the first place. People with blond or red hair, for instance, tend to be more susceptible to freckling because they usually have a mutated melanocortin-1 receptor gene (the gene responsible for balancing hair and skin pigmentation) that produces excess melanin. What this means in practical terms is that blonds and redheads need to be extra careful about avoiding excessive sun exposure and applying sunscreen when necessary.

Let’s assume I’m asking if I can remove them because I kinda skipped the “prevention” step.

Fair enough. If you’re looking for an even quicker solution, you can have them lasered off by a dermatologist. Just be aware that they’ll pop right back up after spending a few long afternoons at the beach.

I shall never set foot outside again!

Going outside is good for you! Just wear a hat already.