What Are the Common Causes of Brown Freckles?

Debra Barnhart

Brown freckles are caused by a build-up of melanin pigment in the outer layer of the skin. Exposure to the sun increases the chances of forming freckles, especially for people with fair complexions. Using sunscreen and avoiding too much sun exposure can help to minimize the likelihood of brown freckles.

Wearing wide-brimmed hats can help prevent the formation of freckles due to sun exposure.
Wearing wide-brimmed hats can help prevent the formation of freckles due to sun exposure.

The human skin shields itself from over-exposure to the sun partially through the workings of cells called melanocytes. These cells produce the pigment melanin, which helps to protect the outer layer of skin from harmful sun rays. When the skin is subjected to extended time in the sun, brown spots called freckles may form. Although harmless, freckles are still a sign of sun damage. They actually form when melanocyte cells become damaged and cause pockets of melanin to pool in the epidermis — the outer layer of the skin.

A close up of a brown freckle.
A close up of a brown freckle.

While brown freckles are always the result of sun exposure, some people are more likely than others to get them. Persons with fair complexions, green eyes and red or blond hair are more likely to grow freckles. Other genetic factors may contribute as well, according to research. Studies conducted among identical twins have found that such twins are remarkably similar in their development of freckles, while fraternal twins do not exhibit the same freckling patterns. Since identical twins share the same genetic makeup, this research strongly points to a genetic connection and freckling.

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When the skin spends extended time in the sun, freckles may form.
When the skin spends extended time in the sun, freckles may form.

According to some experts there are two types of freckles. One kind occurs from simple sun exposure; the other type of freckle, which is often larger and darker in color, is the result of sunburn. Freckles usually form in the areas that receive the most sun exposure, such as the face, arms and hands as well as on the legs. While most brown freckles are most common, freckles can also be reddish or black.

Studies of identical twins show that such twins are very similar in their development of freckles.
Studies of identical twins show that such twins are very similar in their development of freckles.

Some find freckling to be a charming feature, while others are bothered by the appearance of freckles. Use of a high protection sunscreen, avoidance of the sun during peak hours, and wearing hats and other protective clothing can help to eliminate the formation of freckles. Once they form, freckles can be treated by using certain creams or bleach. Removal through cryosurgery or laser surgery is another possibility.

According to experts, freckles are not cancerous. Still, most people cannot distinguish the difference between freckles and other harmful brown spots that may in fact be cancerous. A qualified dermatologist can make this determination. Since skin cancer is the most common type of cancer, an annual skin exam is often advised, especially for those who have a tendency to easily form freckles.

Light-skinned people with red hair are often prone to freckles.
Light-skinned people with red hair are often prone to freckles.

Discussion Comments

turquoise

@SarahGen-- Like the article said, there are different kinds of freckles.

The larger, darker and raised ones are a result of sun exposure. Hereditary brown freckles tend to be smaller, flat and get darker in summer and lighter in winter, but they're always there.

The ones caused by sun can be treated with prescription creams and by avoiding sunlight. I'm guessing that's what you have.

SarahGen

@ddljohn-- I developed freckles only recently, I never had any for twenty years before this. If it was hereditary, I would have developed them sooner.

ddljohn

My doctor said that my brown freckles are genetic. Apparently, some people have a different gene that makes them more prone to melanin production in their skin (I think mostly people with fair skin). It's true that sunlight can cause and worsen brown freckles, but the underlying cause is genetic.

I used to be ashamed of my freckles before but after I learned this, I've come to accept them. Many of my friends say that my freckles make me look cute, so I'm actually starting to like them now.

I do wear a lot of sunblock though-- during all seasons-- because I don't want more freckles or darker freckles. That's what my doctor suggested anyway.

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