Where do freckles come from? Why do we accumulate freckles as time goes on? Why do they sometimes disappear? Once you understand what freckles are and the biological processes that create them, it all makes a little more sense. 

Freckles are basically small specks of a tan. They’re produced by melanin, a protein that the body makes to protect the skin from the sun. Melanin -- a word derived from the Greek melanos, meaning dark -- is a pigment manufactured by melanocytes, or cells found in the skin, eyes, and elsewhere. Ultraviolet radiation triggers melanocytes to make more melanin, which forms a shield, absorbing harmful light before it has a chance to mess with your DNA.

The amount of melanin in your skin determines its color. In other words, melanin gives you a tan.

Because freckles are basically concentrations of melanin, they’re affected by exposure to the sun. This is why they often show up in the summer. It’s also why freckles can fade and why you can suddenly develop freckles halfway through your life.

Freckles appear in people of all ethnicities, but most often in people with lighter complexions. The reason is bound up with the history of people and migration. A gene called MC1R is coded for darker skin; it’s involved in the production of melanin, whose biological function is to protect the body against ultraviolet light. The research shows that as humans moved into colder places, where sunlight has lower ultraviolet content, the protective mechanism became less useful. People actually needed to absorb enough Vitamin D from the sun, instead of shielding themselves against it. And so, according to the research, a variation in the gene occurred. This is why freckles are most often associated with people of lighter complexion; the word freckle actually comes from Old Norse. Freckles are often found on people with red or light hair because the same gene controls the pigment balance -- the color -- of both hair and skin. 

Freckles don’t indicate a problem. They can be a sign of too much sun, but aren’t always. Too much sun can also exacerbate melasma, a chronic condition that appears as splotchy patches on the skin. While melasma isn’t necessarily harmful either, it’s an indication of a deeper problem: a hormonal imbalance. Millions of Americans have melasma, and many are women who got it during pregnancy or while they were on birth control. There are many ways to control melasma, including Vitamin C; check out our blog post about its properties here

Freckles and melasma aren’t serious problems the way cancerous moles and melanomas are. A dermatologist will be able to tell what’s causing the pigmentation in your skin and put you on an appropriate skincare regimen. Whether you have freckles or melasma or moles or none of these, it’s always a good idea to wear sunscreen. Applying broad-spectrum is the cheapest way to protect your skin -- and your bank account, too.

Written by Allyson Welch

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