Freckles, freckles, go away

Dear Alice,

When I was young, I had no freckles. As I got older, my face began to form freckles. Also, darker freckles are forming. Is there a way I can remove the freckles or stop them from forming?


Dear Bobbie, 

You, Ron Weasley, and many other folks have one thing in common: freckles. Although many people share this commonality, not all freckles are created equal. Based on their color, shape, and size, freckles generally fall into two categories: ephelides and solar lentigines (more on these in a bit). While some people find these harmless constellations charming and unique, others may wish for a freckle-free face. Although a vanishing spell for freckles doesn’t exist, certain products and procedures may lighten their appearance. That said, for freckles that appear due to increased exposure to the sun, prevention is better than a cure. Therefore, practicing proper sun protection is the best way to stop them from forming. Read on to learn more! 

Freckles are usually found on areas of your body exposed to the sun, like your face, arms, and neck. They are caused by the overproduction of melanin, a pigment that your cells make to protect your skin from sun damage. People with fair complexions may produce more melanin when their skin is exposed to the sun, causing them to develop freckles. Although these spots look similar, there are actually two types of freckles: 

  • Ephelides: These small spots (pencil or crayon tip-sized) may be red, tan, or brown in color. They often darken during the summer and fade in winter. More commonly found on people with lighter hair and skin, these freckles tend to be fickle—they usually appear in early childhood, increase during teenage years, and may fade with age. 
  • Solar lentigines: Also known as sunspots, age spots, or liver spots. These small patches of tan to dark brown skin are generally larger than ephelides (may reach half an inch in diameter). Unlike ephelides, they remain the same color regardless of season. As these spots are the result of cumulative sun exposure over time, they tend to occur more frequently as you age. 

It's also important to note that some other forms of skin pigmentation may also resemble freckles. For instance, acne, eczema, and injuries can leave discolored skin behind after healing, also known as post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. Additionally, hormonal changes, pregnancy, and certain medications can also cause dark skin patches called melasma

As freckles mainly develop from sun exposure, the best way to avoid them is to protect yourself from the sun. This includes: 

  • Applying a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher on all exposed skin before going outside, even on cloudy days and in the winter. 
  • Reapplying sunscreen every two hours or sooner if you’re swimming or sweating. 
  • Wearing a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses with UV protection, and long-sleeved or UV-protection clothing while outside. 
  • Avoiding peak UV hours (between 10am and 4pm). 
  • Avoiding all forms of tanning. 

List adapted from Cleveland Clinic 

If you wish to fade your freckles, it’s recommended to speak with a dermatologist or health care provider to discuss the best treatment options for you. Some options they may recommend include: 

  • Topical treatments: Retinols and retinoids increase skin cell turnover and can help to lighten the appearance of dark spots. Many skin-lightening products also contain an ingredient called hydroquinone, which disrupts melanin production. It’s recommended to test the product on a smaller area of skin first before applying it fully as these chemicals may cause skin inflammation and irritation. It’s also best to avoid products containing mercury, which can damage the kidneys and nerves. 
  • Chemical peels: These chemical solutions remove the top layer of skin cells and encourage the growth of new skin cells underneath. Some people may experience skin irritation when using them. 
  • Laser resurfacing: Lasers destroy melanin-producing cells or remove the top layer of skin. Side effects include swelling, redness, and scarring. 
  • Cryotherapy: Liquid nitrogen is used to freeze and destroy skin tissue. It may sometimes cause permanent whitening of treated areas. 
  • Dermabrasion: An exfoliating agent is used to smoothen spots away. 

Although freckles are almost always harmless, it’s good to note that they can also resemble other skin changes that could indicate skin cancer. Melanoma (a type of skin cancer) and skin spots like freckles and moles tend to look similar and have common risk factors like sun exposure. As skin spots can sometimes develop into melanomas, it’s recommended to speak with a health care provider or dermatologist if your freckles or spots change in size, shape, or color. Performing a skin self-exam (perhaps after a bath or shower) to check for unusual growths or changes can also help to detect skin issues early. 

While it’s good to keep an eye on your spots, they’re one of the many unique features that make you, you. Here’s to celebrating your freckled (sun-speckled) self! 

Last updated Mar 15, 2024
Originally published Apr 26, 2001