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Are Your Brown Spots Lentigines or Freckles?

Whether or not you’ve been enjoying fun in the sun with adequate sun protection, you may still notice your skin color darkening, and not always evenly. If you’ve noticed brown spots recently, you may be observing the development of freckles or solar lentigines. Which do you have? That depends on your natural skin tone and age.

Freckles and Lentigines—What’s the Difference?

Freckles (medical term: ephelis [singular] or ephelides [plural]) are: 

  • Small, flat, mostly symmetrical, circular brown spots most often seen on the face and areas of the body that receive a lot of sun exposure (especially in people with a light/fair complexion).
  • Caused by increased pigment (melanin) production in the melanocytes which then “bleeds” into neighboring keratinocytes, a different kind of skin cell that does not produce any pigment.

Solar lentigines (singular: lentigo), also called “age spots,” are:

  • Flat brown spots that are typically larger than freckles and may be less symmetrical in shape.
  • Caused by increased volume of melanocytes—the skin cells that produce melanin—in a small area.

Lentigines are most often seen on the face and hands and most commonly on people with naturally light skin.

Your Brown Spots Are Likely Freckles If…

Freckles arise as a result of increased sun exposure and melanin production. So, your brown spots are likely freckles if:

  • They appear when you receive more sun exposure (summer)
  • They fade or disappear completely over the course of fall/winter when sun exposure decreases and keratinocytes are replaced through natural skin cell turnover
  • They fade or disappear as you age (often they are less noticeable by your 30s)

Good news: freckles are not dangerous and require no treatment.

Your Brown Spots Are Likely Solar Lentigines If…

Solar lentigines are most often the result of sun damage—i.e., cumulative sun exposure over the course of decades. Unlike freckles, solar lentigines do not disappear when sun exposure stops. So, your brown spots may be solar lentigines if:

  • They are larger than freckles (the diameter of a pencil eraser or larger)
  • They are roughly circular in shape but not perfect circles
  • They do not disappear over the course of the fall/winter months

Although no one really wants “age spots,” these areas of hyperpigmentation are not dangerous, so no treatment is needed. However, lentigines often respond well to lightening treatments, such as:

  • Retinol
  • Alpha hydroxy acids
  • Vitamin C
  • Azelaic acid

A powerful combination these lightening ingredients can be found in Hale CosmeceuticalsSB-7 Skin Brightener.

When You Should Get Brown Spots Checked

Freckles and true age spots are not dangerous, but some skin cancers or pre-cancerous conditions can look very similar. You are always better served by erring on the side of caution and having areas of hyperpigmentation checked by your doctor or dermatologist if you observe:

  • Changes in color (e.g. darkening or uneven coloring)
  • Changes in texture (e.g. raised borders, scaly texture, etc.)
  • Changes in shape (e.g. getting bigger, becoming more noticeably asymmetrical)

Although sun protection will not lighten freckles or lentigines that have already developed, it can reduce further sun damage that can incite abnormal cell growth or malignancy. So, before you head outside, always make sure you have on adequate SPF and other protective gear.

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