Are My Freckles an Indicator of Skin Cancer?

Are My Freckles an Indicator of Skin Cancer?

Introduction

Freckles are all the rage now. They’re a sign of uniqueness, self-love, freshness, the sun, youth… just about all the things we love. Of course, not all of us are lucky enough to be born with a smattering of cheeky brown dots across our nose and face, and some of us spend hours under the sun in hopes of developing some brown dots on our face. And whenever summer swings around, we come home after a day on the beach eager to add a new series of brown spots on another area of the face. 

However, it is important to remember that if you’re developing any kind of spots from being under the sun, you have a high risk of getting sun damage. Furthermore, sun damage has the potential to result in skin cancer, which is a lot more common than you might think. Did you know that one in five Americans is diagnosed with a form of skin cancer each year? That’s a whopping 20% of the population! Any kind of cancer is no joke, and if you’ve been noticing more brown patches or spots than usual, you might want to be careful about it.

Freckles are more hereditary than an indicator of cancer

If you’re someone who is naturally predisposed to freckling, don’t worry! Freckles aren’t a predictor of skin cancer if you have genetically inherited them from your family. Genetic freckles are called ephelides, and they are largely harmless.

Freckles are a genetic trait inherited from your family; they are usually found in people with a fairer complexion and the genes for red hair and green eyes also tend to go along with freckles. The Caucasians and East Asians are more likely to have freckles as they have lighter skin tones. There is actually a freckle gene called MC1R which determines whether or not you have natural freckles. People with the MC1R gene will produce freckles when exposed to the sun. If you have the gene and you go into the sun, the sun will activate the gene, and your freckles will show. Conversely, people without the freckle gene will not produce freckles even if they go under the sun. 

Freckles are important for people who have them genetically as the freckles are meant to protect their skin from the sun. Those with the freckle gene are more likely to have fairer skin that is more susceptible to burning from the sun. Hence, the melanocytes, which are the pigment-producing cells, produce more melanin on the vulnerable areas of the face such as the nose bridge and cheeks, which are typically where freckles form.

There is another type of freckle, also known as sunspots

Sunspots are also known as liver spots and age spots, and they are a result of years of sun damage to your skin. The medical term for it is solar lentigines. Solar lentigines look like flat and smooth brown dots on the parts of your face and body that are most exposed to the sun. With any other form of pigmentation, it is the result of the melanocytes producing excessive melanin, and in this case, it is in response to sun exposure. Over time, the deposits of melanin will build up and form clumps that result in sunspots. Sunspots are not always harmful, but if you notice that a sunspot is raised, that might be an indication of something more serious.

Should I worry about my freckles?

You don’t usually have to worry about your freckles, but you might want to keep an eye on them. People with freckles are more predisposed to skin cancer, so if you have natural freckles, check that they are not getting darker or evolving in size and flatness. If you are someone who has developed sunspots over time, you’ll also want to keep a watch on them to ensure they are not changing and getting bigger. There are four main types of skin cancer, ranked from least to most serious. 

1. Basal cell carcinoma 

Basal cell carcinoma appears in the form of marks that resemble scars, bumps, small skin growths, sores, and patches in the areas that usually get the most sun exposure such as your head, the shoulders, and back area. Basal cell carcinoma doesn’t usually spread to the rest of the body, and it is the most common type of cancer with over 4 million people contracting it annually. It has a 2% chance of spreading. 

2. Squamous cell carcinoma

Squamous cell carcinoma manifests as patches, skin growths, and sores on smaller parts of the body that also get sun, like on and around the ears and hands. Squamous cell carcinoma is less prevalent than basal cell carcinoma at 1 million cases per year. However, this type of cancer has a 5% chance of spreading to the rest of the body if untreated. 

3. Merkel cell carcinoma:

This is a very rare but severe type of skin cancer that affects around 2,500 people a year. It starts in the hormone-producing cells that lie just underneath the skin and hair follicles. Merkel cell carcinoma first occurs as a firm lump in the skin that is painless, and it usually appears on the neck, head, or eyelid area. It is severe due to how rapidly it can spread to the rest of the body as it is aggressive and fast-growing. 

4. Melanoma

Melanoma forms in the melanocytes, the pigment-producing cells, which is why signs of melanoma often include dark-colored bumps or spots.  The early signs of melanoma include abnormal-looking moles that can form even in parts of the body that don’t usually get sun exposure, such as the thighs, small of the back, and chest area. Since the symptoms of melanoma are similar to sunspots and freckling, some people might not be able to tell the difference between a mole, sunspot, freckle, and potentially cancerous growth. In these instances, follow this simple guide to better identify whether your freckle or sunspot might be cancerous: 

Asymmetry: If you can halve the spot or freckle and they match up, it is symmetrical. Otherwise, it is asymmetrical. Asymmetrical moles are a warning sign. 

Border: If the border of the spot is uneven and bumpy, this is a potential sign of a cancerous one. If it is smooth, it is probably benign. 

Color: If your patches, spots, or moles come in a wide range of colors, that is a sign of something more serious.

Diameter: If the spot is bigger than a quarter of an inch, it is potentially cancerous. 

Evolving: If the spot changes in size, shape, and becomes raised, it is potentially cancerous.

Conclusion

Freckles are not something you have to worry about, but with all things skin-related, it is always best to get it checked if you are unsure. Remember that sun damage can definitely cause skin cancer, so take the necessary precautions when going about under the sun.

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