How to Tell the Difference between Sunspots and Freckles

How to Tell the Difference between Sunspots and Freckles


Freckle or sunspot? Sometimes it’s super hard to tell the difference! Both are roundish, brownish spots that appear on our faces. Both seem to be linked to spending time under the sun, so what’s the difference between them? There are a lot of differences between freckles and sunspots actually! While both are a form of hyperpigmentation, meaning the result of the overproduction of melanin, they form due to different reasons and have different results. Let’s understand what causes freckles and sunspots, and then discuss how to effectively treat them.

What are freckles?

Freckles are formed when the number of melanocytes increases. Melanocytes are the cells that produce the pigment melanin, and melanin is the pigment that gives our skin color.  A greater number of melanocytes logically means there will also be a greater production of melanin,  hence darkening the skin in the form of freckles. 

Freckles will usually appear as flat, circular spots that vary in shades and tones of browns, beige, and reds. These small dots are scattered all over the face and are more commonly found across the cheeks and bridge of the nose. Freckles, when they are ephelides, may become darker in the hotter summer months when there is more sun to be exposed to, and they may become slightly lighter during the winter season when there is less sun. 

Freckles are usually a genetic trait inherited from your family; they are usually found in people with a fairer complexion. Having red hair and green eyes tend to be accompanied by this genetic trait. Caucasians and Asians are more likely to have freckles as they have lighter skin tones. Additionally, there is actually a freckle gene! It is called MC1R and it will determine whether or not you have freckles. People who have the MC1R gene will produce freckles when exposed to the sun. Think of the sun as an activation agent. If you have the gene and you go into the sun, the sun will expose your freckles and they 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 as a hereditary gene as freckles are meant to protect your skin from the sun. If you have the freckle gene, you are more likely to have fairer skin that is more susceptible to burning from the sun. Hence, the melanocytes produce more melanin on the vulnerable areas of the face such as the nose bridge and cheeks, which are typically where freckles form. Freckles are hence protecting your skin by absorbing the UV rays that would cause damage.

What are sunspots?

Sunspots are also known as liver spots and age spots, and they are a result of years of sun damage to your skin. Sunspots occur as 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 build up and form clumps that result in sunspots. You are more likely to get sunspots in your thirties and forties. 

Sunspots are not harmful, but if you notice that a sunspot is raised, that might be an indication of something more serious. Sometimes it is a case of melanoma, a cancer of the skin. If you think your sunspots are looking a bit abnormal, seek medical advice and diagnosis.

Main differences between freckles and sunspots


1. Freckles are genetic, sunspots are not 


Freckles are caused by the MC1R gene as noted above, sunspots are not. You need a freckle gene for freckles to show up, but sunspots can happen to anyone regardless of a gene. 


2. Freckles can occur from a young age, sunspots show up later in life


Since freckles are dependent on genetics, you can have freckles from young as long as you have been exposed to the sun. Sunspots on the other hand, only develop in your mid-thirties and forties after an accumulation of sun exposure. Hence, if you are still young and have some kind of flat, smooth brown spots on your face, these are probably freckles. 


3. Freckles can fade, sunspots usually do not


Freckles usually start to fade away as you get older, which is probably why we associate freckles with youth and vitality! Sunspots on the other hand, only crop up much later and they do not lighten. That’s why people fear getting sunspots, not only is it a sign of age but they are also notoriously hard to get rid of. 

How to reduce freckles and sunspots?

Freckles typically can fade away, so they are not usually an issue. Furthermore, freckles are usually lighter than sunspots so they do not really cause too much obstruction on the face. If you really do want to lighten your freckles, you can opt for topical serums and creams to do so. 

Hydroquinone is one of the strongest and effective prescription-grade ingredients used to reduce any kind of pigmentation and is the most effective topical product. Otherwise, you can get a series of chemical peels or microdermabrasion which will be more effective but also more costly.

For sunspots, they are much harder to reduce and lighten. To effectively get rid of them, you will need to undergo laser treatment or microdermabrasion alongside topical treatments. Laser treatment involves a dermatologist using a laser device to target the dark spots. The laser emits a light that gets absorbed by the melanocytes which kill the cell. This hence effectively removes the sunspot as the cell that contains the pigment causing the dark spot is killed off. It is a very costly procedure that requires multiple sessions for the best results.


Sunspots and freckles are two very different conditions although both involve hyperpigmentation and melanin. Knowing the differences is key to finding the most appropriate ways to deal with them.

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