To the naked eye, sunspots and freckles look very similar; they're both dark marks that appear on your skin and can enhance after sun exposure. But in reality, they are two separate conditions with different causes. Understanding the difference between sunspots and freckles is essential to your skin's health and can help you prevent sun-damaged skin.

Sunspots vs. Freckles

Sunspots, also referred to as solar lentigines, are brown spots on your skin that develop in response to sun exposure. This may be alarming, but true sunspots are not cancerous. Sunspots arise as a result of an increase in the number of pigment-producing cells (melanocytes), which, in turn, produce melanin. They can appear anywhere on your body, but they commonly present on areas that get frequent sun exposure, like your face, neck, forearms, shins, upper back, and chest. You can identify a sunspot by three things: at what age it appears, its size, and its shape. In contrast to freckles, sunspots tend to appear later in life—primarily after the age of 30—and they are typically larger lesions (greater than 5 mm) with a slightly irregular or poorly demarcated border.

Freckles, also referred to as ephelides, are non-cancerous, small, light brown, or tan marks on your skin as a result of an increase in the amount of pigment produced by melanocytes. Unlike sunspots, the number of melanocytes does not increase when freckles occur. Freckles are similar to sunspots in that they can appear in response to sun exposure, and people with certain skin types are more prone to developing them. But, freckles are hereditary and can occur at any age. They're activated by sun exposure and are more prominent during the summer months. Freckles may fade or appear significantly less noticeable during the winter, whereas sunspots don't fade in the winter.

Signs of Skin Cancer

If you have several freckles and sunspots, this can be a sign that your skin is sensitive and susceptible to sun damage and, ultimately, skin cancer. Though both freckles and sunspots are considered benign, it's important to have yearly full-body skin examinations by a board-certified Dermatologist. In between doctor visits, you should also examine your own skin and keep an eye out for signs of melanoma and other skin cancers, like the following:

  1. Irregular or ill-defined borders: If you cannot clearly make out the border of the spot or if it has a smudged appearance, this may be a concern.
  2. Asymmetry: Draw an imaginary line through the middle of the spot—do the two halves look different? If so, this may be a sign of an atypical lesion or melanoma.
  3. Multiple colors: Sunspots and freckles are typically one shade of tan, light brown, or brown. So, if you spot a lesion that contains multiple colors, you should have your Dermatologist check it out.
  4. Evolution: Sunspots and freckles usually stay the same shape and size without change. Spots that evolve in size, shape, appearance, or become symptomatic (i.e., bleed, crust, or itch) likely need to be further evaluated by a Dermatologist.

Management of Sunspots vs. Freckles

Even though freckles and sunspots are considered benign, you may not like the look of them. So, you should develop sun safety practices to prevent them and make them less prominent. Limiting your time in the sun, wearing sun-protective clothing, using a broad-spectrum sunscreen every day, and reapplying every 80 minutes is key to protecting your skin from sun damage.

While freckles are hereditary and cannot be removed, there are steps you can take both at home and at a doctor's office to tackle sunspots. First, you should discuss with your Dermatologist and determine which ingredients are safe to use based on your skin's type, color, and tone to avoid any rashes, allergic reactions, or irritation. Then, with the help of your doctor, you can make a game plan to zap away your sunspots. Your Dermatologist may recommend skin lightening topicals, cryotherapy, chemical peels, or laser treatment.

Understanding the difference between sunspots and freckles is important when it comes to protecting your skin from sun damage and preventing skin cancer. Treat your skin like you do other aspects of your health: care for it, monitor it, and keep an eye out for any changes. Staying vigilant about your skin's health will help you maintain glowing skin and improve your overall well-being, too.

Author

  • My name is Dr. Rina Allawh and I am a Board-Certified Dermatologist in the Philadelphia suburbs, with a special interest in the unique challenges for pigmented skin with regards to anti-aging, hair loss, sun care and acne. Founder and co-host of "Skin the Surface" podcast which serves as an educational resource about skin-related issues, a tool to empower people to take a more active role in their skin health including skin cancer prevention, and an outlet to discuss some of the current hot topics in dermatology.