Spots mean different things to different people: Brown marks on adults’ skin may be an unwelcome sign of aging, but a child's freckled nose is both pretty and precious. Brown spots can appear on skin of any color, while freckles are most likely found on fair skin. Yet despite their differences, both brown spots and freckles are caused by the concentration of color pigmentation in the skin.
Why Skin Changes Color
Melanin is the pigment that gives skin and hair its color; cells produce melanin pigment and supply it to the outer barrier of skin. When ultraviolet sun rays activate the melanin, the pigment attempts to protect the skin from overexposure, resulting in tanning and further darkening of spots. Hyperpigmentation occurs when excessive pigmentation forms deposits, creating patches of various sizes that are darker than surrounding skin. Both freckles and brown spots are forms of hyperpigmentation.
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Freckles are small dark spots that can occur anywhere on the skin. If enough sun exposure damages the skin’s melanin-producing cells, the skin creates little patches of melanin pigment. Freckles can appear even in young children and are especially common on fair-skinned and red-haired people. The tendency to develop freckles may be inherited. Freckles generally become darker when the skin is exposed to sunlight.
Often called age spots or liver spots, these marks are generally larger than freckles. Unlike freckles, which are seen in children and in adults of all ages, these flat or slightly raised brown spots may occur on the face and hands as the result of aging. They also can be the product of years of exposure to UV rays from sunlight and are likely to appear on areas of the skin that have been most exposed to the sun.
For people who dislike the appearance of brown spots on their skin, a dermatologist can recommend products to fade them. Products containing tretinoin or Retin A or a chemical peel with trichloroacetic acid can fade spots, while freezing with liquid nitrogen and laser treatments are more advanced, costly approaches to reducing brown marks. Over-the-counter fade creams are less expensive but not as effective as peels and prescription products. Because freckles are more widespread than brown spots, local fade products and procedures are generally not appropriate. For years, however, people have used home remedies such as lemon juice, fruit or vegetable masks, honey or vitamin E to fade freckles. Protection from the sun with sunscreen, long-sleeved clothing and wide-brimmed hats is the best way to prevent spots from forming and to keep freckles and brown marks from getting darker.
Most Spots Are Harmless
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Brown spots and freckles are generally benign, but any change in the appearance of these spots should be examined by a dermatologist. A change in the size or color of a brown spot could be a symptom of skin cancer, but a variety of other causes can produce skin discolorations. To diagnose a serious condition, a physician can perform a biopsy, removing a small sample of the affected area to be tested in a lab.
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