Spotted: The 411 on Birthmarks, Moles, Freckles & More
Moles, freckles and birthmarks—they all might look similar, but turns out they aren’t. So, what’s the story behind them? While these pigmented dots on your face and body may have some resemblance to one another, they’re all quite different in a variety of ways. If you’re curious to learn a little bit more about the various spots on your skin, you’ve come to the right place. Read on for tips on how to spot the difference between birthmarks, moles, freckles, and more.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN BIRTHMARKS, MOLES, AND FRECKLES
At first glance, a birthmark may look like a freckle or a mole, especially if you don’t know how to discern between them. The truth is, they may all look the same but are in fact different. To get to the bottom of it, we asked board-certified dermatologist, and Skincare.com consultant, Dr. Dhaval Bhanusali what sets apart a birthmark vs. a mole vs. a freckle. “In simplest terms, freckles are usually skin cells that have extra pigment, often from the sun,” he says. “Moles tend to be raised (though not always) and increase in size from childhood onwards. Birthmarks can range from pigmented to vascular lesions that you are born with. They are usually caused by an issue with cell migration during initial development.”
THE 411 ON MOLES
As Dr. Bhanusali mentioned, moles are pigmented lesions. They can be flat and smooth or raised and bumpy, and they indicate areas of skin where pigment has clumped together. According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), moles are usually small in size—usually less than the size of a pencil eraser—and can be different colors, including pink, skin-colored, or black, and shapes like oval and round. You can find them just about anywhere on your skin: your scalp, armpits, and even the tiniest spaces between your toes and fingers. Typically, they develop before the age of 40, and some may even disappear with age. Keep in mind that if you are born with a mole, it is considered a birthmark.
According to the Mayo Clinic, most moles are harmless. In rare cases, moles may become cancerous. The key is to monitor your moles and other pigmented patches for changes that may indicate melanoma (more on that later).
THE 411 ON FRECKLES
Have you ever spent the day outdoors only to come back inside and notice spots around your nose and cheeks? Those spots, which are usually brown and flat, are called freckles. They’re caused by an increase in melanin, which gives our skin its color. When your body senses your skin being damaged by the sun’s UV rays, it produces more melanin in an effort to protect it from harm. This may result in an all-over color—like a tan—or small patches of freckles in some areas. Those with light-colored skin may be more prone to freckles when exposed to the sun. In some cases, reduced sun exposure may fade the intensity of your freckles.
“Freckles are commonly seen in youth and are spot-like flat pigmented speckles where the pigmented cells of the skin called melanocytes become active in response to ultraviolet sunlight,” says plastic surgeon, and Skincare.com consultant, Dr. Peter Schmid. “Freckles typically develop in individuals with very fair skin types.”
Editor’s note: Don’t like the look of your freckles? Help reduce your chances of getting them in the first place by wearing Broad Spectrum SPF 15 or higher each and every day (and reapplying at least every two hours) even when it’s overcast. For added protection, wear protective clothing, seek shade, and avoid peak sun hours—between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.—when the rays are strongest.
THE 411 ON BIRTHMARKS
True to its name, birthmarks are exactly what they sound like: marks on your skin from birth (or soon after birth). They come in all different shapes, sizes, and colors and can crop up anywhere on the skin. Some may be so little and flesh-colored that you won’t notice them without a magnifying lens, while others are bigger and darker in appearance. Some stay on the skin permanently and some may disappear over time.
“Birthmarks are moles present at birth or in the early childhood years as red or blue-ish vascular or pigmented lesions,” says Dr. Schmid. “A common birthmark named the ‘stork’s bite’ is a reddish patch at the base of the neck in the infant. It can be of significant shape and size and grow hair.”
As for what causes birthmarks, the answer isn’t quite clear. The good news is that birthmarks are usually harmless, but if you’re concerned about one it’s always smart to check with your dermatologist.
HOW TO CHECK YOUR SPOTS FOR MELANOMA
While birthmarks, moles, and freckles are typically harmless, it’s important to monitor all spots on your skin to help ensure they don’t transform into something worse, like melanoma. Dr. Schmid notes that all types of lesions should be medically evaluated due to their predisposition to advance to cancer at a later age.
“Skin cancer can often mimic benign-appearing skin growths,” he says. ”Skin lesions that demonstrate progressive growth, change in color, itch, burn, appear crusted, develop into a red patch, form a sore, bleed, ulcerate, or demonstrated poor healing characteristics should be examined by a professional physician or skin care expert. Typically, melanomas present as darkly pigmented, purplish or black moles. They may develop as a new spot on normal skin, or from a pre-existing brown mole.”
When it comes to checking your spots and marks, Dr. Schmid recommends following the “ABCDE’s.” This ABCDE guide can help determine if a mole or spot may be melanoma.
A stands for asymmetrical shape, meaning your mole isn’t even on both sides.
B stands for border. Look for moles with irregular, scalloped borders.
C stands for color. Does your mole have an uneven color?
D stands for diameter. Is your mole larger than about 6 millimeters?
E stands for evolving. Regularly check to make sure your mole isn’t growing abnormally in size, shape, or color.
Have a spot that’s painful or itchy? The Mayo Clinic recommends getting a checkup with your dermatologist. If you have a spot on your skin that shows any of the signs listed on the ABCDE guide, schedule an appointment with your doctor ASAP. Even if you think your spot seems fine, it’s always in your best interest to see a dermatologist a for annual spot checks for safe measure and peace of mind.