Things are finally warming back up which means more time outside enjoying the weather and, as a result for some, more freckles popping back up like they’ve just awoken from hibernation.
It’s easy to not give them a second thought since there’s nothing inherently negative about having freckles and, with the cutesie, colloquial names we give them (sun kisses, angel kisses, skin stars, etc.), they actually seem pretty fun.
But whether you’re pro freckles or anti freckles, the science behind why seasonal polka dots appear on certain skin types is actually really fascinating.
What are Freckles?
Essentially, freckles are just areas of your skin with high concentrations of melanin. Melanin is that lovely substance that provides coloring to your skin, eyes, and hair.
Cells called melanocytes produce melanin and, like many things in nature, they are activated by sunlight. The best part about melanocytes, and therefore about freckles themselves, is that they are part of your skin’s natural defense against harmful UV radiation. They activate to darken your skin which makes it a slight bit less vulnerable.
So when someone sees your fresh crop of freckles and says that you’ve been getting too much sun, you can tell them you’re actually getting less sun because of the freckles. You might have to follow up with a further explanation to avoid sounding like a loon, but we’ll leave that up to your discretion.
Why do only certain people get freckles?
The ability to produce freckles stems directly from your genetic makeup. There is a specific gene (MC1R) that gives your body orders regarding the production of proteins that regulate the pigments in your hair in skin. If for whatever reason this gene isn’t fully on its game, pigments can build up, resulting in freckles.
This is certainly not to say that freckles are a bad thing since the science is still out on whether or not this MC1R gene is solely responsible for freckle production. So apologies to all those who want freckles but don’t have them and vice versa, that’s just the luck of the genetic draw.
There are also vastly varying degrees of the amount and types of freckles one can get, which is why some people tan, others freckle, and still others tan and freckle (lucky!).
Also, since they are a natural defense against the sun, it is far more common for lighter-skinned people to develop freckles than darker-skinned people. Those of us with darker skin already have a lot of the natural pigment protection and therefore freckle less often.
So there you have it. Freckles are your friends popping up to defend you from the sun. Although the science behind what freckles are and where they come from has only gotten to the point where scientists most likely threw their hands in the air and said “good enough”, we can take solace in the fact that they’re probably working on something more important.
But we’re certainly not saying you should solely rely on the hard work of your freckles. The skin’s natural ability to produce melanin to defend itself against the constant barrage of harmful UV radiation is a commendable effort, but not nearly enough to do the job in full.
Freckles or no freckles, you need to give your melanocytes a hand and always apply an SPF before braving the beautiful, sunny weather.