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Are freckles genetic? What you need to know

Our experts explain what you need to know about these spots, and how you can reduce their appearance, if you wish.

Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Dec 14, 2023 • 8 min read
Medically reviewed by Erin Pate, NP-C
Young woman with frechles
Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Dec 14, 2023 • 8 min read
Medically reviewed by Erin Pate, NP-C
We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

In this article

What are freckles? 
More

Freckles—those adorable little spots sprinkled across your face, arms, and body are considered a charming hallmark of youth. But have you ever wondered where they come from? Are freckles something you inherit from your parents, or are they simply the result of environmental factors? 

Curology’s skincare experts are here to explain everything you want to know. Let’s dive into the fascinating world of freckles—here, we’ll explore their genetic basis, their causes, and how they may be influenced by external factors. 

What are freckles? 

Freckles, also known as ephelides, are small, flat spots that usually appear on sun-exposed areas of your body, such as your face, arms, and shoulders. They’re typically tan, light brown, or dark brown in color and are more common during the summer months. 

While freckles tend to be prevalent in individuals with lighter skin tones, they are not exclusive to them and can appear as darker brown spots on people with darker skin.¹

There are two types of spots that are commonly referred to as freckles: ephelides and solar lentigines. Ephelides are referred to as true freckles, whereas solar lentigines are also called age or liver spots.

Ephelides

Ephelides—or true freckles—are small, flat, light brown spots, and are more common if you have lighter skin and blond or red hair. These spots tend to become more prominent during the summer months, and may fade in the winter. Ephelides are largely genetically determined, but can be induced by sunlight.²

Solar lentigines

On the other hand, solar lentigines are called age spots or liver spots, and are more prevalent than ephelides. They are larger, darker, and more persistent pigmented spots that usually develop on sun-exposed areas of your skin as you age, and are more common in males. These spots aren’t influenced by seasonal changes like ephelides but they are also induced by sunlight.³

Both ephelides and solar lentigines are referred to as freckles, but they have different characteristics. Now that we know what types of freckles are out there, let’s get to the big question: What causes them?

What causes freckles? 

Freckles are caused by a combination of genetic factors and sun exposure. Ephelides are largely genetically determined but can also be induced by sunlight, whereas solar lentigines are predominantly caused by sun exposure and photodamage of the skin.⁴

Freckles are formed by an overproduction of melanin, the pigment responsible for giving your hair, skin, and eyes their color.⁵ Melanin is produced by the protective cells in your skin called melanocytes, which protect your skin from sun damage by absorbing ultraviolet light (UV). Freckles often persist after you experience severe blistering sunburns.⁶ 

Preventing freckles 

To prevent freckles or keep them from becoming more prominent, you should minimize sun exposure and use sunscreen to protect your skin from the harmful effects of ultraviolet (UV) rays.

The Curology Sunscreen offers broad-spectrum protection against both UVA and UVB rays. By using a reliable sunscreen like this, you can shield your skin from the sun and may reduce the likelihood of developing new freckles or making existing ones more prominent.

To further prevent freckles, consider adopting the following sun protection measures recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):⁷

  • Seek shade: Look for shade, especially during midday hours (10am-4pm), when UV rays are strongest and can cause the most damage.

  • Wear protective clothing: Cover your skin with long-sleeved shirts, long pants, and skirts to provide a physical barrier against the sun's rays.

  • Use sunscreen: Apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher — an SPF of 30 is preferable — on all exposed skin, even on cloudy or cool days. Reapply every two hours and after swimming or sweating.

  • Wear a hat: Choose a wide-brimmed hat that shades your face, head, ears, and neck.

If you take preventative measures to protect your skin from the sun but still develop freckles, there are a few treatment options you can try.

Available treatments for freckles 

If you love your freckles, there’s absolutely no reason to hide them—we believe they can be a part of what makes your skin look uniquely beautiful! That said, there are treatments available if you wish to diminish or eliminate freckles. The most common ones are retinoids, chemical peels, and lasers.

Let’s take a closer look at each.

Retinoids

Research shows that retinoids—a prescription medicine—are a treatment option that can help get rid of freckles.⁸ Retinoids can help reduce discoloration and pigmentation of your skin by properly distributing melanin.⁹

Chemical peels

Chemical peels are an effective skin resurfacing technique that can be used to homogenize pigmentation and reduce textural unevenness.¹⁰ This treatment must be done by a licensed dermatology professional. By applying a chemical solution that causes the top layer of skin to peel off, new and more evenly pigmented skin is revealed underneath. This process can help in reducing the appearance of your freckles, resulting in a more uniform skin tone and improved texture.

Laser

Lasers are another in-office treatment option that have been demonstrated to effectively reduce freckles.¹¹ One study found that the Erb: YAG laser can be considered an effective and safe treatment for freckles in Asian patients.¹²

Another study revealed that the quasi-continuous, frequency-doubled Nd:YAG (532 nm) laser can safely and effectively treat freckles and lentigines in individuals with Fitzpatrick skin type IV, which is characterized by dark hair and light Mediterranean olive-looking skin.¹³ 

If you’re considering removing your freckles, it’s essential to consult with a licensed dermatology provider who can guide you through the process and help determine the most appropriate treatment options for your specific skin type and needs. 

They can assess your skin, discuss your concerns, and recommend a customized treatment plan tailored to your goals. By working closely with them, you can ensure that your freckle removal journey is safe, effective, and tailored to achieve the best possible outcome for your skin.

Protect your skin from the sun with Curology

Happy Woman Holding Curology's Everyday Sunscreen

The Curology sunscreen helps safeguard your skin through its broad-spectrum protection, which covers both UVA and UVB rays. This comprehensive sun protection ensures your skin is defended from the sun's damaging effects, lowering the chances of forming new freckles or intensifying existing ones.

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

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curology bottle

By using the Curology sunscreen, you can minimize sun exposure, which is a significant factor in the development of freckles. The sunscreen's formula is designed to be lightweight and non-greasy, making it suitable for daily use. Incorporating the Curology sunscreen into your skincare routine can help you maintain a more even complexion and protect your skin from potential sun damage.

Check it out today!

FAQs

Can freckles be hereditary?

Yes. Both genetics and sun exposure play a significant role in causing freckles. Ephelides, also known as true freckles, are largely genetically determined, although their appearance can be influenced by sun exposure. Research suggests that individuals with a family history of freckles may be more likely to develop them due to inherited genetic traits.¹⁴

Can you have freckles if your parents don’t?

While freckles can be hereditary, they can also be caused by sun exposure, therefore it’s possible to develop freckles even if your parents don’t have them. Freckle inheritance is influenced by several genes and is not always predictable.¹⁵ Although freckles are a dominant trait, the complex interplay of multiple genes and environmental factors can result in you having freckles even if your parents don’t.

• • •

P.S. We did the homework so you don’t have to:

  1. Praetorius, C., et al. Sun-induced freckling: ephelides and solar lentigines. Pigment Cell Melanoma Res. (May 2014).

  2. Praetorius, C., et al. Sun-induced freckling: ephelides and solar lentigines. Pigment Cell Melanoma Res. Ibid.

  3. Praetorius, C., et al. Sun-induced freckling: ephelides and solar lentigines. Pigment Cell Melanoma Res. Ibid.

  4. Praetorius, C., et al. Sun-induced freckling: ephelides and solar lentigines. Pigment Cell Melanoma Res. Ibid.

  5. Shirbeigi, L., et al. Evaluating the Causes of Freckle and Nevus from the Viewpoint of Iranian Traditional Medicine. Iran J Med Sci. (May 2016).

  6. Rachmin, I., et al. Topical treatment strategies to manipulate human skin pigmentation. Adv Drug Deliv Rev. (2020, January 1).

  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sun Exposure. (2022, August 16).

  8. Goldfarb, M.T., et al. Topical tretinoin: its use in daily practice to reverse photoaging. Br J Dermatol. (April 1990).

  9. Zasada, M. and Budzisz, E. Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatmentsPostepy Dermatol Alergol. (August 2019).

  10. Samargandy, S. and Raggio, B.S. Skin Resurfacing Chemical Peels. StatPearls. (2022, May 1). 

  11. Huu, S.N., et al. Successful Treatment of Freckles by Alex Trivantage Laser Wavelight 755 nm in Vietnamese Patients. Open Access Maced J Med Sci. (2019, January 29).

  12. Tian, B. Treatment of Freckles Using a Fractional Nonablative 2940nm Erb:YAG Laser in a Series of Asian Patients. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. (August 2017).

  13. Rashid, T., et al. Laser therapy of freckles and lentigines with quasi-continuous, frequency-doubled, Nd:YAG (532 nm) laser in Fitzpatrick skin type IV: a 24-month follow-upJ Cosmet Laser Ther. (December 2002).

  14. Praetorius, C., et al. Sun-induced freckling: ephelides and solar lentigines. Pigment Cell Melanoma Res. Ibid.

  15. Bastiaens, M., et al. The melanocortin-1-receptor gene is the major freckle gene. Hum Mol Genet. (2001, August 1).

Erin Pate is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner at Curology. She earned her Masters of Science in Nursing at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, FL.

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• • •
Our medical review process:We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
Our policy on product links:Empowering you with knowledge is our top priority. Our reviews of other brands’ products in this post are not paid endorsements—but they do meet our medically fact-checked standards for ingredients (at the time of publication).
Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Erin Pate Nurse Practitioner, NP-C

Erin Pate, NP-C

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