Why Do People Have Freckles?
We’ve all heard about the ever-increasing power of the UV rays pelting down on us from the sky and what we need to do to avoid being harmed by them. Options include: slathering on a 60+ SPF sunscreen the second our feet hit the floor in the AM, sporting a whole suit of protective clothing while at the beach, or staying indoors or in the shade during peak hours.
But for those of us who unconsciously, or deliberately, expose ourselves to the sun, our skin will react differently depending on our genes, the intensity of the UV rays and the amount of time our skin is exposed. Maybe some of you get an ‘80s-inspired golden gleam, while others hit insta-lobster status in a matter of minutes.
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Some of us might even develop a fresh crop of freckles after we’ve been out and about. This could be an Anne Shirley-esque sprinkle, or so many that when the freckles join and become one, we can trick people into thinking we’ve gotten a permanent tan. But what exactly are freckles and why do we get ‘em in the first place? And how come some people might only get one or two, while others get all the rest?
What Is Skin For?
To start, it’s probably wise to get a better understanding of the skin in regards to what it is and what its role is in the human body. Get ready for your next fun party factoid: the skin is actually an organ, and it’s the largest one in the human body! Its coverage extends to approximately 20 square feet and it has three main functions: protect the inside of the body from our outside world, regulate our temperature via fat insulation and sweat, as well as to allow us to feel and sense things through its extensive network of nerves.
The skin isn’t just what you can see on the outside; it’s actually made up of three layers: the epidermis, the dermis and the hypodermis. More on these layers on the next page…
The Skin’s Layers
Working from the inside out, let’s start with the hypodermis, also called our subcutaneous tissue. This layer contains collagen and fat tissues and its main role is shock absorption and temperature regulation (which is the excuse we can give in the winter: we need our fat to stay warm). It also attaches the skin to the underlying muscle and allows for movement.
The next layer is the dermis, which is pretty darn busy. It basically holds us all together with collagen and elastic fibres, contains our nerves, blood vessels and oil glands, as well as hair follicles and sweat glands.
The third layer, the epidermis, is the layer you can see on the back of your hand, your leg and the tip of your nose! It is pretty tough and is actually waterproof due to the natural oils produced by the layer below! It’s also our first line of defense against bacteria and viruses and has a direct line to our immune system should we get a cut and that protective barrier is compromised.
The Epidermis Does a Lot
The epidermis is made up of a series of flat, scale-like cells (yum!) called squamous cells which we naturally shed every 35 days. This layer varies in thickness depending on the area of the body it covers, and whatever role that body part is responsible for.
Take a moment and touch the skin on your eyelid and then your heel…or maybe don’t… Whatever you do, make sure you touch your eye first before your dirty foot! Anyway, notice the difference in the texture, thickness and sensitivity? That’s because your skin on your eyelid is there to keep your eyeball safe, whereas your heel skin has a whole bunch of jobs to do; dealing with the gravitational forces on the weight of your body being only one of them!
What Causes Freckles?
Within the epidermis is a special cell called a melanocyte, which produces melanin. Melanin is a type of protein polymer made from the amino acid tyrosine, and there are different types which are responsible for different roles in our body. One type of melanin determines the colour of peoples’ skin, hair, and eyes while another protects our DNA from harmful UV rays. This is why the more time you spend in the sun, the darker your skin will become.
People whose genes provide them with darker skin (and are usually the ones who tan more readily), have an even distribution of melanocytes throughout their body. When these people are out in the sun, the melanin (and subsequent tan) is produced uniformly.
People with fairer complexions have a tendency for their melanocytes to cluster together. When their cells are hit with UV rays, they react by producing melanin in a concentrated spot, i.e. a freckle. This is why freckles usually show up in the summer and then fade in the winter when the exposure to UV rays decreases. This is also why you don’t see a baby sporting a sprinkling of freckles; they haven’t had contact with sunshine, or been around long enough to build up the melanin needed to bring them out!
When a Freckle Isn’t a Freckle
That being said, not all freckles are created the same. When a freckle appears due to sunburn, it is called a lentigine, or an “age spot” and these don’t fade. They are also much larger than regular freckles and have irregular borders.
Freckles, unlike moles which can become cancerous, usually aren’t something to worry about in terms of your health. That being said, if you are concerned, it is important to see your doctor to have your skin checked out. Most physicians actually recommend that you have yourself looked over yearly to make sure your spots are just dots, and not indicating something more sinister.
Take Care of Your Skin
For those of you who don’t like your freckles, there are ways to lighten them (and isn’t it always the way that people who don’t have freckles think they’re cute, whereas those who do have them could readily do without?). A quick Google search will produce millions of hits of how-to home remedies, expensive creams and specialized light treatments to rid you of your freckles. Ultimately, the best option is to talk to a professional, i.e. a dermatologist, if your time and budget allows, as you don’t want to mess with your skin. The largest organ in your body requires respect and TLC for all it does for you! Plus, we live in a world where the beauty industry is worth billions – it’s important to separate fact from fiction when it comes to your health and your pocketbook!
Lauren Brown MSc. WWHP, is a certified Health & Wellness Coach who loves teaching about all facets of health and wellbeing. Much of her time is spent in workplaces, helping empower employees to get healthy through the wellness programming initiatives and educational sessions she delivers. Please see www.inspiringhealth.ca for more information.