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Are freckles dangerous? Dermatologist Vania Sinovich answers this and more questions about the spots.
Skin Institute
January 15, 2016

VaniaLittle brown spots that speckle skin might be common, but distinguishing between freckle and moles can be difficult for the untrained eye. New research from the British Journal of Dermatology  found people with more than 10 moles on their arm could have a higher risk of skin cancer – but how do you tell what spot you need to be worried about? 


We interview skin expert, Dermatologist Vania Sinovich to get the low-down on the subject of spots for the height of freckle season. 


What are freckles?

Freckles typically appear on the facial skin of fair skinned individuals with red hair as small, flat, tan or light brown marks. Freckles are due to colour (melanin) accumulating in skin cells skin typically over the summer months following sun exposure. They may fade over winter.


Are there different types of freckles?

There are two types of freckles, ephilides and lentigines.Ephilides are small flat light-brown spots that typically appear in childhood during the summer months and fade in the winter. Lentigines are larger tan, brown, or black spots on the face and hands of older individuals which tend to be darker than an ephilis-type freckle and do not fade in the winter.


Are freckles dangerous?

While most freckles are not dangerous, they are a sign of sun damage. People who freckle easily need to be extra diligent about using sunscreen daily and following the sun-safe rules below. If you are worried about a particular spot or notice a change in a freckle, book in for a full body skin cancer consultation with one of our medical specialists. 


General sun safe rules include:

  • Stay in the shade
  • Slip on long sleeves/trousers/skirt
  • Slap on a broad-brimmed hat
  • Slop on SPF50+ sunscreen
  • Wrap-around sunglasses


Is it possible to stop freckles from forming?

Yes, prevention is key, and you can do this by wearing sunscreen everyday – do it as part of your daily regimen, like brushing your teeth. An SPF30+ sunscreen can help prevent the formation and darkening of freckles, sun burn, skin cancers and wrinkles.


What are moles?

Moles (or melanocytic anaevi which is their medical name) are typically benign skin lesions due to clusters of pigmented skin cells (melanocytes) in the skin. They are extremely common and not necessarily a concern.


What causes a mole?

A mole can be present at birth (congenital) or can develop later in life ( acquired). Acquired moles typically follow sun exposures in childhood or later life . They may be flat or raised. They vary in colour from pink or flesh tones to dark brown, steel blue, or black. Light skinned individuals tend to have light-coloured moles and dark skinned individuals tend to have dark brown or black moles. Most fair skinned New Zealanders have 20 to 50 moles( naevi).


How do I know if a mole is cancerous?

Most moles are harmless. People with a greater number of moles have a greater risk of developing melanoma than those with fewer moles, especially if they have over 100 of them. Other risk factors for melanoma include fair skin types that burn easily, history of blistering sunburns or sunbeds, family history of melanoma, increasing age, previous history of melanoma or previous history of other skin cancer. People with 5 or more big funny looking moles ( atypical naevi) which often run in families also have a higher risk.


Moles should be checked by a specialist if:

·      A mole changes in size, shape, structure or colour

·      A new mole develops in adult life (> 40 years old)

·      It appears different from the your other moles (so-called ugly duckling)


A helpful way to identify the characteristics of unusual moles that may indicate melanomas or other skin cancers, is thinking of the letters ABCDE:

  • Asymmetry – The shape of one half does not match the other.
  • Border – The edges are often ragged, notched, blurred, or irregular in outline; the pigment may spread into the surrounding skin.
  • Colour – The colour is uneven. Shades of black, brown, and tan may be present. Areas of white, grey, red, pink, or blue also may be seen.
  • Diameter – Size changes and usually increases. Typically, melanomas are at least 6mm in diameter (the diameter of a pencil).


Dr Sinovich recommends for everyone to have a full body skin cancer consultation every 1-2 years, with self-exams in-between to check for any changes in mole shape, colour or elevation. Individuals with more risk factors should be seen more frequently.

A full body skin cancer consultation involves one of our medical specialists checking the entire surface of the skin, including the scalp for suspicious moles or lesions using a magnifying glass and sometimes a bright light, or with an instrument that combines these two features( dermatoscope) . If anything suspicious is discovered then a treatment plan and options will be discussed.

If you haven’t had a skin check before, or it’s been too long between checks, book a full body skin cancer consultation now by using our online form or call 0800 SKIN DR.