A reader asks, “I was curious if you know of anything to lighten freckles. I don’t mind my freckles, but sometimes they’re just so dark and I feel like my face just looks dirty! I have them all over my face (and my arms and chest, for that matter) and I have very fair skin, so any input would be helpful. Thanks!”
First let’s have an Oprah moment, freckles are cosmetic and no one notices them as much as you. In fact, many people find them beautiful and some women even draw on fake ones as part of their makeup routine.
Now, what exactly are freckles? A freckle or ephelis is a small area of concentrated red/brown melanin in the skin, they’re generally caused by an increase in UV (specifically UVB) exposure. One study found that small exposures to UVB were not enough to cause freckles, but that there was a threshold amount of exposure needed for their formation. Most people have freckles on exposed skin, like on the face, neck, chest, arms and back. Freckling is genetic and most common in those of Caucasian and Asian descent.
Freckles are correlated with a greater increase in epidermal neoplasia, which means abnormal growth or formation of skin cells. However, freckling itself may be a defensive mechanism – a study found that those with freckled skin had less sun damaged skin cells than those without freckled skin. However this protection might depend on your Fitzpatrick skin type, as one study found that freckles were only protective in those with skin type III. In skin types I and II, presence of freckles indicated an almost doubled sensitivity to erythema caused by sun exposure.
Your first line of defense is prevention, which means reducing your UV exposure. Choose a sunscreen with broad-spectrum protection against UVA and UVB.
Neutrogena L’Oreal has two patented ingredients, Mexoryl SX and Mexoryl XL, which work in synergy to offer good protection for the skin. For those who find sunscreens greasy on the face, try Cetaphil’s Dermacontrol SPF 30 moisturizer. A sunscreen formulated with zinc oxide is also a good choice, and due to the opacity of the zinc will also even out your skin tone. You can also increase your skin’s natural SPF protection by consuming foods or supplements high in antioxidants such as beta carotene, lycopene and other polyphenols (like from dark chocolate!). Wearing a hat while outdoors is also a good idea.
Cosmetics like foundation can easily cover up freckles, but isn’t always an option for men (especially those that want to keep their shirt collars clean). Instead, you can try a self-tanning product, this will reduce the contrast between your skin and your freckles, making them less prominent. St. Moriz self-tanning mousse is a cheap alternative to the more expensive St. Tropez brand and is available on eBay for under $10, shipping included.
Removing freckles completely is a more difficult endeavor and can also be expensive. Chemicals that reduce the formation of melanin such as hydroquinone are available over the counter in some countries, such as Canada, but are prescription only in the United States. Hydroquinone has been banned in parts of the EU and Asia due to concerns that it may be a carcinogenic. Exfoliants like lactic, glycolic and salicylic acid can also help reduce the amount of melanin in the skin, but as with anything that thins the skin it’s very important to wear sunscreen daily as you risk making your freckling situation worse. Creams containing up to 5% niacinamide were found to help lighten sun-induced pigmentation, including freckling. Results were best when combined with a sunscreen. Niacinamide can be found in products such as Olay’s Regenerist line. The most drastic and expensive result is laser skin resurfacing, which has been shown to have good results, however can cost upwards of $100 a session, with multiple sessions required. No treatment guarantees permanent removal of freckles, and they’re likely to reoccur.
Hope this helps, and as always feel free to write a comment below or send me an email with your questions!