Recently I’ve been spotting parents who have been asking me about whether or not sun exposure causes freckles.  Let me shed a few rays of light on this topic. 

Freckles usually run in families, particularly if your family has red or brown hair and a fair complexion.  But what are freckles?  They are flat, small, pigmented cells that contain usually tan or light brown color.  They are produced by a chemical called melanin that is useful in protecting the skin from the sun’s ultraviolet rays.  

People with light skin and lighter colored eyes have less melanin.  Instead of tanning, those with lighter skin may produce freckles instead of a full-body tan.  So freckles are really a combination of how much melanin your body produces and sun exposure. 

Freckles usually appear beginning at age 5.  Unfortunately people with freckles and fair skin can sunburn easily.  The earlier and more often you get sunburned as a child, the higher the risk of your developing skin cancer as an adult. (One out of five adults in this country develops some form of skin cancer.)

In addition, sun exposure may also make freckles appear darker.  If you don’t want your freckles to show as you get older, and if you want to reduce your chance of skin cancers as you get older whether or not you have freckles, I would suggest the following: 

  • Limit your sun exposure, even on cloudy days.  Sixty percent of the sun’s rays can penetrate cloud cover, especially between 10 am and 4 pm, the sun’s strongest hours.  
  • During the summer, always use a sun screen with a sun protection factor of at least 30 or higher.
  • Apply sunscreen at least 20 minutes before going outside and reapply it liberally to exposed areas every 1.5 to 2 hours.
  • Sunglasses can also help reduce the exposure of the sun’s ultraviolet rays to your eyes, which can affect your vision as you get older.

Hopefully tips like this will burn brightly in your mind rather than on your child’s face when it comes to protecting their freckled skin – and yours – from the sun. 

Lewis First, MD, is chief of Pediatrics at The University of Vermont Children’s Hospital and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the Larner College of Medicine at UVM.  You can also catch “First with Kids” weekly on WOKO 98.9FM and WPTZ Channel 5, or visit the First with Kids video archives at www.UVMHealth.org/MedCenterFirstWithKids.

Lewis First, MD, is chief of Pediatrics at The University of Vermont Children’s Hospital and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the Robert Larner, M.D. College of Medicine at the University of Vermont.

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