Sunspots vs Freckles – Explained by a Dermatologist

woman with freckles

A huge number of people will see freckles and/or sunspots appear on their skin at some point in their lives. There is a lot of confusion, however, about what causes them, whether they are something to worry about, and what the difference is.

When it comes to sunspots vs freckles the main difference is that freckles are hereditary – you are born with a ‘freckle gene’ that causes them to come up after being in the sun. Sunspots, on the other hand, can appear in everyone, usually as we get older.

Neither are harmful, but it is always important to carefully check for changes in any type of skin pigmentation and see a doctor if you are concerned.

Let’s compare sunspots vs. freckles in more detail.

What are Freckles?

Before we talk about the difference between freckles and sunspots its first important we explain what each of them are in more detail. Freckles are very small spots that can appear anywhere on your skin, but most commonly on areas that are exposed to the sun. Many people see freckles appear on their face, arms and legs after sun exposure.

Freckles can be identified by their size. They are very small, smaller than 5mm across. They range in color immensely depending on the person’s natural skin color, from light reddish brown to very dark brown. They are usually slightly darker than the rest of the skin.

Freckles are in your genetics, so not everybody has freckles, and those that do will also probably have at least one freckled parent. The gene responsible for freckles is called MC1R. It controls melanin production in the body, creating freckles in those that have it, as an attempt to protect skin from the sun.

Whilst freckles are a result of melanin production and can be seen as a natural sun defense, it is important to note that people with he MC1R gene are also more sensitive to sun exposure, so it is really important to protect your skin with sunscreen. Don’t rely on your freckles to protect you!

I often get asked, are freckles sun damage? And the short answer is, no! Whilst freckles are activated by sun exposure, they are not a sign of damaged skin. It’s simply the MC1R gene getting (sun) defensive.

What are Sunspots?

Sunspots are also called age spots, liver spots, or senile lentigines. They are spots on the skin that appear darker than the person’s skin color and tend to show up as people get older.

What do sunspots on skin look like? Sunspots vary in size, from about the size of a freckle, up to about a centimeter and a half. They are completely flat – not raised from the skin.

According to the Mayo Clinic, they appear “on skin that has had years of sun exposure… when melanin becomes clumped of is produced in high concentrations”. They therefore most commonly appear on areas of the body that have had a lot of sun exposure, such as the hands, shoulders, and face.

Many people dislike the appearance of sunspots, particularly if they appear on the face and hands. They will not go away on their own, but it is possible to remove them with a course of laser treatment that breaks up the pigment clumps.

You can prevent sunspots appearing in the first place, however, by always wearing sunscreen and staying out of the midday sun.

Whilst true sunspots are not harmful, it is important to know how to identify a true sunspot and not confuse them with a potentially harmful melanoma spot. If you have any doubts or notice changes in any of your sunspots, get it looked at by your doctor as soon as possible.

Freckles vs. Sunspots – What’s the Difference?

The first main difference between freckles and sunspots is their size. Freckles are tiny (less than 5mm wide) whilst sunspots tend to be larger (up to 1.5cm).

Another key difference is the age at which they appear. Freckles come up when people are young and tend to fade naturally over the years. Sunspots, on the other hand, show up in older people, because they are a result of extended sun exposure. In most people, sunspots start to appear in their 50s, but they can appear as early as your 30s.

The important similarity they share is that neither are harmful. But, as I mentioned earlier, the only way to protect your skin from the sun is wearing sunscreen, seeking shade, and avoiding the sun in the middle of the day.

It can be hard to tell the difference between harmless freckles and sunspots and harmful melanoma spots or moles. If you have any doubts, or see any changes in pigmented skin, get a doctor to examine you.

Related Questions

Do Freckles from the Sun Go Away?

Yes, freckles tend to fade naturally as people get older, and after periods of not exposing skin to the sun. This is because as the cells regenerate, the levels of melanin diminish.

Do Sunspots Go Away?

Sunspots will not go away on their own and will require a cosmetic procedure like laser treatment and skin peels to remove them. There is not a medical need, however, to remove them.

What Causes Sunspots on the Face?

Sunspots are caused by a build up of melanin clumped together over time if the skin is exposed to the sun. They commonly appear on the face because it is the are of our bodies that is most often exposed to the sun.

How Do You Prevent Sunspots?

Sunspots can be prevented by taking care to protect your skin from the sun. Wearing a high SPF sunscreen on your face at all times, and on the rest of your body when you’re spending time in the sun, is key for sun protection.

You can also protect your skin from the sun by avoiding the sun in the middle of the day (between 10am and 2pm), seeking shade, and covering up. A hat is a great way to create shade for your face.

Scroll to Top