With summer upon us, freckles have a tendency to darken with sun exposure. Freckles typically appear in the first three years of life, and they’re with you for the long run. People who have pale skin, and either blond or red hair, typically have more freckles. Genetics also play a role.
Freckles are small, usually 1-3 millimeters in diameter and tan or brown. They’re not dangerous—they don’t go on to form skin cancers. However, having a lot of freckles can indicate that you are at an increased risk for skin cancers down the road. So, while you don’t have to be worried about your freckles, having freckles means that your skin is likely more vulnerable to sun induced damage and skin cancer formation.
To be crystal clear, you cannot actually remove freckles. They are with you for life. But they lighten with sun avoidance and darken with sun exposure. The number one thing you have to do to keep your freckles from darkening and to fade the ones that you have is to protect your skin from the sun.
Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen every single day, including when you are mostly indoors, to keep your freckles from darkening. UVA rays that come through your window glass can affect the pigment-producing cells in the skin and cause freckles to darken.
When you’re outside, don’t just rely on sunscreen. Wear a broad-brimmed hat and sun-protective clothing, long sleeves, and sunglasses, ideally sunglasses that wrap around.
One thing people don’t realize is that ultraviolet radiation from the sun comes at you from all different angles. It is reflected off of surfaces like the pavement and cars that you walk by, and onto your face. It’s also reflected off of the metallic rim of your sunglasses, so I suggest wearing sunglasses that do not have metal frames.
Aside from just wearing sunscreen and sun protective clothing, hats, and sunglasses, make sure that you don’t stay out in the sun too long, and that you avoid spending time outdoors during the peak sun exposure window, typically the mid-afternoon, when the sun’s rays are at their most intense.
Unless you walk around in a cardboard box nonstop, UV radiation from the sun is going to touch your skin to a certain extent, and the cells that underlie the freckles are really sensitive to UV. That is why you may find that, as hard as you try to avoid the sun, they’re still darkened.
The other thing that you can try to incorporate into your skin care routine, provided you tolerate it, is an antioxidant serum. This may help reduce the skin’s burden of oxidative stress that is generated upon exposure to ultraviolet radiation. Oxidative stress further drives pigment production and darkening freckles.
Unfortunately, I can’t tell you what the best antioxidant serum is, because antioxidants and skincare products are not regulated in the same way as medications. Unfortunately, antioxidants are not super stable, and the devil’s in the details as far as the product formulation.
Does it actually get into the skin? Is it actually able to scavenge free radicals? Because there’s so much variability from manufacturer to manufacturer, it can become challenging.
Still, it is worth considering incorporating an antioxidant into your skin care routine. Some of my favorite antioxidants include niacinamide, green tea, and resveratrol.
It’s best to use antioxidant serums in the morning because they’re with you as you go through your day and are exposed to environmental stressors. Those environmental factors would otherwise upregulate free radicals in the skin or lead to a production of free radicals on the skin, and drive darkening of your freckles. So apply it in the morning, allow it to absorb and dry fully, and then put your sunscreen on top.
I’ll recommend my favorite antioxidant serums, if you find that any of these products causes irritation or just doesn’t work for you, don’t use it.
The third tip for lightening freckles is hydroquinone. Unfortunately, hydroquinone is no longer going to be available over the counter here in the US, but you can get it by prescription. Hydroquinone is a topical skin whitening ingredient that works by inhibiting the enzyme tyrosinase. It competes with tyrosine, the substrate for tyrosinase. Tyrosinase is the enzyme that leads to upregulation of pigment production. Hydroquinone also damages the melanosomes, the little pigment packets within pigment producing cells. It can actually lighten freckles that have darkened with sun exposure.
However, I have to tell you guys, the results of hydroquinone can be a little patchy. You don’t always get even lightening, and you really don’t want to use hydroquinone long term.
There is a risk of rebound, worsening hyperpigmentation. It can damage the neighboring normal melanocytes. You only want to apply it to the exact area of hyperpigmentation, which can be challenging in the case of freckles, because they are so small. It can also lead to skin bleaching, and it can be pretty irritating. All of those caveats aside, it is a very evidence-based way to lighten freckles, so it’s something that you could consider.
Number four is a retinoid. Retinoids include prescription tretinoin, prescription tazarotine, or over the counter adapalene. It goes by the brand name Differin Gel, for example. Topical retinoids, including adapalene, can lighten sun-induced hyperpigmentation, whether it be sunspots or freckles.
In my opinion, as far as an active ingredient to actively lighten existing freckles, a retinoid is actually a better, more prudent choice. It has other benefits beyond just lightening the freckle, such as removing sun-damaged skin cells, controlling acne, and improving the visible signs of photoaging. Unlike hydroquinone, you can use retinoids daily, long term. They’re safe. You don’t have to worry about skin bleaching or rebound hyperpigmentation.
If you see a dermatologist, they may actually prescribe you something called Tri-Luma, or they may have a compounded cream that has a retinoid as well as hydroquinone plus an anti-inflammatory. That can work quite well for fading hyperpigmentation, but with hydroquinone, you can’t use it long term.
The fifth tip is to see a board-certified dermatologist. There are procedures you can undergo to lighten existing freckles, but again, they’re not going to get rid of them permanently, so that can be a little costly. Cryotherapy or liquid nitrogen can lighten freckles. However, it does come with a risk of just pigmentation or hypopigmentation to the area treated. The dermatologist has to be very careful not to overtreat, or you can get hypopigmentation, which you wouldn’t be happy with.
A dermatologist can also perform laser treatment to fade freckles. For example, the picosecond laser is an option. Again, unfortunately, these things don’t get rid of the freckle permanently—they come right back with UV exposure—so the investment might not be worthwhile.
Now, I want to be crystal clear. In my personal opinion, freckles are attractive. I don’t think that they need fading or need correcting or anything like that. There are even cosmetics you can buy to create fake freckles. But I do know that some people prefer to lighten their freckles, so that’s why I’m giving you these tips.
The most important thing to realize is that freckles are a manifestation of sun damage. Even though they’re not dangerous themselves, when they darken it is an indicator that you have gotten a lot of sun exposure and serves as a reminder that you need to be more diligent with your sun protection.
You can thank your freckles for serving as a little alarm clock that you’re getting too much sun.
If you find that your freckles are darkening, don’t freak out; just take the opportunity to recheck your routine. Have you been good about sunscreen? It’s really hard to remember. So just use it as an indicator for reevaluating your sun-protective practices.
Build a skin care routine for the rest of the summer that will not only help reduce the chances that your freckles will darken, but will also protect your skin from the damaging effects of ultraviolet radiation.
First thing in the morning, apply an antioxidant serum. Allow it to absorb fully and then apply sunscreen. As you go throughout the day, make sure you reapply sunscreen. If you are indoors most of the day and not going outside at all, just reapply it once or twice to build the habit.
If you’re going to be outside for a prolonged period of time, make sure you reapply the sunscreen every two hours. As you go throughout the day, take a hat with you, put it on. Any time you go outside, take sunglasses with you, put them on, whether it’s sunny or not, to protect not only your eyes, but the skin around your eyes.
I like to carry a lightweight UPF 50 jacket with me that little hand covers to protect my forearms and the backs of my hands. I always put on that or something like that when I go outside for additional protection.
If you’re going to be outside in midday sun exposure, seek shade or bring an umbrella to reduce your UV exposure. Then in the evening before you go to bed, make sure you wash your face to remove any dirt, cosmetics, and pollutants from your skin.
At bedtime, apply a retinoid to the face, arms, wherever you have a lot of UV exposure and your freckles are darkening. Use retinoids at nighttime because they are sensitive. Many of them are sensitive to light and degrade in the presence of light.
That is my recommended summer skincare routine. And as a side note, retinoids help your skin overall handle ultraviolet radiation from the sun better. So that’s going to bode well for the health of your skin beyond just the freckle issue. These tips will help keep your skin healthy, reduce the chances of those damaging UV rays causing problems like skin cancer formation down the road, and prevent wrinkles, fine lines, impaired skin barrier, and inflammation. So even if you have no interest in fading your freckles, definitely follow some of these suggestions because they will help the health of your skin long term.