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Skin Cancer Explained

What you need to know about freckles, sunspots, and moles

Discover the difference and how they relate to skin cancer and melanoma.
MoleMap Team
August 15, 2021
5 minutes

The ​“freck­le face” look is fresh once again, thanks to the Duchess of Sus­sex who start­ed this beau­ty trend. Dubbed the ​“Meghan Markle Effect”, this has inspired women to embrace their nat­ur­al beau­ty and show their sun-kissed freckles.

Whilst moles are eas­i­er to dis­tin­guish, most peo­ple can’t tell the dif­fer­ence between freck­les and sunspots. With freck­les being a trend, it is easy for peo­ple to ignore these hyper­pig­ment­ed areas. The issue here is that skin can­cer in its ear­ly stages may look just like these spots.

It is known that two out of three adults devel­op skin can­cer before they turn 70. In addi­tion, skin can­cer leads to more than 2,000 deaths a year, mak­ing it one of the most fatal forms of can­cer for men and women.

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What’s the Dif­fer­ence Between Freck­les, Sunspots, and Moles?

Freck­les, sunspots, and moles are clas­si­fied as harm­less, ran­dom marks for the most part. Here is how these marks are made. The role of melanin is to pro­tect against sun expo­sure by absorb­ing ultra­vi­o­let (UV) radiation.

Melanocytes are mature, melanin-form­ing skin cells locat­ed any­where on your body. When acti­vat­ed by sun expo­sure, melanocytes trans­form your skin into its tanned hue.

Rec­om­mend­ed arti­cle: Sunspot or Skin Can­cer: How to Tell the Difference

Appear­ance

Freck­les and sunspots are the results of melanocytes that get dark­er. Moles are caused by melanocytes that grow in clumps. Also known as nevi, moles appear to be a skin growth.

While freck­les and sunspots are flat, moles can be flat or raised on the skin.

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Cause

Freck­les are genet­ic, while sun expo­sure leads to both freck­les and sunspots. Indi­vid­u­als with freck­les and moles can devel­op these from childhood.

Moles are caused by skin cells that grow togeth­er. Sunspots are caused by a com­bi­na­tion of aging and sun expo­sure. These marks are most like­ly to appear after age 40, which is why sunspots are also known as liv­er spots or age spots.

Size and Colour

In terms of size, freck­les are small­er than 2 mil­lime­tres (mm), and sunspots are more than 2 mm. Moles tend to be less than 6 mm.

Freck­les can be red or brown, while sunspots can be brown or black. Moles vary from shades of brown to black.

Loca­tion

As for moles, you can find these indi­vid­u­al­ly or in groups any­where on your body. Freck­les and sunspots are most com­mon­ly locat­ed where your body gets the most sun exposure.

Can Freck­les and Sunspots Become Cancerous?

Freck­les and sunspots are harm­less marks on the skin that do not become can­cer­ous sim­ply because they exist. If you have freck­les and sunspots, how­ev­er, your skin type may be more prone to devel­op­ing skin cancer.

Freck­les are more com­mon among peo­ple with lighter-hued hair or skin. This type of skin colour is more apt to devel­op skin can­cer due to a lack of melanin to pro­tect against sun expo­sure and sub­se­quent ultra­vi­o­let radiation.

You must also have sun expo­sure to devel­op freck­les and sunspots, which increas­es your risk to the harm­ful effects of the sun’s rays. As a result, indi­vid­u­als who have these marks have ​“an increased risk of skin cancer.”

When Beau­ty Marks Turn Ugly

A freck­le that is larg­er than 2 mm stands a chance at being more than just a freck­le or sunspot.

At the same time, when you have a mole that has changed its shape, colour, or size recent­ly, this may be more than just a beau­ty mark. Moles can also bleed or become itchy, which is not going to hap­pen with a freck­le or sunspot. These may be signs of trans­for­ma­tions asso­ci­at­ed with skin cancer.

When Should I See a Doctor?

Cer­tain indi­vid­u­als are more like­ly to devel­op melanoma as a result of their genes. This includes peo­ple with more than 11 moles, which increas­es the risk by 1.6 times. If you have 100 moles, your risk increas­es 100 times.

Oth­er risk fac­tors to take into con­sid­er­a­tion include hav­ing blue eyes, red hair, or fair skin. Hav­ing spent a lot of time tan­ning or hav­ing sun expo­sure, as well as hav­ing a his­to­ry of non-melanoma skin can­cer, are also risk factors.

If you are at risk for hav­ing skin can­cer, it is advis­able to vis­it your GP or a skin can­cer clin­ic for a skin check on an annu­al basis.

Vis­it a Melanoma Detec­tion Clin­ic at MoleMap

If you have an ele­vat­ed risk of get­ting skin can­cer and notice a change in the pig­ment­ed spots on your skin, seek med­ical advice. Your doc­tor can pro­vide you with an exam and refer­rals for skin can­cer test­ing. You can also vis­it a melanoma detec­tion and sur­veil­lance clinic.

Here at MoleMap, we pro­vide melanoma detec­tion, diag­no­sis, and sur­veil­lance ser­vices. Book your mole check appoint­ment today.

Sources:

1. Environmental Health Indicators. 2019. Non-melanoma skin cancer deaths. [Factsheet]. Wellington: Environmental Health Indicators Programme, Massey University

2. Melanoma NZ:  https://www.melanoma.org.nz/be-informed/understanding.

3. Healthline: https://www.healthline.com/health/what-are-freckles?insvid=16df162f15c4e81a--1571782463321

MoleMap Team

At MoleMap we check, detect and treat skin cancer. Find out how you can protect your skin at your nearest MoleMap skin cancer clinic.

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