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freckles (or ephelides) are small, usually yellow or brown spots on the skin, often seen on the face but capable of occurring in freckled individuals on any part of the body that has been exposed to sunlight. Freckles are produced by the action of ultraviolet radiation on the level of melanin in the melanocytes (pigment cells). In individuals of a certain genetic makeup and usually having red or blonde hair, the level of melanin increases to form freckles that contrast with the otherwise fair skin that such individuals possess. Freckles are found most frequently in older children and young adults and sometimes become less distinctive in older adults, in part because facial skin — where freckles are most noticeable — tends to darken and become coarser, more wrinkled, and more blemished with age. While the use of makeup can conceal freckles, there is no way for those disposed to freckling to avoid them other than by avoiding exposing their skin to sunlight.

Freckles can appear similar to and are sometimes confused with pigmented (or melanocytic) naevi, birthmarks, or moles. A pigmented naevus is quite distinct from a freckle, however, being a congential anomaly produced by any of a number of abnormalities in the structure of the skin. While freckles are harmless, some naevi are pre-cancerous or are associated with a higher level of risk for cancer or other diseases.

While not freckling in the usual sense of the word, the rare genetic condition xeroderma pigmentosum resembles freckling in some ways. In affected individuals there is little natural resistance to ultraviolet radiation, producing large numbers of pigmented spots on the skin after exposure to the ultraviolet radiation in sunlight. Unlike freckles, these spots often become cancerous.

There are wider uses of ‘freckle’ than the primary reference to spots produced by increased melanin in some of the fair-skinned. Various types of mottling or spotting of bodily surfaces are sometimes called freckling, including spotting caused by several diseases. The presence of brown ‘freckles’ on the lips can indicate Peutz-Jegher's syndrome, which is characterized by intestinal polyps, while chronic liver disease can produce ‘spider naevi’ on the skin surface.

The use of ‘freckle’ extends beyond references to the skin, covering descriptions of a range of small spots. In Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, a fairy tells of service to the Fairy Queen:The cowslips tall her pensioner's be
In their gold coats, spots you see
Those be rubies, fairy favors
In those freckles live their savors. (II.i.13)

‘Freckle’ also acts as verb, and in less common usages refers to a wide range of coverings-up with small spots or discolorations.

While some adults consider mild freckling an attractive feature of youth, aesthetic appreciation of freckles has been absent from much of literature, art, and popular culture. Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary of his sister Pall, ‘a pretty, good-bodied woman and not over thick, as I thought she would have been, but full of freckles and not handsome in the face.’ In a subtle line that none the less invokes the image of a horse, John Cheever describes a character in The Hartleys: ‘There was a saddle of freckles across her nose.’ Freckles are sometimes seen as a mark of immaturity, and children in contemporary societies are often teased about their freckles — and just as often about the red hair that can accompany freckles. Styles and preferences change, however: while many fair-skinned people prone to freckling continue to avoid the sun, a recent work on makeup and skin care, Woman's Face, advises the freckled to avoid attempts to conceal freckles with heavy makeup: ‘Instead, rejoice in your freckles.’

Jeffrey H. Barker

See also sun and the body.