Fascinating Freckles

Few of us can resist the urge to get out of doors once the sun starts shining. And during these lazy, hazy days of summer, there is one such sun worshiper we are sure to see an abundance of: freckles!

Of course anyone with freckles will tell you that they exist throughout the year but here in the Northern Hemisphere with the increase of sunshine in the summer months freckles enjoy more prominence.

Freckles will fade over time and with less exposure to the sun.

So what are these frequently brownish or rusty-coloured spots that appear a little darker than the rest of our skin?  

In every human body skin cells called melanocytes produce a natural substance or pigment called melanin. Melanin is responsible for the colour of our eyes, our hair and our skin.  In many people melanin is distributed evenly throughout the skin but in people with freckles it is distributed unevenly. It is these clusters or clumps of melanin that appear on the surface of our skin as freckles.

One of the roles of melanin is to protect our skin from sun damage. The sun’s ultraviolet radiation causes melanocytes to produce more melanin that then absorbs or reflects the sun’s harmful rays. The increase in melanin production causes freckles to appear darker.  So your freckles are actually working as a natural sunscreen to protect you, just don’t stop using the SPF 50, you need that too!

Babies are not born with freckles.  It is only after exposure to sunlight, and if they are genetically disposed to them, that they will begin to show freckles.

While scientists have not identified all the genes that cause freckles they do know they are genetic, passed on from parent to child.  Parents not only pass on the likelihood of freckles to their children but even where they may appear on their children’s bodies.

MC1R is a gene that scientists have identified as a likely cause of freckles. It sits upon the melanocytes and controls the balance of pigment or colour in both hair and skin. When MC1R is working as it should, any pigment the body produces is converted into eumelanin, which is responsible for black and brown hair and skin colours. If the MC1R gene is not active it leads to a rarer type of human pigment called pheomelanin.  Pheomelanin causes red hair and freckles. But that doesn’t mean that all people with red hair will have freckles or vice versa! The complicated, world of genetics is always throwing us curveballs; it is the reason there are so many wonderfully diverse people in the world.

In medieval times freckles on a woman was thought to indicate that she was in league with the devil! Funny enough the same standard did not apply to men!

Article originally published in Brainspace Magazine Summer 2018

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