The Secret Science Behind Freckles

by Brianna Wiest

Whether you think of them as endearing, a major beauty statement, or simply just another characteristic, the science of freckles is more than meets the eye (and skin). While freckled faces are trending in magazines and on Instagram, they actually serve a very important purpose — one you probably wouldn't expect.

But before we dive into that, let's talk about what the heck freckles even are. Essentially, they are small dots on the skin that contain high amounts of melanin. Melanin is the substance that's responsible for pigmenting our skin, eyes, and hair. It is produced by cells called melanocytes, which are activated by sunlight, and darken our external features in an effort to protect them against UV rays. Over time, human evolution makes people born with freckles (or darker skin or hair) based on their geographic location.

Though some people believe that freckles are a sign that you've been in the sun too much, it actually means you're getting less sun than you think: they function as a natural sunscreen to protect your skin from too many damaging rays! It's like having SPF 50 already built in. (Though this is the case, actual SPF is still a necessity, let's not forget.)

"If you have an active MC1R gene, your body produces more eumelanin, leading to darker hair and skin that protects against the sun," Hank Green explains in a recent YouTube video. "If that gene is inactive then you’ll produce more pheomelanin, leading to fairer skin, blonde or red hair and a propensity for freckles."

This explains why freckles come and go based on how much you are exposed to the sun (this is why they fade in the winter). This is also why babies aren't born with freckles. Even if they are genetically there thanks to that whole human evolution thing, they won't become visible until they're exposed to sunlight.

While scientists don't actually know why certain people get freckles and others don't, there have been studies that have linked them to the gene MC1R, which instructs cells to create a protein that's involved in the production of melanin. MC1R determines the pigmentation of your skin, hair and eyes.

So if you're ever wondering how all those pretty freckles got there, now you know it's just your body's natural pigmentation kicking in to shield you from too many rays. Just like any ol' beauty mark, these ones are just a nice little reminder that your body loves you and wants to protect you and is made up of all the science and stardust and awesomeness that you can imagine.

Images: Jovana Rikalo/Stocksy; Giphy (1)