Knowing the difference between moles, freckles, and serious skin conditions like skin cancer is an important part of both your cosmetic goals and your overall health.
We asked three doctors some of the most common questions about mole and freckle removal options.
The difference between moles, freckles, and melanomas
Both moles and freckles are very common and occur as a result of skin pigmentation. Specialized skin cells called melanocytes produce different types of melanin. The darker coloration of freckles and moles depends on how many of the melanocytes cluster together, and how much melanin those clusters produce.
Freckles are small to medium pale brown spots that usually occur across larger areas of the skin, while moles are brown or black dark spots of various sizes that often reside alone.
They are frequently caused by exposure of skin to the sun and are often temporary, whereas moles are long-lasting and are only indirectly associated with sun exposure.
Many people are born with moles, and though moles can disappear over years, most last a lifetime. Moles that develop or change quickly are the moles you need to be concerned about, as these could be melanomas — a serious type of skin cancer.
We asked three doctors some of the most common questions on mole and freckle removal.
What options exist for removing freckles?
Before you decide what treatment options are worth exploring, “it is important to determine if you do in fact have a mole or a freckle,” says Los Angeles dermatologist Dr. Eric Meinhardt. “This is because moles should not be treated with lasers, bleaching creams, or peels as they can lead to melanomas.”
Instead of trying to determine this yourself, New York City plastic surgeon Dr. Anthony J. Taglienti recommends that you have a thorough history taken, along with an examination or photo of the moles or freckles you’re concerned about.
Once you establish that your moles or freckles are stable you can begin exploring the best way to remove them.
“If benign appearing, freckles can be removed by lasers, peels, or bleaching creams, depending on the nature of the freckle and skin type of the patient,” says Meinhardt.
Laser mole removal is sometimes used, but the treatment is more suited to freckle removal. The treatment is typically only recommended for those with lighter skin tones. Though it can be used if performed correctly, people with darker skin tones should be cautious, as the treatment can cause permanent changes to skin pigmentation.
“Some lasers are specifically for pigment and freckles while some are generally good for resurfacing and improving tone and texture of the skin,” says Meinhardt. “For patients that like lightening but not the complete disappearance of freckles, I like to offer gentle resurfacing lasers. For those who want to specifically eliminate all of their freckles, I like to offer pigment specific lasers.”
Laser freckle removal will require anywhere from one to four treatments depending on the patient. “Fewer treatments are required for patients with a large color contrast between freckles and their skin color,” says Meinhardt.
Laser treatment is the most expensive of all the options that we examine here, but it’s often the most effective treatment.
“All skin types are suited to chemical peels, though care still needs to be taken not to damage the skin of people with darker skin tones,” informs Meinhardt. “Peels are great for patients who want a gentler removal option.”
Chemical peels will typically require anywhere from three to five treatments, though this number can be higher or lower depending on the severity of the freckles being removed.
Although peels are more affordable than laser treatments, the results will be somewhat less noticeable.
“An ideal patient for bleaching creams would be a darker skinned patient that would like to treat a number of freckles on their face,” says Meinhardt. “The bleaching cream will fade the freckles but they will not necessarily make them disappear completely.”
Creams work best for those who have the time and patience to apply a treatment over a long period. Bleaching creams can take three to six months of regular application before yielding any results.
How are moles removed?
“If the mole is raised, sometimes it can be shaved. This typically entails some local anesthetic,” says Taglienti. “The area scabs over and then heals to become relatively imperceptible. If a mole is likely to come back after shaving, it can be excised — cut out. In this case, local anesthetic is used, the mole is removed, and the area is sutured closed.”
“Flat moles, that are not suspicious, can be removed in a similar manner as a raised mole — by either shaving, applying a deep chemical peel to the area, or by using a laser,” adds Taglienti.
Will I end up with a scar?
“The shaving of moles, followed by cautery of the resulting defect, is quick and easy, but results in a white, patch-like scar in place of the original mole,” says New York City plastic surgeon Dr. Joshua D. Zuckerman. “On areas such as the back, arms, or legs, this is often not an issue cosmetically.”
For cosmetically sensitive areas such as the face, “direct excision of moles — cutting out the entire mole around its periphery using a scalpel, followed by closure of the resulting defect with carefully placed stitches — is often preferable,” adds Zuckerman. “The resulting scar is a thin, straight line, that can often be oriented to blend with the natural creases in the skin.”
Do plastic surgeons perform mole removal?
“Most of the time, due to the emphasis on cosmetics and concern for the scar, either dermatologists or plastic surgeons will remove moles,” says Taglienti. “Some general surgeons may perform the mole removal as well, depending on the mole’s size and location, and whether or not it has been shown to be cancerous.”
“It can also depend on the area that you live in,” adds Taglienti. “In some places, general practitioners or physicians more commonly remove the moles.”
Are there any effective home mole removal options?
Patients can sometimes be wary of ending up with scars after the surgical removal of moles. As a result, people have been known to opt for the use of home mole removal treatments, like store bought creams.
However, be very wary of any ‘do-it-yourself’ home remedies. Back in 2011, there were several incidences where the ingredients were causing severe burns, and the products were being recalled by the FDA.
As suggested above by Meinhardt, another thing to keep in mind is that certain creams may lead to melanoma when applied to moles.
Rather than selecting a treatment option yourself, it’s always best to have your moles and freckles reviewed by a licensed medical professional and follow their advice for appropriate skin treatments. “This is even more important if a patient has an extensive history of sun abuse or smokes,” adds Taglienti.
Another recent trend in home treatment is freckle remover pens. These devices, which typically look like a tattooing gun, puncture the skin with a small needle, and claim to treat freckles.
While online reviews are generally positive, there is little research available on freckle pens, and complications like scaring, could potentially occur. Freckle pens should not be seen as a replacement for treatment from a certified dermatologist, particularly in cases where moles and freckles are potentially cancerous.
There are also some suggestions that lemon juice helps lighten skin, as it’s a well-known bleaching agent. However, you’ll probably be chasing a dream here, as there’s no scientific evidence to prove that it helps lighten or remove freckles or moles.
Is cancerous mole removal different from the regular kind?
“If there is a concern that a mole is cancerous, then it should be evaluated by a dermatologist,” says Taglienti. “At that point, if there is continued concern, a biopsy of the mole will be taken. If it is cancerous, then depending on the type of cancer and depth of the mole, additional work may be needed.”
“Regardless, there are certain accepted standards by the surgical community as to the margins or area around that mole that need to be removed in addition to the mole itself to help decrease the chance of recurrence,” adds Taglienti. “This translates into a longer scar for the patient, but with the assurance that once the mole is removed, the potential for continued growth or spread is eliminated.”
The American Academy of Dermatology suggests the following self-test — also known as the ABCDE’s of melanoma — to help spot a suspicious mole:
A – Asymmetry. Look for moles that are asymmetric.
B – Borders. Be suspicious of moles with fuzzy borders.
C – Color. Notice moles with different shades of color or two-toned moles.
D – Diameter. Be suspicious moles that are larger than a quarter inch (6mm) in diameter.
E – Evolving. Look for moles that are changing.
Top 6 At-Home Freckle Removal Peels and Creams
In this section we explain the basic methods for removing freckles, and review some of the best at-home products that money can buy.
The first step in treating freckles is to make sure they’re not moles or more critically, that they are not melanomas — skin cancers that appear and develop quickly.
Freckles generally cluster together and aren’t raised, whereas moles are usually individual marks and often raised from the skin. Moles are also long lasting and don’t usually vary with sun exposure. If you’re not sure if you have a mole or a freckle, consult your doctor.
Once you’ve determined that you’re actually dealing with freckles, there are three main approaches to deal with them: laser treatments, bleaching creams, and chemical peels.
Lasers procedures, typically performed in the doctor’s office, are the most long-lasting, but also the most expensive, treatment. Laser removal is best suited to patients with lighter skin tones.
On the other hand, bleaching creams are better for patients with darker skin tones who wish to remove their freckles, though it can take several months of regular application before seeing results.
Generally considered to be a good middle ground, chemical peels are suitable for patients with all skin types. They also require several treatments before seeing results, thought fading will occur sooner than with bleaching creams.
Both bleaching creams and chemical peels are available over-the-counter for freckle removal at home, making them a convenient low-cost treatment option.
So which products are worth your money? Here are six products that are recommended by dermatologists.
DERMAdoctor Physical Chemistry Peel
Reviewers adore this high-performance exfoliating facial designed to mimic spa treatments. Physical Chemistry combines a chemical peel with a microdermabrasion agent in a single rejuvenating treatment that’s easy to use.
The product also includes a calming, hydrating complex so your skin won’t be left dry and raw, which tends to be a side effect of many other exfoliating treatments. It also helps brighten your skin by getting rid of dull, dead cells and revealing the new skin underneath.
In addition to lightening freckles, this peel addresses a host of other skin conditions:
- Fine lines
- Post-acne discoloration
- Enlarged pores
- Facial keratosis pilaris (chicken skin bumps)
- Blotchy skin discoloration due to sun damage
- Signs of aging
As an added bonus, the product is cruelty-free, dermatologist tested and approved, allergy tested, hypoallergenic, non-irritating, non-drying, and noncomedogenic. It’s also formulated without fragrance, dyes, or gluten, so if you’re sensitive to any of these ingredients, you’re in the clear.
DERMAdoctor Photodynamic Therapy Age Spot Eraser & Skin Brightener
Also by DERMAdoctor, this product is a facial lotion rather than a chemical peel. It’s gentle enough for everyday use, and can lighten a variety of skin concerns, including freckles, dark spots, age spots, and post-acne discoloration.
The lotion is enriched with noni fruit, mulberry, bearberry extract, licorice extract, azelaic acid, beta-carotene, diacetyl boldine, and dithiaoctanediol to brighten the skin and fight discoloration.
Like the peel, this product is cruelty-free, dermatologist tested and approved, allergy tested, hypoallergenic, non-irritating, and noncomedogenic, and is also formulated without fragrance, dyes, gluten, parabens, or phthalates.
Be sure to apply sunscreen and try to stay out of the sun while using this product, as you don’t want to accidentally give yourself more freckles through sun exposure.
Caudalie Glycolic Peel
Good for all skin types — normal, oily, combination, dry, and sensitive — this peel improves skin texture and leaves you feeling hydrated and glowy.
Active ingredients such as viniferine, papaya enzymes, and glycolic acid work together to reduce the appearance of freckles and dark spots, brightening your skin in the process. Caudalie recommends applying the mask twice a week for ten minutes after your regular face wash.
This two-in-one treatment is non-irritating, and people with sensitive skin say it doesn’t leave them feeling dry or tight like some other products. Caudalie is formulated without parabens, sulfates, or phthalates making it great for sensitive skin. Additionally, the product contains no animal ingredients and isn’t tested on animals.
It’s also non-comedogenic and non-photosensitizing, so it won’t make your skin more vulnerable to sunlight, which is very important when you’re trying to reduce freckles instead of develop more of them.
GLAMGLOW FLASHMUD Brightening Treatment
Another chemical peel, Flashmud helps reduce freckles through a combination of salicylic acid, lactic acid, and vitamin C. These ingredients work together to reduce freckles, dark spots, uneven skin tone, dullness, and uneven texture.
Not only will it help diminish your freckles, Flashmud will also help you look more youthful and radiant thanks to its trademarked blended compounds, Flashlucent for exfoliating and Reflectrum for brightening. The product does not contain parabens, sulfates, or phthalates.
To start off, Glamglow recommends three 20-minute treatments three days in a row before scaling down to two or three treatments a week to maintain results. This beloved peel comes in three sizes: the standard 1.7 oz, 0.5 oz for those just looking to try it, and 3.5 oz for committed believers who want to buy it in bulk.
Freckles can be frustrating to contend with, especially if they don’t fade on their own. Luckily, there are lots of reputable and affordable brightening treatments out there for those who wish to lighten their freckles.
These at-home freckle removal creams and peels take time to work, but people swear by them, saying that consistent use will leave you glowing and exfoliated — not to mention that your freckles will have lightened and potentially even disappeared.
However, if you’ve tried these products, or similar over-the-counter products, and they haven’t worked as you liked, or if you don’t think you’re a good candidates for creams and peels, you might want to look into laser removal for freckles.
»Looking into laser freckle removal? You can ask a doctor for more information about laser treatments.