In this article you'll learn:

1. What a melanocyte is

2. How moles differ from freckles

3. How sunspots form

4. How to pronounce Seborrheic Keratosis

5. Where melanomas commonly appear on men


Seeing dark spots on your face? Do they look warty or like a dollop of brown candle wax?

You're not alone. Most of us have growths on our skin, it's a large organ, after all, so it's inevitable. Starting with childhood freckles or moles, as we age, other spots appear, prompting a question as to their severity — and their origin.

Here's a users guide to help identify those dark spots on your face.


1. Mole

Just about everyone has moles, those evenly colored brown, tan, or black spots on the skin, that are either flat or raised, round or oval.

Blame it on melanocytes — the cells that produce pigment that gives skin its natural color. When these cells grow abnormally in a cluster instead of scattered throughout the skin, a mole develops. Moles can develop anywhere on your body (to the Ancient Greeks, a mole on your cheek foretold great wealth, while a mark on the back of the throat meant you’d be beheaded).

Having numerous moles is not unusual, nor alarming. But having more than 50 moles indicates an increased risk of melanoma.

“There’s a genetic component to moles, but I also see a lot of people with moles who are tanning-bed users,” said Dr. Steve, who notes that hormonal changes during adolescence may cause moles to become darker and larger. “So in some cases, limiting sun exposure and using sunscreen can actually prevent them.”

Dark Spots

2. Freckle

There are two categories of freckles: ephelides and solar lentigines. Ephelides are the common type most people think of as freckles.

For many people, freckles are a mark of early childhood. These spots on your face form as a result of overproduction of melanin, stimulated by sun exposure.

They’re harmless though, not nearly as worrisome as acne, and fade over time — unless you’re fair-skinned and red-haired like Ed Sheeran.

The best way to tell the difference between a mole and a freckle? Feel the area: freckles tend to be flat, while moles are often raised from the skin's surface and darker in color.

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3. Age spots or sunspots

Solar lentigines, a.k.a. age spots, are freckles for older people. The result of years of exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light, age spots occur because the production of melanin increases and causes clumping.

Usually age spots appear on the face, backs of hands, tops of feet, shoulders and upper back. Unlike freckles, which fade when sun exposure ceases, age spots stick around, maintaining their tan to dark brown color. That’s why they’re jokingly referred to as “mature freckles.”

Sunspots and age spots are harmless, but if you don't like how they look — and who does? — sometimes you can have them removed. Have a doctor check out any dark spots on your skin, and read this blog post about how to look younger at 40.


4. Seborrheic Keratosis (seb-o-REE-ik ker-uh-TOE-sis)

Because they appear at a later age and can have a wart-like appearance, seborrheic keratoses are often called the “barnacles of aging.” They often look like moles — usually brown, black or light tan, with a waxy, scaly and slightly raised texture — but their origin is a different type of skin cell than melanocytes.

“Often when someone's worried about a new mole in their 40s and 50s, it’s actually a seborrheic keratosis, one of the most common growths in humans,” said Dr. Steve. “Doctors don't know exactly what causes seborrheic keratosis, it could be genes. Although they’re non-malignant, they can get pretty big and unsightly.”

dark spots

5. Melanoma

Possible signs of melanoma include a change in the appearance of a mole or pigmented area. While benign moles are usually a single shade of brown, a melanoma may be tan or black.

Consult a doctor if a mole changes in size, shape, or color, has irregular edges, is more than one color, is asymmetrical, or itches, oozes, or bleeds.

Every few weeks, look for anything new or unusual on both sun-exposed and sun-protected areas of the body — especially in the trunk and torso, where melanomas commonly appear on men.

“Melanomas can arise anywhere on the skin,” said Dr. Steve. “Even in areas where the sun doesn’t shine.”


If you're reading this, you care about your skin. Let's take it up a notch: try the quick diagnostic and let's see what your skin needs.

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