How to Differentiate Between a Mole and a Freckle

Mole vs. Freckle
Close-up of female face showing lightly pigmented spots on upper cheek.

Google “abnormal dark spots on the skin” and you will get tons of results on skin disorders. Moles and freckles are two of the most common skin conditions that practically anybody can develop at some point in their life. A mole can easily be confused as a freckle, and vice versa. 

For the most part, both of these types of skin conditions are benign (harmless) growths. But the appearance of either a mole or freckle or any changes in their physical characteristics could be indicative of another problem. Identifying them correctly, therefore, is important to also figure out if there is cause for concern. 

What are freckles?

Freckles are small, beige or brown spots on the skin that are roughly circular in shape. These spots typically form symmetrical clusters in areas of the body that are constantly exposed to the sun, such as the face (around the nose and cheeks), chest, shoulders, arms, and legs; but it is not unusual to only have one or a few freckles. They are more common among light-skinned individuals. 

Freckles have a tendency to become lighter in color during winter. They are harmless and are rarely considered as blemishes; some even find freckles beautiful. Others find their spots unappealing and opt to remove them by using topical creams or through laser treatment. 

What is a mole?

Moles are also pigmented spots that are typically light or dark brown, or even black. They are normally circular in shape, with a distinct edge. Moles can appear as flat and smooth spots, or as raised bumps, and with or without hair. Moles occur as individual growths, but a person can have 10 to 40 moles practically anywhere on the body. But, like freckles, they mostly appear in areas that receive regular sun exposure. Some moles are considered beauty marks; while others can be unsightly, especially when they are dark, big, with hair, and appear in a conspicuous area of the body. 

A mole can become lighter or darker in color over time; it can also get bigger and change in shape. Such changes in its physical appearance are usually harmless, but if the change is sudden, it can be indicative of skin cancer and require medical attention. A mole that also itches and/or bleeds should be checked immediately. A malignant (cancerous) mole requires surgical removal. Benign moles may also be removed if the person feels that they are a cosmetic problem. 

The ABCDE guide is recommended by dermatologists to help determine if a mole is showing symptoms of malignancy: 

A – Asymmetry, if the mole’s shape becomes irregular. 

B – Border, if the mole’s distinct border starts to fade or becomes indistinct. 

C – Color, if the mole becomes suddenly darker. 

D – Diameter, if the mole suddenly grows bigger, particularly if it increases beyond 6mm.

E – Evolution, if the mole undergoes any drastic and sudden changes in form/appearance.

You can learn more about what signs you should watch out for in this self-examination guide from The American Academy of Dermatology. 

Moles vs Freckles

Growths vs. Spots
Image of the back with multiple dark spots.

Physical characteristics

Moles and freckles can look similar to each other, especially when the mole also appears as a flat and lightly colored spot on the skin. If the spot has a distinct edge and becomes darker over time, it is most likely a mole. 

Genetic predisposition

Both moles and freckles tend to run in families. When it comes to genetics, however, freckles are more common among fair-skinned individuals, especially those with reddish hair and green eyes. On the other hand, people of all races can develop moles.  

Growth pattern

Unlike moles, freckles typically grow in symmetrical clusters, i.e. they appear on both sides of the body, such as both cheeks or both arms, and in a similar pattern, shape, size, and color. Moles normally appear as individual growths and not in groups, although several moles can appear close together within the same area. 

Location

Freckles normally appear on areas of the body that get regular sun exposure: the face, especially around the nose and cheeks; the chest and shoulders; and the arms and legs. Moles can appear anywhere on the body, even on the scalp, the genital area, and the soles of the feet. 

Age factor

Even if they are genetically predisposed to having them, it is rare for babies to be born with freckles; they do develop them very early in life. It is normal for some babies to be born with moles, on the other hand; but most moles only start to appear during young adulthood. 

Sensitivity

Freckles do not become sensitive to the touch. Moles, on the other hand, can feel tender, and this can be an indication of a health problem. 

Malignancy

Freckles can never become malignant. They remain harmless all through life. In comparison, some moles can remain benign throughout one’s life, while others can become malignant and lead to melanoma – a type of skin cancer. 

Aesthetic factor

Freckles are often considered an attractive feature, especially when they appear on the face. A mole can be considered a beauty mark by some, especially since the famous model Cindy Crawford redefined it as such. But depending on its appearance and location, a mole can be an unattractive physical flaw that some people want removed. 

When moles become a cause for concern

As discussed above, any sudden and drastic changes in the appearance of a mole require a visit to the doctor. A mole that becomes tender or itchy, or that bleeds should be immediately checked. A mole can become malignant and develop into skin cancer, so early detection and treatment is of utmost importance. 

Monitoring the appearance of your moles, particularly if you have a lot of them all over your body, can prove tricky. The best way to keep a close eye on them is by having regular skin cancer screening. Staying out of the sun and wearing protective clothing and sun screen are precautions you should always take if you are prone to developing moles. 

How are moles removed?

Doctors highly recommend that moles that pose a health risk be removed through surgery. The specific removal method will depend on where the mole is located and your overall condition. Because the mole removal is medically necessary, it should be covered by your health insurance. 

If you want a mole removed due to cosmetic reasons, the same treatment options as those offered for malignant moles are also available to you. Having a dermatologist perform the removal procedure should be your number one option if your goal is to improve how you look and you don’t want the mole to be replaced by a scar. But there are also alternative treatments you can do at home. Bigger moles are more prone to bleeding when removed and, therefore, will also require proper treatment by a doctor. 

Removal can be done through laser treatment, cryotherapy, or surgical excision. These are the most commonly recommended procedures offered by doctors. 

Final words

Differentiating freckles from moles can be confusing, but if you know exactly what to look for, you can properly identify what you have and figure out if you should be concerned. When in doubt, always consult a doctor. There are good answers that can be found online, but some sources may only end up causing you more confusion, if not misleading you outright. Hopefully, the information provided in this article offers clarification rather than confusion.