A girl without freckles is like a night without stars

I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible – Jane Austen Northangar Abbey

Early last year whilst washing my hands I noticed what appeared to be a small speck of dirt on the palm of my hand, it was on the fleshy thumb part of the palm under the skin. At the time I was living in a very old Victorian house and as it was student accomodation the upkeep was minimal which meant there were plenty of opportunities around the house to encounter a splinter so I took no notice of my palm and didn’t worry too much.

Over the coming days and weeks this little piece of dirt grew and upon closer analysis was light brown and almost speckled in appearance. Now I do have a small and slightly gross confession to make at this point, being a biologist I had a dissection kit at my disposal with a great number of disinfected and ready to use scalpels on my shelf. So I took one of these sharper then sharp tools and cut my hand open, this might seem extreme but it wasn’t in the pursuit of vanity, more curiosity to see what was growing under my skin.

After all this frankly unscientific analysis I came to the conclusion that what I had growing on me was nothing more than a freckle. A (mostly) harmless little concentration of pigmentation, but weirdly on the palm of my hand! Old wives tales say that you get marks on the palms of your hands as a result of dishonest behaviour, putting my honesty and moral standards aside I really wondered what would cause a reaction to sunlight on such a thick piece of skin that rarely sees sun, in winter, in Durham.

So here comes the science in this so far unscientific science blog….. Freckles are more common in fair complexioned people on the upper arms, nose and cheeks and are a result of repeated exposure to sunlight. The concentration of a naturally occurring chemical in the skin “melanin” increases in small localisations. [1]

In simple terms there are two factors which cause freckles to form, firstly exposure to UV-B radiation. This causes a thickening of the epidermis and a greater collection of melanocytes to the exposed areas. UV-B light causes DNA damage which in turn signals for the release of melanin into the epidermis. Genetics determine what type of melanin will be released to either become a freckle or a sun-tan.

The second factor is genetic predisposition. This is the presence of the dominant melanocortin-1 receptor MC1R gene variant[2] which codes for a light receptor on the surface of melanocytes and so controls the amount of melanin released. Most people have the same number of melanocytes but it’s the quantity and type of melanin released which dictates how “freckly” or tanned a person will be.[3] Melanocytes (the cells which release melanin) are found throughout the body but are usually not found in a few areas, for example the palms of hands, the soles of feet and eyelids among others. However, when a melanocyte is present in these areas it can be activated as readily as it would be on the bridge of the nose. Despite my mother being very “freckly” I am not, I have about 4 freckles in total and so have discounted the genetic argument here as a reason for the freckle on my hand.

By writing and researching about freckles, I feel I’ve learnt about how and why they are formed but am still quite lost as to why UV would have activated a melanocyte on my hand rather than on my face which is exposed every day.

I could however choose to view this freckle differently and instead look at it as a mark of a “change and upheaval” in my life but an analysis into palmistry could be a very different blog.[4]

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One thought on “A girl without freckles is like a night without stars

  1. Peggie says:

    Oh I love this post! Thanks for linking to me! Since I’ve done some research myself on the science of freckles (not being a freckly person myself but having had several freckles come and go on the palms of my hands) and because I do in fact read hands as part of the life coaching work I do…

    I love the science-data of this. and the fact that it’s still a mystery!

    (And if that’s your hand in the picture there seems to be another freckle on the pinky side of the hand too)

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