If you’re a new parent or the proud bearer of a birthmark all your own, you may have some questions about birthmarks. Why do people get birthmarks, and where do they come from? What can be done about an unwanted birthmark? Read on to find out more.
Birthmarks are a part of life for many people. Learn about the various types of birthmarks that exist, how they’re distinguished from each other and which types might be a cause for concern. Finally, learn about how to accept your birthmark — or, if not, peruse some common treatment options.
What is a birthmark?
Birthmarks are skin lesions that can vary in size, shape and color. They may appear blue or blue-gray, brown, tan, black, pink, white, red or purple and may be smooth or raised. While many birthmarks are of no medical significance, all birthmarks should be checked by a doctor, especially those that grow or change in color, texture or shape. Call your doctor if a birthmark ever bleeds, hurts, itches or becomes infected.
A few facts about birthmarks:
- They don’t always develop right at birth; sometimes a birthmark develops several weeks later.
- Not all birthmarks are permanent; some fade with age.
- Newborns may develop spots that look like birthmarks but disappear once they’ve been out of the womb a short while.
- Birthmarks are often more sensitive than regular skin and may require extra sun protection (especially pigmented birthmarks).
- More than one in 10 babies is born with a vascular birthmark or develops one in the first few weeks of life.
Types of birthmarks
Medically, birthmarks are referred to as “nevi” (plural) or a “nevus” (singular). There are two basic types:
- Vascular. These reddish lesions are caused when blood vessel abnormalities allow blood to accumulate beneath the surface of skin.
- Pigmented. This common, mole-like lesion is caused by an overgrowth of cells that form a darkened patch of pigment.
Unfortunately, neither vascular nor pigmented birthmarks are preventable. Also, birthmarks aren’t linked with trauma during pregnancy or childbirth and are usually not hereditary.
The most common types of vascular birthmarks include:
Macular stains. These are the most common type of birthmark, also called Angel’s Kisses (when located on forehead, eyelids, tip of nose or upper lip) and Stork Bites or Salmon Patches (when found on back of neck). They’re usually flat and require no treatment. Angel’s Kisses most often disappear by age two, while Stork Bites persist into adulthood.
Hemangiomas. Hemangiomas are raised clusters of abnormal blood vessels and usually appear blue, red or purple. Those that develop on the top layers of skin are known as Strawberry hemangiomas, while Cavernous hemangiomas occur deeper beneath the surface. Most hemangiomas occur on the head or neck, and are common in females and premature babies. About 30 percent of hemangiomas are visible at birth, while the rest develop within one to four weeks after birth. Rarely is a hemangioma fully grown at birth. Most continue to grow for up to 18 months and then begin a slow regression that lasts between three and 10 years.
Port-wine stains. Port-wine stains are flat, pink, red or purplish stains that occur in three in 1,000 infants. They’re permanent and grow proportionately with the child, often becoming thicker and darker with age. Port-wine stains on the forehead, eyelids and face can be associated with glaucoma, seizures and Sturge-Weber syndrome, so infants with port-wine stains in these areas should have a thorough eye exam. Port-wine stains may be caused by Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber syndrome, a congenital medical condition in which blood vessels or lymph vessels don’t form properly.
The most common types of pigmented birthmarks include:
Congenital nevus. Congenital nevi are large, dark-colored moles (usually dark brown) that vary in size and shape and can grow anywhere on the body. They may also have hair growing from them. Children with a large congenital nevus at birth (usually larger than a fist) have an increased risk of developing skin cancer as adults. This skin cancer risk is relative to the size, shape, location and color of the mole.
Café-au-lait spots. These smooth, light brown-to-chocolate brown spots can appear anywhere on the body, although they’re usually located on the torso, buttocks and legs. They’re very common, but if your child has more than six of these spots, check with your doctor as this may signal the genetic disorder Neurofibromatosis.
Mongolian blue spots. Also called slate-blue nevi, these birthmarks are often uneven in shape and occur on the lower back and buttocks. They’re more common in darker-skinned babies, especially those of Asian heritage, and may disappear later in childhood. They do not become cancerous or develop other symptoms.
Treatment options for birthmarks:
Most birthmarks are left untreated, unless they pose a health risk. However, because birthmarks often cause social and emotional side effects, many individuals or parents will seek treatments to minimize their appearance. Many treatments for birthmarks are controversial, especially in children, as they can be painful and aren’t always effective.
Pigmented birthmarks generally don’t cause any problems, so they’re not often treated – with the exception of moles, which might be removed if they’re believed to be a cancer risk. Café-au-lait spots are sometimes removed with lasers, but unfortunately can return.
The following treatments are used for hemangiomas:
- Steroids. Both oral and injected steroids are used to treat hemangiomas – but talk to your child’s doctor about adverse side effects associated with steroids and children, such as immune system problems. Most hemangiomas will shrink significantly on their own by age nine.
- Lasers. Lasers are also used to shrink hemangiomas and fade port-wine stains. This is generally a good option as side effects are mostly limited to bruising over the treatment area. Marks on the head and neck are particularly easy to treat; sometimes treatment will be started during infancy.
- Surgery. Because surgery brings risks like infection and scarring, it should be saved for more extreme skin issues, like removing a mole that might be cancerous. Some people do, however, go through surgery to remove hemangiomas that are done growing. Be sure to ask your doctor about potential scarring, which could be worse than the original mark.
- Makeup. If you’re an adult and have a birthmark on your face, you always have the option of using high-quality concealer to even out your skin tone. Cover FX Conceal FX Medium is water-resistant and contains self-adjusting pigments to ensure a smooth appearance.
A birthmark is as individual as you are, so don’t see it as a nuisance. In most cases, a tube of concealer is all you need to help a birthmark blend in to the rest of your skin. If you’re a parent, do your best to help your child see that birthmarks are a natural part of life. Unless the mark is a medical issue or significantly affects your quality of life, you most likely won’t need to undergo professional procedures for a birthmark.
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