What Eye Freckles Can Tell You About Your Health

These iris specks aren't rare, and they might be an indicator of too much sun exposure.

Have you ever noticed little specks in the iris (the colored part) of your eyes? Research published in 2017 in the journal Investigative Ophthalmology & Visual Science shed some light on these so-called eye freckles, and why some people have them and others don't.

What Are Eye Freckles?

The specks occur in about 50% of the population, according to 2018 research published in the British Journal of Dermatology, but the incidence can vary among different ethnic groups and geographic regions.

They are defined as clusters of abnormal melanocytes, or melanin-generating cells, that sit on the surface of the iris.

What Can Cause Eye Freckles?

The researchers who authored the Investigative Ophthalmology & Visual Science article said that, like skin freckles, eye freckles may develop in response to sun exposure.

"In dermatology, the appearance of hyperpigmented spots—especially in chronic sun-damaged skin—is linked to a high lifetime accumulation of sunlight," study author Christoph Schwab, MD, wrote in an email to Health. "We think that the pathway involved in iris freckles formation could be quite similar," explained Dr. Schwab.

To investigate this theory, Dr. Schwab, who is an ophthalmologist at the Medical University of Graz in Austria, teamed up with other ophthalmologists and dermatologists to examine the skin and eyes of more than 600 people. The researchers also collected information from the participants about their history of sun exposure, including the number of sunburns they'd had, and their use of sun protection.

Possible Related Risks

The research findings pointed to some possible risk factors that could be associated with eye freckles. The study participants who had eye freckles had a few other things in common as well:

  • They tended to be older than folks who had no eye freckles.
  • They were more likely to report a high number of sunburns during their lifetime.
  • They tended to have sun-damaged skin and age spots (aka sun spots, or actinic lentigines).

The researchers wrote in their paper that these findings "seem to suggest that iris freckles indicate a high cumulative dose of lifetime sun exposure."

They also noted that eye freckles were more common in the study participants than they are in the general population, reporting that 76% of the participants in the study possessed at least one eye freckle. The study authors suggested that this could possibly be because the participants were recruited from public swimming pools: They may have led outdoorsy lifestyles, the authors speculated, with greater exposure to UV light than the average person.

Common Eye Freckle Locations

What Dr. Schwab found most fascinating was the location of most eye freckles: the lower, outer section of the iris. One potential explanation is that the eyebrows and nose help shield the inner and upper quadrants of the iris—leaving the lower, outer sections more exposed to the sun's rays, Dr. Schwab suggested.

Significance of Eye Freckles

While eye freckles themselves are usually benign, they may serve as a warning sign for sun-related health problems, the researchers concluded. "The presence of iris freckles also indicates sun damage to the skin, a risk factor for several different kinds of skin cancer. Within this context, there is certainly a need for further studies investigating the association between skin cancer and iris freckles," they wrote.

In fact, a research study published in 2020 in the journal Dermatologic Therapy found that participants who had precancerous skin changes were more likely to have eye freckles than participants who didn't have these precancerous skin changes. The researchers said that the results did not point to a specific recommendation, but added that people who have precancerous skin lesions might benefit from eye exams.

More research on iris specks might also help doctors understand the role that sunlight plays in conditions like macular degeneration and cataracts. "The investigation of iris freckles in several eye diseases could lead to new knowledge regarding their pathogenesis," said Dr. Schwab.

Summary

Sunlight is, of course, beneficial for mood, and it's needed for getting your supply of vitamin D. And while excess sunlight has long been known to cause damage to skin health, it might also be harmful to your eyes.

Dr. Schwab urged caution: "If someone exhibits iris freckles, especially [at a] young age, I would reconsider current sun protection strategies." To keep your skin safe and your eyes freckle-free, remember to apply plenty of SPF (yes, even when it's cloudy), and wear shades or a hat to shield your peepers from the sun.

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