Decoding All of the Different Spots on Your Skin

From pimples to moles: Why they’re there, and how to make them go away.


Your skin is like the night sky.

(I am not on drugs. Please just hear me out.)

Ahem, your skin is like the night sky, peppered with various otherworldly spots that confuse and bewilder the majority of us. To make sense of these markings, we asked some friendly dermatologists to tell us all about the many bumps and blemishes that plague our epidermis. Here’s what we learned…   

Let’s start with those dreaded spots that we’re all too familiar with: Pimples. While we’re more often cursed with acne during our teenage years, when hormone surges cause the sebaceous glands to produce excess oil that clogs the pores, many of us experience adult acne as a result of sweat. When we sweat, the salty liquid acts like a pipe cleaner for our pores, pushing out any dirt and grime that lodged itself in our skin. But that sweat and dirt mixture will settle back into your pores (and cause acne) if given the chance.

For this reason, washing your face twice per day — once in the morning, and once before bed — is an essential part of reducing acne. “It’s especially important to wash your face before bed if you have oily skin, because a buildup of oil and sloughed-off skin cells on the skin’s surface can contribute to whiteheads and blackheads,” says dermatologist Rajani Katta. “For my patients who have oily skin and are prone to acne, I often recommend medicated cleansers twice a day to remove oil and skin cells that may clog the pores (and to reduce inflammation).”

But above all: Never pop a pimple yourself, no matter how tempting. Doing so is an open invitation for red, splotchy skin and infection, which will almost certainly be worse than that tiny zit.

Less annoying than pimples, these tiny brown spots are the result of pigment-producing cells called melanocytes producing more pigment than usual. This happens when these cells are exposed to UVA or UVB rays, prompting them to pump out dark pigment (aka, melanin) in an attempt to protect the skin from the sun’s harmful rays by either reflecting or absorbing them.

While freckles are usually benign, they’re also a sign that you’re spending too much time under the sun, which can eventually lead to skin cancer. So if you’re noticing constant freckling in large quantities, dermatologist Anthony Rossi recommends wearing a hat and applying broad spectrum sunscreen of at least SPF 30 every two hours you’re under the sun. Chances are, the freckles that are already there will probably go away given enough time out of the sun.

Similar to freckles, moles are caused by melanocytes — when a bunch of those cells collect in one area, they sort of cluster together to form a mole. Most of us are simply born with moles, but they can also form as a result of too much sun exposure.

The majority of moles are an eyesore at worst, but it’s important to keep an eye on them to ensure they don’t become atypical, since that’s an early sign of melanoma. If you don’t know how to tell whether a mole is dangerous or not, use the “ABCDE” rule:

A = Asymmetry: The mole isn’t perfectly symmetrical.

B = Border: The border of the mole is irregular or jagged.

C = Color: There are multiple colors — i.e., red, black and brown — within the mole.

D = Diameter: The diameter of the mole is larger than six millimeters, or the size of a pencil eraser.

E = Evolving: The mole is changing shape or size.

If any of those rules apply to your mole (or you simply want it removed), get it checked out by a dermatologist right away.

Ingrown Hairs
These pesky bumps occur when the hair shaft makes its way out of the skin, curls back onto itself and re-enters the skin. Ingrown hairs are usually nothing to write home about, though: They’re more an unsightly nuisance than anything and will typically resolve themselves in just a few days.

Still, they’re easy enough to avoid: Shave in the direction of the hair growth, especially around the neck and chin, which are particularly prone to these annoying buggers. You want to do this because shaving with the hair growth slices the hair flush against the skin, rather than leaving a pointed tip that’s likely to coil back into the follicle. Another trick is to exfoliate before shaving to prevent dead skin from clogging the hair follicle and trapping the hair.

Broken Blood Vessels
When a blood vessel bursts, a small amount of blood may show up just beneath the surface of the skin. This can happen for various reasons — ranging from allergic reactions to aging — but more often than not, broken blood vessels are a result of trauma (e.g., overly-aggressive exfoliating or pimple-popping).

Normally, these small pockets of blood will mend themselves in a matter of days or weeks (icing the area for 10 minutes at a time can also expedite the healing process), however, you should visit your doctor if you’re experiencing any kind of pain or swelling.

Well, there you have it: Now you know all about those pesky spots on your skin. Also, I’m still not on drugs… just in case anyone was wondering.