Birthmarks: Facts vs. Myths

Most of us have some kind of birthmark, whether it's a tiny spot no one ever sees or a prominent port-wine stain. But very few of us know the facts about these marks and if they carry any associated risks. Here are some birthmark FAQs and clarifications of common misconceptions.

What are birthmarks?

Birthmarks are skin blemishes formed at birth or soon after. Some result from extra pigment in the skin, and others are the result of blood vessels that don't grow normally. Types of birthmarks include:

  • Café au lait spots, or smooth, light-brown marks that form all over the body.
  • Stork Bites or Salmon patches affect nearly half of babies and appear as irregularly-shaped, pink or tanned marks on the body.
  • Mongolian blue spots, or smooth, gray-blue blotches, usually appear lower on the body.
  • Nevi or Congenital moles are formed at birth and are generally not problematic, unless larger than 20 cm in diameter.
  • Hemanginomas are raised birthmarks formed by clumps of blood vessels that did not grow properly, and often shrink by age nine. Port-wine stains or nevus flammeus stem from malformed blood vessels and can grow larger over time.
  • Lymphatic malformations are sponge-like masses that occur when fluid accumulates, causing the lymphatic vessels to enlarge.
  • Arteriovenous Malformations (AVM) are a mass of veins and arteries that can be painful and usually form on the head and neck but can also form on the brain or spinal cord.

Are moles and birthmarks the same thing?

Most moles develop later in life, so only congenital moles are considered birthmarks. However, all moles bear watching since a change in these can be an early indication of skin cancer. Check moles monthly for any change in the size, color, irregularity, or asymmetry. Consider downloading the American Academy of Dermatology's mole map to track any changes.

What's the difference between a birthmark and beauty mark?

"Beauty mark" is not a scientific term; it simply refers to a birthmark or mole on the face, neck, or shoulders.

What causes birthmarks?

Scientists don't know why some children have them while others don't. Myths that they're related to something done or desired by mothers (such as a craving for strawberries causing a red mark) during pregnancy are completely unfounded.

How common are birthmarks?

  • More than 50 percent of us are born with some kind of birthmark.
  • 3 of every 1,000 children are born with port-wine stains.
  • 1 in 10 children are born with a vascular birthmark, and one percent of those kids will require medical intervention to deal with it.

Can birthmarks indicate health issues?

Generally, birthmarks are completely benign and nothing to worry about. However, a few can indicate or lead to potential health issues, especially large hemanginomas which can form open sores, or port-wine stains, which can be associated with glaucoma, seizures, and emotional troubles. The very rare congenital giant melanocytic naevus, a condition that develops from a congenital mole, can lead to melanoma. And AVMs often require medical intervention, especially if they're near the brain or spinal cord.

It's critical that a doctor examine any birthmarks on babies and young children in order to determine if any medical intervention or monitoring is required. Seek medical attention for any birthmark that bleeds, itches, hurts, or gets infected at any time during your life.

Should birthmarks be removed?

Most birthmarks do not need to be removed. However, cryosurgery (freezing), laser therapy, steroid application, and traditional surgery are often options to remove or lighten birthmarks. Recipes for herbal remedies are widely available, but exercise extreme caution when using these, especially with a baby's sensitive skin. If you have a birthmark that disturbs you, talk to your general physician or dermatologist before attempting any home care.



Sources: "Body Mole Map." American Academy of Dermatology. Web. 2008. "Can Birthmarks Turn Into Cancer?" Cancer Research UK. Web. June 14, 2011. "Birthmarks." Vascular Birthmarks Foundation. Web. 2011 "Types of Birthmarks." Web. 2011.