Birthmarks

Birthmarks are very common and appear on the skin at birth or shortly afterwards. They come in a variety of colours and sizes and usually develop on the face and neck. But they can develop on any part of the body.

Birthmarks are either pigmented or vascular. Pigmented birthmarks are brown in colour whereas vascular birthmarks have a purple, pink or red colour due to a problem with blood vessels underneath the skin.

Types of birthmarks

There are several types of birthmarks which include:

  • Port wine stains
  • Strawberry marks
  • Salmon patches
  • Café-au-lait spots
  • Congenital naevi
  • Mongolian spots

You may have heard of port wine stains or strawberry marks but are less familiar with the other terms.

These birthmarks fall into two categories – vascular birthmarks and pigmented birthmarks.

Vascular birthmarks

Medical experts categorise these into the following:

  • Vascular malformations
  • Haemangiomas

Vascular malformations

These birthmarks occur due to abnormal blood vessels in the skin which cause those characteristic marks on the face. The deeper the blood vessels the deeper the colour of the birthmark: for example, affected blood vessels on the surface of the skin will result in a pink or purple birthmark: but if deep seated blood vessels are affected then these will result in a blue birthmark.

These birthmarks are either raised or flat on the surface of the skin.

Typical examples of these include port wine stains and salmon patches. The port wine stain deepens in colour during adolescence, pregnancy and the menopause which is due to fluctuating hormones. This type of birthmark stays with you for life.

Salmon patches take the form of a flat pink area of skin which develops on the back of the neck or the forehead. This common birthmark disappears a few months after birth.

Haemangiomas

These develop for the same reasons as vascular malformations. They take the form of small, raised red spots on the surface of the skin which fade over time. A typical example is the strawberry birthmark.

These birthmarks rapidly increase in size to start with but slow down after that. Most of these birthmarks disappear over time but larger marks stretch the skin as they do which pushes the skin out of shape.

This type of birthmark affects girls more than boys.

Pigmented birthmarks

This type of birthmark is present from birth and is typically black or brown in colour. Their colour is determined by the amount of melanin in the skin and the greater the amount the darker the birthmark.

There is more than one type of pigmented birthmark which includes Mongolian spots and Café-au-lait spots.

Café-au-lait spots

These occur as a result of a genetic disorder which results in abnormal cell growth in nerve tissues. These are usually light coffee coloured – hence the name – and oval in shape.

Mongolian spots

These birthmarks mainly affect dark skinned people. They have a bluish colour and look very similar to a bruise. They appear at birth and develop across the chest, back and arms.

Congenital nevi

This is another name for moles: these are present from birth and are larger in size than pigmented nevi. There is a slightly increased risk of skin cancer with these moles which means that they need to be examined on a regular basis.

Pigmented nevi

Another type of mole: these are black or brown in colour and develop anywhere on the skin. Moles occur when cells within the skin form a cluster rather than spread throughout the skin. Another name for moles is melanocytes.

Moles darken in colour during adolescence, as a result of sun exposure and during pregnancy.

Mole management

A word about moles: it is a good idea to get into a habit of checking your moles on a regular basis especially if you are fair skinned. Some people have more moles than others which place them at a higher risk of skin cancer.

Skin cancer is curable if caught at an early stage so if you notice anything unusual about a mole then visit your GP as soon as possible. It may be something or nothing but it is better to check and find out.

Find out more in our moles section.

Treatment for birthmarks

Some types of birthmarks disappear in childhood but others require medical intervention. This means a skin camouflage cream or laser therapy.

Haemangiomas usually disappear after a period of time but large or severe haemangiomas can become life threatening and require treatment. This is especially the case if they have formed around the eyes, nose or mouth as they will affect sight and breathing.

Laser treatment will remove the birthmark but additional treatment such as a tracheostomy will be needed if there is difficulty in breathing.

Laser therapy is discussed in more detail in our dermatology treatments section.