Updated 05 July 2013

Your birthmarks

It’s just another one of those things that makes you endearingly you: that curiously shaped mark on your left buttock by which your mother would know you anywhere.

It’s just another one of those things that makes you endearingly you: that curiously shaped mark on your left buttock by which your mother would know you anywhere.

What are birthmarks?
Most birthmarks are literally that: a mark on the skin that’s already present when you’re born. Some appear in the first few weeks of life.

It’s not yet understood why we get them or how to prevent them, but fortunately most are completely harmless and insignificant. Many fade in early childhood. Others are companions for life, growing as you grow.

Some birthmarks, however – and these are in the minority - are no joke if they’re dark and on a prominent skin area (like your face). Others may be precursors to cancer. So, a baby with birthmarks should always have these medically checked and assessed for treatment.

Café-au-lait and strawberries
Birthmarks can be red, pink, brown, beige, blue-ish or black. They fall into two main categories: ‘pigmented’ and ‘red’.

Pigmented birthmarks are a different shade to the rest of your skin. They’re commonly called café-au-lait (because they’re usually light tan spots, the colour of milky coffee), and usually don’t suggest anything serious. However, if you have several café-au-lait spots with an area larger than a R2 coin, get them checked by your doctor: they might indicate neurofibromatosis, a genetic disease that causes abnormal nerve tissue growth.

Red birthmarks, also known as vascular birthmarks, can range from tiny pink dots to large, deep-red marks. They are caused by the overgrowth of small blood vessels near the skin’s surface. Like pigmented birthmarks, most red birthmarks aren’t problematic and many in fact fade or even disappear in childhood. Port-wine stains are another matter, however: these purple-to-red birthmarks occur most often on the face, tend to be permanent unless treated, and can be a real cosmetic headache.

When a mark is a blemish
If you can’t learn to love your ‘special mark’, don’t despair. Some men who prefer to cover their birthmarks use special corrective cosmetics. Ask about these at any counter that carries men’s cosmetics lines, or ask your pharmacist.

If you’re looking for a more solution, consult a dermatologist or plastic surgeon to find out if this would be appropriate in your case. Treatments available include laser surgery, incisional (i.e. cutting) surgery, and freezing the area of skin.

As with any skin lesion, spot or blemish, see your doctor if you notice a change in colour, size, or texture of a birthmark, or if there’s any pain, itching or inflammation – better safe than sorry.

Did you know?

  • Probably the most famous birthmark was the port-wine stain on Mikhail Gorbachev’s pate (didn’t seem to hold him back).
  • Myths about birthmarks abound. Most blame the mother e.g. she ate too many red-coloured foods like strawberries when she was pregnant, or simply craved them!

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