About one-third of all newborns have birthmarks, which are skin discolorations that are present at birth or develop in the first few weeks of life. Birthmarks can appear on any part of the body; vary in shape, size, and depth; and appear as light tan, brown, blue, red, or purple.
Many birthmarks disappear during childhood and don’t require treatment. But other birthmarks persist into adulthood and can cause serious emotional distress, especially if they affect the face or another visible part of the body.
Because they are sometimes associated with more serious conditions such as cancer, all birthmarks should be evaluated during a routine well-baby visit. Medical treatments are available for persistent birthmarks, but they may not be covered by insurance.
The Causes of Birthmarks
No one knows exactly why some babies have birthmarks and others don’t. Birthmarks can’t be prevented, aren’t inherited, and aren’t related to any environmental exposure during pregnancy.
Doctors divide birthmarks into two main categories:
- Red birthmarks, which are caused by a buildup of blood vessels close to the skin surface.
- Pigmented birthmarks, which are caused by a buildup of pigment that is different from the natural skin color.
The Types of Birthmarks
The most common types of red birthmarks (also known as vascular birthmarks) are:
- Café-au-lait spots, which resemble coffee mixed with milk.
- Mongolian spots, which are bluish or bruised-looking lesions on the lower back or buttocks, and usually affect darker-skinned people.
Medical Treatment of Birthmarks
There are no effective home treatments for birthmarks. But permanent birthmarks that are large enough to affect your appearance and self-esteem can be concealed with special cosmetics such as Covermark.
Increasingly, doctors are using lasers to treat permanent birthmarks. Yellow-light lasers are particularly effective because they can damage the abnormal blood vessels, causing the birthmark to shrink or even disappear, without damaging the surrounding skin. Treatments such as surgical excision or freezing (cryotherapy) are more likely to cause permanent scarring.
Laser treatments can completely remove macular stains and some hemangiomas. But rapidly growing hemangiomas — especially those affecting the eyes, nose, mouth, or genitals — are usually treated with injected or oral corticosteroids, sometimes in combination with laser therapy. Laser treatments can also occasionally remove port-wine stains, but they usually just lighten the lesions’ appearance by 50 percent to 90 percent, and are sometimes totally ineffective.
Although most birthmarks are harmless, there’s no question that they can mar your appearance. But recent medical advances, especially in laser technology, have improved the odds that you won’t have to live with a birthmark for life.