Freckles used to be a ‘flaw.’ Now people are paying for fake ones.

August 2, 2023

When Hailey Buchanan was a little kid, other children at school teased her for having freckles. She hated it. She came to hate the freckles themselves, reports The Washington Post.

Then, as we all do, Buchanan, 23, grew up; she became an aesthetician and opened her own beauty studio in Puyallup, Washington, called Face Yourself Beauty. And perhaps you can imagine how she felt when she began to see—first on TikTok and Instagram; then, this year, in her own studio—women with spotless, even, doll-like complexions determined to get freckles. “Now,” she says with an incredulous laugh, “it’s, like, the trend.

Earlier this year, Buchanan added semi-permanent fake freckles to her menu of services. The freckles are similar in application to the eyebrow-tattooing procedure known as “microblading,” and can last up to three years before fading. This summer, Buchanan has done the procedure—which can take more than an hour and costs up to $225—for about two clients every week.

America has done a 180 on freckles. Freckle filters started to pop up on Snapchat and Instagram around 2019—adding the tiny sun-dappled dots to a photo subject’s image with the help of machine learning. Since then, technology aimed at adding faux freckles on the actual face has proliferated, in both studios like Buchanan’s and in American beauty-retail chains.

When you search “freckle” on Ulta’s website, the results are a surreal mix of “dark spot clearing” serums and freckle-creation tools. (In the latter group: the Lime Crime Freckle Pen, the Nabla Freckle Maker and a tiny pointed detail brush with a perfectly freckle-sized tip.) And Freck, the self-identified original freckle-pen product introduced in 2017, has become the best-known name in the faux-freckle game, arriving in Sephora stores in 2021.

In a relatively short time, in other words, freckles have transformed from an imperfection to an acceptable trait to, now, a booming cosmetic industry. In part, that’s because attitudes—toward bodies, toward skin, toward certain “flaws”—have changed. It’s also because, despite all that, beauty as a business hasn’t changed; it continues to decide and decree what is beautiful then profit from consumers’ desire to have it.

Freckles have had a bad reputation for pretty much ever, according to Susan Stewart, a Scottish librarian and the author of “Painted Faces: A Colourful History of Cosmetics.” In the 17th century, she notes, “they were considered the mark of the devil.” On a more practical level, too, freckles indicated that a person had been exposed to the sun—suggestive of working outside. “If you had a pale face, you were probably upper class, elite,” Stewart says, “so that’s where makeup came in. White makeup, to cover up [freckles and create] their sort of ideal complexion: pale with a hint of rosy cheeks.”

Makeup artist Jenna Kristina, who added a multitude of faux freckles to actress Zoey Deutch’s face when she was on the cover of Vogue Thailand, tends to think of freckles as similar to a tan. When you come home from a wonderful summer vacation, makeup-free and rested, Kristina says, “you have freckles. And it’s almost like a mark of happiness, a mark of joy, a mark of a good time had.”

Kristina believes certain celebrities with natural freckles have boosted the movement toward acceptance—figures such as Lucy Liu, Gisele Bündchen, Alicia Keys, and model Adwoa Aboah (whose face was the main image in a 2015 Vogue story about Black women who were embracing their freckles).

“I have friends [who] are models and when they were younger, they couldn’t get booked to save their lives,” Kristina says. “Everybody would be like, ‘Can you cover their freckles?’

But ever since the mid-2010s, her freckled friends’ likenesses have been in high demand. Freckled models were likely considered a subversive creative choice at first, but have since been described as a hallmark of the clean, pleasant, naturalistic direct-to-consumer marketing aesthetic that dominated the mid-2010s.

This past spring, Christen Stevenson, a 29-year-old media buyer in Bloomfield, N.J., finally bought a tube of Freck after she and her friends had been exposed to tutorial after tutorial on TikTok for applying fake freckles. With a pointed felt tip like that of a liquid eyeliner, Freck’s freckle pen darkens the skin within seconds. Best practices, according to the website and many users, are to make a natural-looking sequence of spots, give them five to ten seconds; then blot the tiny constellation with a fingertip and “copy-paste” it elsewhere on the face. The technology is easy to navigate; varying size and opaqueness enough to avoid looking like a Cabbage Patch doll is considerably harder.

On days when she doesn’t feel like wearing makeup, Stevenson says, freckles offer a little something extra—a way to enjoy her own face without investing a full-glam amount of time in it. “When everyone’s doing it, you know, you want to do it, too,” she says with a laugh. “I do like it, though. I think they’re cute. I wish they were real.”

That said, Stevenson has no plans to shell out for permanent fake ones. Long-lasting freckle tattoos, she says euphemistically, are “a choice.”

Research contact: @washingtonpost