Birthmarks 101 – What You Need to Know

March 27, 2019

infant with birthmarks

Whether you’re a new parent who isn’t quite sure what to do about your infant’s birthmark or you’ve lived with one your whole life, you may not know much about these unique marks on the skin. If you have a very noticeable birthmark, you may have felt uncomfortable or embarrassed by it throughout your life or even tried to cover it up. Birthmarks are actually very common, and while many are hidden, almost everyone has at least one. Keep reading to learn more about birthmarks, what they are, where they come from, and whether or not you should consult with a dermatologist at U.S. Dermatology Partners to learn more.

What are Birthmarks?

True to their name, birthmarks are small marks or discolorations on the skin. Some are on the skin from birth and others show up days or weeks after birth. These marks can appear in many shapes, sizes, and colors. Some are so small, pale, or hidden that you may not even notice them. Whether it’s a dark, noticeable spot or small, pale discoloration, most people have at least one birthmark, and many people have numerous marks.

Are There Different Types of Birthmarks?

Many people think birthmarks all look the same, but actually, there are many different types of birthmarks, including those outlined below.

Pigmented Birthmarks

Pigment determines what color our skin will be. Pigmented birthmarks occur when people have more pigment in one part of the skin. Three main types are moles, café-au-lait spots, and congenital dermal melanocytosis (previously called, ‘Mongolian Spots’).

  • Moles – moles can develop at any point in life, but if someone is born with a mole, it is considered to be a birthmark. Typically no larger than a pencil eraser, moles are usually small, round spots that are pink, tan, brown, or black in color.
  • Café-au-lait spots – these pigmented marks are named for their color. Café-au-lait is French for “coffee with milk,” and on light-skinned people, these birthmarks are usually a light brown shade though they can be darker in color when appearing on people whose skin is also darker. These spots vary in size, but they are usually oval-shaped. Most café-au-lait spots will lighten over the years, but they do not typically go away completely.
  • Congenital Dermal Melanocytosis – these marks are usually gray or blue in color and most often appear on the backs and buttocks of infants with darker skin coloring. In many cases, these spots fade away, but they sometimes remain in place throughout development.

Vascular Birthmarks

The vascular system is made up of the heart and blood vessels, and it moves blood through the body. In some cases, numerous blood vessels will clump together, and they can be seen in the skin. These are known as vascular birthmarks. Three main types are salmon patches, hemangiomas, and port wine stains.

  • Salmon patches (flat stains) – these marks are usually flat and have a pink-ish red coloring that is similar to salmon. They are often seen on the face, neck, back, and shoulders. Light in coloring, you may only notice these marks when a child is crying, and almost all salmon patch birthmarks are completely gone by adulthood.
  • Hemangiomas – There are two forms of hemangiomas – superficial and deep. Superficial marks look like small, red-colored moles on the skin that are often referred to as “strawberry marks.” Deep hemangiomas can look blue in coloring because of the blood vessels. Both superficial and deep hemangiomas can grow quickly for the first six months, but they typically disappear within the first few years of development. Very large hemangiomas may leave scars that need to be corrected.
  • Port wine stains – these marks are usually large, and they appear on the face, neck, arms, and legs. They are named because they look like a red wine spill on the skin. They can be small or very large when they appear, but these marks only grow as the child grows. Over time, the port wine stains typically darken and thicken, creating a hard pebble-like texture below the skin that can be uncomfortable. Most people can still cope with these birthmarks without the need for medical assistance, but port wine stains around the eyes often need to be removed. These birthmarks will remain in place unless professionally removed.

What Causes Birthmarks?

The cause of most birthmarks is a mystery. There are many “old wives’ tales” about birthmarks being caused by a mother falling down during pregnancy, eating specific foods, and a variety of other things. While research doesn’t support these stories as truth, we may never really know the cause of birthmarks. Some research does seem to indicate that parents who have birthmarks are much more likely to have children with birthmarks, but this is certainly not always the case.

When Should I Visit a Dermatologist?

Shortly after a child is born with a birthmark, a pediatrician should examine and assess the mark. The pediatrician will be able to tell you whether or not treatment is necessary, and they will refer you to a dermatologist when necessary. You should call your pediatrician or a dermatologist if a birthmark ever bleeds, hurts, feels warm, itches, or shows signs of infection.  It is never a bad idea or time to have a birthmark evaluated by a dermatologist. Peace of mind is important for the patient and the entire family.

Do Birthmarks Require Treatment?

Pigmented birthmarks do not usually need to be treated by a dermatologist, but they should be monitored regularly throughout development for changes in size, shape, or texture that may be signs of skin cancer and other concerns. Vascular birthmarks need treatment much more often. Though rare, there are medical conditions and syndromes that can be related to birthmarks, and it is important to diagnose these issues as early as possible.

What Treatments are Recommended for Birthmarks?

In most cases, pigmented birthmarks are left alone with the exception of large, congenital moles, which can be linked to certain forms of skin cancer. These moles can be removed. Café-au-lait spots may also be removed using laser therapy if they are very large or disfiguring. However, these café-au-lait spots often return. Most vascular birthmarks will need some attention to ensure your child’s skin health. Salmon patches are usually left alone as they almost always diminish on their own. Port wine stains are often removed using lasers. Smaller hemangiomas may be left alone, but larger marks and patients with numerous hemangiomas may require more advanced monitoring and treatments via oral route or laser, as well as cosmetic repair if there is scaring after the hemangioma shrinks.

How Can I Help My Child Handle Noticeable Birthmarks?

While the majority of birthmarks will not require intervention by a medical professional, many children and even adults with very noticeable birthmarks struggle with confidence. We try to explain to all of our patients that their birthmarks make them unique and that they should embrace them as part of their story. Remind your child that almost everyone has birthmarks. While theirs may be larger or more easily seen than others, they should not be embarrassed. Encourage them to let you know right away if they feel bullied or shamed by anyone. If your child is especially self-conscious about a large, noticeable birthmark, you may consider using makeup to cover the spot, which may help your child feel better and avoid bullying or embarrassing questions from their peers.

When to Contact U.S. Dermatology Partners for Help

Whether you are looking for a dermatologist to assess your young child’s birthmark or your own, U.S. Dermatology Partners can help. Whether treatment is medically necessary or you want to improve the appearance of a birthmark, our team of professionals offers complete dermatologic services to ensure you look and feel your very best. To schedule an appointment with a U.S. Dermatology Partners location near you, take a few moments to complete our simple online request form. One of our local practices will be in contact soon.

Find a location near me


Find a location