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What is a Birthmark?

A splash of red the color of port wine that colors a forehead. A blueish-grey mark that resembles a bruise in appearance. A dark mole that has spread across a baby’s buttock. Birthmarks take many forms; they vary in size, color and location. And, contrary to what their very name would have us believe, they are not always present at birth. Who knew?

Baby Birthmark
150hp / Family Photos / CC BY-NC-ND

The Boston Children’s Hospital tells us that one in three babies is born with, or will develop, in the first few weeks of their lives, a birthmark. One in three babies born in 2012 will live to be 100 years of age. These are unrelated facts, though we can surmise that some birthmarks are going to be around for quite a long time.

Though most birthmarks are perfectly harmless, they can cause some distress and anxiety as they attract unwanted attention from others and can be unsightly. The coffee-colored cafe au lait birthmark may quietly sit on an ankle or be splashed across a forehead; the location of a birthmark often dictates the response to it.

Fortunately, there is help to be found in the medical community for the third of the population who find themselves with a port-wine stain, a stork bite, or a hemangioma.

What is a birthmark, exactly?

A birthmark is a blemish that is either present at birth or develops in the few weeks after. Though a birthmark can fade over time, it is usually a permanent mark. A baby may have a pronounced cafe au lait mark as an infant that morphs into a faded version of itself by the time the child is in middle school.

Why do some people get birthmarks and others don’t?

Folklore tells us that a birthmark can be the result of a food that a mother ate lots of while pregnant; a craving for the sublime raspberry could spur a dark red splotch on the baby’s tummy. And there is a tribe, name of Blackwood, that believes that the birthmark is a battle scar won in earlier life. These are compelling stories – that have been rejected by the medical community.

The truth is that the cause of the birthmark is, as of yet, unknown. There is a consensus, however, that nothing the mother eats or does is the cause of the birthmark.

Can birthmarks be removed?

Having a birthmark can be difficult for a child, or an adult, especially if it is large and easy for others to see. Parents of children with birthmarks can work to help their child accept their birthmark by speaking about it openly and modeling a positive attitude about it. Depending on the type and size of the mark, treatment may be an option.

There are two main types of birthmarks; vascular and pigmented. The vascular birthmark is created when blood vessels are wider than they should be or in greater numbers than is necessary. The pigmented birthmark is caused when a baby has too many of the cells that are responsible for pigmentation, or color of the skin.

Your doctor will probably advise you to leave a pigmented birthmark unless it is a congenital mole, which may not be harmless, or the aforementioned cafe au lait mark. A laser can be used to remove a cafe au lait mark, though it sometimes reappears and must be treated once more. Moles are sometimes surgically removed, though it may be that they are too large to be removed safely.

A vascular birthmark will often respond to laser treatment. If it is stubborn and does not, there are special kinds of make-up that have been designed to mask the birthmark.

Embrace your birthmark

If you’ve a birthmark and, well, wish that you didn’t, you might gain some solace from the fact that the famous have them too. There is strength to be found in the public showing of a celebrity birthmark. If you are a Smashing Pumpkins fan – Cherub Rock? Perfect? – you’ll know that lead singer Billy Corgan has a prominent port-wine stain birthmark covering his left hand. Oh, and the ever so lovely Catherine Zeta Jones sports a birthmark on her left shin.

Mikhail Gorbachev had a prominent birth mark on his forehead. He simply had it photoshopped out of his publicity photos. Hey, no judgement!

If you or a loved one has a birthmark that concerns you, consulting a doctor is the way forward. Once you’ve gathered all the information that is available about the birthmark in question, you’ll be able to make an informed decision about possible treatment or tried methods that mask the mark.

You know best how you’d like to deal with a birthmark. The important thing is that you speak out and let your feelings be known.