I got my first makeup — a bottle of liquid foundation — when I was 11. My mom gave me a few bucks for the purchase. I ran to the convenience store, plucked the bottle off the shelf, and ran back home to try it out. It’s one of my more vivid childhood memories; I’d been bugging my mom for months. I’d tried makeup before — my friends’ glittering eyeshadows and bright lipsticks — but hadn’t possessed any of my own.
The beige liquid was symbolic. It was control. With it, I could change the feature I hated most about my face: my freckles. I didn’t have a cute spattering of freckles like some of my friends. My face was covered, freckles so close to other freckles they sometimes seemed to blur. Propped up on the bathroom sink, I got as close as I could to the mirror and started to cover my face with one thick layer that obscured every last dot.
Back then, I felt like freckles were a reflection of my imperfection — I think a lot of young women did. For whatever reason, freckles felt “nerdy” or “geeky.” I don’t remember exactly when I started to think of my freckles as something other than bad. It must have been a gradual shift, one that’s been forming for nearly two decades after my first encounter with foundation. But my image of myself and my freckles has changed. Whereas once I wanted nothing more than my freckles to go away — at an even younger age I tried to literally scrub them off — I now want to enhance them, to make them come back. I no longer wear foundation, and that, too, is because of my freckles. Instead, I use a tinted moisturizer that lets my freckles show through.
Thankfully, these days, along with plenty of other antiquated beauty standards, freckle-related shame doesn’t really exist. They’re now considered desirable, as seen on Swedish model Sabina Karlsson on the runway and in Gap campaigns and all over Fenty’s Instagram page — far from the “nerdy” freckles of the past. Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle was even praised for embracing her freckles. They’re such a popular beauty trend, in fact, that some people are tattooing or drawing them on.
It hasn’t been that way for long, though. Just three years ago in 2015, Remi Brixton went viral after launching a Kickstarter campaign, Freck Yourself. The semi-permanent freckle tattoo kit was mocked on social media. Why would someone want to add freckles, was the general consensus.
“The only response I got was that no one wanted freckles,” Brixton told me. “Everyone was trying to cover theirs up.” It was one of the first times anyone had heard of faux-freckles, she said. Now, Brixton runs Freck, a faux-freckle cosmetics company that’s grown from social-media confusion to a five-product line, including a freckle pen, clay mask, serum, moisturizer, and eye cream.
This shift toward a more freckle-friendly mentality might have something to do with increased interest in the idea of natural beauty. Consumers no longer want to see an obviously photoshopped face and are instead opting for a “perfectly imperfect” image, as evidenced by the success of beauty brands like Glossier, which closed a $52 million funding round this year. Glossier and brands like it capitalize on the perceived simplicity of no makeup makeup. Companies like CVS and Aerie are no longer photoshopping their ads. Instagram users celebrate acne-positivity and no longer hide their stretch marks.
Still, natural beauty’s place in the beauty industry is complex. Massachusetts-based Psychologist Elayne Daniels said that natural beauty is a “misnomer,” which makes it more complicated to both achieve and understand. “If something is natural, it suggests the absence of struggle or effort,” Daniels said.
Of course, cosmetically adding or enhancing your freckles for a more “natural” look is nothing but effort — but it’s an effort that many people are willing to make. That's because the more natural way to get freckles is just sitting out in the sun, and by now we're well aware of the risks involved with sun damage. Thus, tattooed-on freckles feels like a safer alternative to many who want to achieve that dotted look. Similar to other cosmetic tattooing, freckles are applied using a semi-permanent ink, which is placed just under to skin (it's a more delicate process than your run-of-the-mill tat). They begin to fade over a year or two.
“As a kid, my mom called freckles ‘angel kisses,’ and as I’ve gotten older the kisses have faded or only come out when I’m very tan during the summer,” Apphia Castillo, a model and entrepreneur from California, told me. “I really missed them. They make me happy. They make me feel unique.”
Castillo got her latest round of freckle tattoos in October, a spattering of spots that dust over her nose and onto her cheeks. “I feel more unique,” she said. “I’m happy I stand out a bit more like when I was a kid.”
Bethany Wolosky, a cosmetic tattoo artist working in New York City, told me she started tattooing freckles on people’s faces over a year ago after receiving messages “almost daily” about them. And the hype hasn’t died down—she gets a steady stream of inquiries for the procedure. “Many of my clients feel their natural freckles have faded since they became more conscious of staying out of the sun,” Wolosky said. “With freckle tattoos, they get that sun-kissed look without actually having to spend time in the sun.”
It’s easy to see freckle tattooing as something wholly unnatural, a symptom of increasingly difficult “natural” beauty standards. But that’s a simplification of women’s decisions and self-expression. For many, freckle tattooing is a way to reclaim a feature that they once hated, just like I did. Many stories mimic my own: freckles were something once to be ashamed of that they’ve now decided to celebrate. Freckles can fade with age. Tattoos can safely replace them.
Twenty-seven year old Yuki Ochiai got her freckles a few months back as a way to “express her personality and individuality,” despite a confused response from family.
“My relatives and even some friends can’t understand why I would pay to get freckles on my face,” she said, pointing to different cultural standards in Japan and elsewhere in Asia. “They just don’t get it. But I love [the freckles] so much.”
Massachusetts-based cosmetic tattoo artist Jessie Dillon said her clients feel similar. “Some people just want to enhance existing freckles,” she said. “Others want to create them from scratch. They also distract from acne scars. I’ve had a few clients that got them for that reason. I had another client that got freckles strategically placed to match her cat’s beauty marks.”
As for how long they last, that depends on the individual's skincare routine, sun exposure, and their skin itself. “Everyone’s skin behaves a little differently,” Dillon, who uses a tattoo machine to place freckles, said. Wolosky uses a “stick-and-poke” method. “I use a tattoo needle to create each freckle manually, without a tattoo machine,” she said. “I personally feel this allows me to create more irregular shapes and colors, which leads to more natural-looking freckles.”
A change in method doesn’t impact the lifespan, however. Wolosky echoed Dillon. “It varies from person to person,” Wolosky said. “I’ve seen many clients come back after a year and while still present, their freckles are lighter.”
The process itself is relatively quick, beginning with a clean face and a test-run of pencil-drawn freckles. The tattoo artist and client will work together to find the preferred spattering of freckles.
“My artist said I could have as many as I wanted, so I requested a ton of them, and had the freedom of choosing exactly where and how I wanted my freckles to look,” Ochiai told me. The next step is a numbing cream, which is important for two reasons: to keep the patient comfortable and to keep them from sneezing. (Despite using a needle, the process can cause a tickling sensation, like with threading.) Tattooing begins from there and can last from 45 minutes to an hour.
“Usually we’ll go over each freckle one to three times and check in the mirror a few times to discuss adding a few more here or there,” Dillon explains. Because in the end, freckle tattooing is about choice. A choice to embrace a feature, to add more freckles to a face, or to let them fade.
“Our image of ourselves is based on a myriad of factors,” Daniels said. “Our culture plays a huge role in defining the ‘shoulds’ toward which we strive. The more empowered individuals become, the less confined they are to the externally imposed standards of the dominant culture.”
Part of our culture’s focus on natural beauty puts an emphasis on embracing your features. But what’s also empowering is the ability to choose what to enhance or change. Melissa Michel, a traveling potter with freckle tattoos, thinks it’s “awesome” to have this choice, as with anything else. “Getting tattooed is a very normal and popular thing in this time and age,” she said. “We get to make these permanent decisions to our canvases and I find that empowering, artistic, and unique.”