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Birthmark Removal

Birthmarks: Removing the Blemish Staff Report

When former L.A. Dodger Matt Luke was a rookie in 1998, the public soon learned that he was born with a facial birthmark often referred to as a "Hair Venus." Known to doctors as a congenital melanocytic nevus, the blemish is a mutli-layered dark defect that covered much of his face. The birthmark increased his risk of cancer so he underwent a series of five plastic surgeries to remove it, starting when he was six and ending at 10.

Matt's experience was pretty much the same as millions of other youngsters who have some sort of birthmark marring their otherwise youthful complexions.

Matt Luke, Former Hair Venus Birthmark Patient
Matt Luke, today

"I was called names like scar face, dirty face and charcoal face," Luke told "Some would rudely ask my parents why they didn't ever wash their boy's face."

But his audiences really picked up their ears when they heard the rest of Luke's story.

Facial Scars

While still a youngster, Luke was scheduled for surgeries six, seven and eight to remove the scars resulting from the previous birthmark removals. But scar removal came with a string attached -- a very long string indeed for the multi-talented lad.

After operation number six, surgeons told him he could not play ball for at least three months. No soccer, football, basketball or -- his best and favorite sport -- baseball. No injuries to his face could be risked during healing.

So Luke chose sports over scars although the scars would, and do, remain on his face to this day.

Eventually, Matt Luke earned his way up to a starting spot on the Los Angeles Dodgers -- scars and all and with no regrets or excuses. During his career, he also played for the Indians, Yankees, Brewers and Angels. Today, Luke is a real estate consultant in Brea, California.

Said the Dodger's hitting coach at the time: "I don't care what Luke looks like. I hope he looks mean and as menacing as possible to opposing pitchers so they focus on his face."

"Fifteen years ago, many people were insufficiently treated with older lasers for port wine stain birthmarks and are now coming back to complete the treatment with more modern lasers."

Other famous people, like former General Secretary of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev, have soldiered on through life with a birthmark intact. Others include actors Richard Gere, Catherine Zeta Jones, Christian Aguilera, and Tempestt Bledsoe, although the birthmarks are usually masked. Pop singer Nick Lachey (who only learned about his when he shaved his head in college) and front-man of The Smashing Pumpkins, Billy Corgan have birthmarks. CBS Early Show anchor Hannah Storm covered her birth blemish for years with makeup.

"My scars are a part of who I am and where I've been," Luke says. "I currently use my experience with birthmarks, surgeries and scars in local schools to lead into discussions about how kids can overcome their own adversities."

Plastic Surgery

But what exactly is a birthmark? Usually, we see on those affected just a splotch on the skin which can appear in a variety of shapes. (See chart below.) Many are small, some disappear on their own and yet others stand out as a source of embarrassment, shame and ridicule. Birthmark removal by plastic, cosmetic, and dermatological surgeons offers a solution and means to lift a sagging self-esteem.

Hair Venus
A baby with a congenital melanocytic nevus shows the birthmark on his head, shoulders and back.

According to the Vascular Birthmarks Foundation, approximately 40,000 U.S. children are born each year with birthmarks that require specialized attention. About one in 1000 will require medical attention. And, according to experts, the average cost of laser birthmark removal is about $500 to $2000 per session, depending on birthmark size and the area of the nation in which you live. Surgery may be required when lasers don't do the job. For instance, a large hemangioma -- like Matt Luke's -- or one found on an internal organ or deep within the skin may require surgery under general anesthesia.

Past Lives

Throughout history, birthmarks have been analyzed, feared, misunderstood and roundly cursed by children and their parents.

For instance, one psychologist spent 40 years studying young children with highly unusual birthmarks that "perfectly" matched the placement of mortal wounds supposedly suffered during one of the child's past lives.

Buddhists chose their highest religious authority -- The Dalai Lama -- by searching for and studying young boys worldwide who have specific birthmarks on their backs.

Strawberry Birthmark
Strawberry birthmark

Birthmarks are additionally said to be caused by an Angel's Kiss and, conversely, by a touch of the devil. Some cultures say a birthmark is caused by something that happened to the mother in pregnancy, while other peoples lay the cause to the mother's unsatisfied wishes during pregnancy. For instance, if a baby has a strawberry mark (see chart, below,) it was because the mother was craving strawberries but had none while pregnant.

Scientists today admit the cause of birthmarks is largely unknown but that they may be due to genetics or cellular damage due to sun exposure and other radiation or chemicals.

Cindy Crawford
Cindy Crawford

But one thing is known for certain: Virtually nobody likes birthmarks, save the occasional mole on an otherwise lovely face, like Cindy Crawford's famous beauty mark.

Vascular birthmarks are the most common and are caused by an irregularity in the blood vessels. These include port wine stains and hemangiomas. According to Fitzpatrick's Dermatology in General Medicine, only about 25 percent of hemangiomas need treatment even though 10 to 12 percent of babies bear them. The good news: some disappear by 18 months while most fade by age nine.

Pigmented birthmarks, known as nevus (singular) or nevi (plural) are brown in color and are often less pronounced. Many birthmarks fade away before children reach school age, but they may remain and undergo changes over time.


"Vascular birthmarks are tumors comprising many types of knotted blood vessels," says Hema Sundaram, M.D. a board-certified cosmetic dermatologist and laser surgeon in Washington, D.C. "A series of laser treatments are used on vascular birthmarks to remove or substantially lighten them. Lasers target hemoglobin in red blood cells within the vessels of the birthmark and gradually destroys it with heat."

David Goldberg, M.D. is a clinical professor and director of Laser Research in the department of Dermatology at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. Dr. Goldberg specializes in treating port wine stain birthmarks.

"Two older lasers have been combined into a new one, the Cynergy Laser," says Dr. Goldberg. "A huge number of people with port wine stains were treated insufficiently 15 years ago and are now coming back to see doctors to complete the treatment.

"It's important because you may find yourself less likely to be hired if you have a port wine stain," says Dr. Goldberg. "Technically, that should not exist but it does."

In the chart below, the vascular birthmark is the Stork Bite.

Hemangiomas are Port Wine Stains (PWS), Mongolian Spots, Café au Lait Spots and Congenital Melanocytic Nevus.






Stork Bite or Angel’s Kiss

Also known as a Salmon patch because it’s pink. A Stork Bite is irregular and flat and usually found on the neck, head or top lip. About half of newborns have a Stork Bite.

There’s no treatment because most fade by the first year. No known health problems.

Mongolian Blue Spot

Also known as Blue bum, sacral spot or nevus of Ota, the mark is bluish like a bruise, irregular and flat. Usually found on the lower back and bottom. The birthmark. is more common in darker skinned people.

May not appear until after birth but gradually fades. No health problems but the marks have been mistaken for abuse bruises. No treatment given.

Strawberry mark

The birthmark is red, raised and lumpy and can appear anywhere on the body. It occurs in one in twenty births, usually appearing between one and four weeks. It can then grow rapidly before stopping and fading.

Surgery or laser treatment is only recommended when the birthmark is blocking vision or  breathing

Café au lait spot

Usually oval and light brown, this birthmark can appear anywhere on the body. Having one or two is common. The spots do not fade with age.

No known health problems linked to one or two spots while three or four may indicate Neurofibromatosish, a serious disease. Cosmetic treatment is common.

Congenital melanocytic nevus

Also known as “Hair Venus,” the spot is light brown on fair skinned people and almost black on darker skin. The marks can appear anywhere on the body and happen one in 100 births.  Some studies suggest a risk of cancer with larger marks. When this birthmark is large, it creates a psychological impact.

Surgical removal is an option but usually leaves scarring. The marks should be watched because sudden changes are a cancer warning sign. Nevi close to the eye are associated with glaucoma.

Port wine stain

(Nevus Flammeus)

This birthmark is pale pink at birth and becomes darker with aging to a deep wine red. Port wine stains are usually large and often appear on the face at a rate of three in 1000 births. The mark does not fade and can cause a psychological impact.

Laser treatment is usually effective.

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