One of the more difficult skincare problems to solve is hyperpigmentation or dark spots on your skin. This is also a very prevalent skincare issue that affects people of all skin tones. Just where do these frustrating spots come from and how can you get rid of them for good? In this post I want to give you some insight into what causes hyperpigmentation in the first place and how to combat it effectively.
How Does Hyperpigmentation Form?
There are a few different types of hyperpigmentation or dark (brown) spots that can form on the skin. You can get hyperpigmentation from the sun, from hormones, or as a result of an injury to the skin. This last type of hyperpigmentation includes the marks that show up on the skin after a pimple heals. (Please keep in mind that while many people call the red or brown marks that are left on the skin after a breakout heals “acne scars” they are definitely not scars but rather hyperpigmentation) Certain ethnicities are more prone to hyperpigmentation than others. Interestingly enough the treatment for hyperpigmentation is the same no matter its source.
I’ve been having an internal debate how technical I should be in explaining how hyperpigmentation forms because it is easy to get very lost among the scientific terms and processes that occur in the skin. I also feel that such an explanation can be a bit overwhelming for non-science people (I include myself in that category).
I decided to take a middle of the road approach in my explanation. Here it goes. Your epidermis (the top layer of your skin) contains melanocytes which produce melanin. Melanin determines your skin color and tone. Everyone has the same number of melanocyctes in their skin; your skin color is determined by the amount of melanin activated in the skin. Melanin is also the pigment that protects your skin from UV rays. So when your skin experiences excessive sun exposure or prolonged sun exposure year after year, day after day more melanin is produced in order to protect your skin from the sun’s damaging rays. A tan is actually a sign of your skin’s “self defense” mechanism kicking into gear. Sorry to say but with every tan you get you’ve done damage to your skin. Dark spots from the sun can show up in a cluster on one area of your face, perhaps on the side of your face that is exposed to a window in your office or while driving, and can take years to appear after the initial damage has been done to your skin. Many times as an esthetician I find it hard to convince people to use sunscreen on a daily basis simply because the damage daily sun exposure is doing to their skin is not evident at first. It can be hard to for people to realize that they need sunscreen everyday when the damage they will see from the sun will only show up 10, 20 years later. So please remember to apply sunscreen daily in order to prevent hyperpigmentation in the future.
Melasma is the hormonal hyperpigmentation. Many women develop this type of hyperpigmentation during and after a pregnancy or from using birth control pills. The hormonal changes that are going on in your body due to pregnancy or the use of birth control pills cause this type of hyperpigmentation to form though exactly what doctors are still not entirely sure. Sun exposure can make melasma worse. Some lucky women may find that their dark spots fade a bit after giving birth, but for many women this type of hyperpigmentation is an unhappy side effect from a happy life event.
Post inflammatory hyperpigmentation is the red, brown, or even yellow marks that are left on the skin after an injury to the skin or after a breakout has healed. Once again as a defense mechanism, in this case a defense against skin inflammation, the body produces extra melanin. If there is one positive from this type of hyperpigmentation it is usually the easiest kind to get rid of.
First of all it is important to keep something in mind when treating hyperpigmentation – there are no quick fixes for this skin care problem. You need time, patience, and the daily use of skin care products in order to get rid of hyperpigmentation. If you have had a dark spot on your face for 6 years you cannot expect it to disappear in just a month. When I say patience I really mean it. You need to religiously use the right skin care products at home in order to eventually see results months down the road. Once hyperpigmentation occurs, with the exception of red marks (and some types of brown marks) left on the skin after breakouts heal, your dark spots have no real desire to go anywhere. If anyone promises you a miracle cure for hyperpigmentation run in the opposite direction. Also please don’t put lemon juice all over your face and go out in the sun expecting to fade dark spots. No matter how many times this skincare hack appears in your Pinterest feed you need to ignore it. You’ll just end up making your skin more sensitive or even causing burns instead of helping your skin if you follow this “tip”.
One of the reasons hyperpigmentation is so hard to get rid of is because you actually have to treat your skin in two different ways at the same time in order to lighten dark spots. Though the skincare industry is constantly changing and innovating at the moment the accepted way to treat hyperpigmentation is to shutdown or suppress the production of new melanin, prevent the transfer of new melanin to the melanocyctes, and remove the existing dark spots. This requires a combination of products to achieve; there is currently no one product on the market that can do all three of these things. Usually hyperpigmentation is treated with one product that supresses melanin production and another product that brings excess melanin to the surface of the skin and then helps it flake off.
In the United States one of the more prevalent skincare ingredients used to treat hyperpigmentation effectively is hydroquinone. Hydroquinone is controversial for a few different reasons and has been replaced by a host of other ingredients to brighten dark spots because of the controversy surrounding it. In order to better understand the controversy about hydroquinone I suggest reading Dr. Leslie Baumann’s article that I have listed below in “sources and further reading”. There is a lot of misinformation circulating about hydroquinone so be sure to educate yourself on this topic before buying into the anti-hydroquinone hype.
Other skincare ingredients that can help treat hyperpigmentation are: Vitamin C, kojic acid, licorice, arbutin, and azelaic acid. A product with one or more of these ingredients is best paired with a retinol (or prescription Retin-A) for best results. You can also use a product that brightens dark spots in conjunction with an AHA exfoliator though keep in mind a strong exfoliator can actually make hyperpigmentation worse or even cause hyperpigmentation for people with sensitive. When in doubt see a professional in order to create the perfect skincare regime for your skin. And above all, apply a generous amount of sunscreen each and everyday! Use at least SPF 30 and make sure your sunscreen protects from both UVA and UVB rays. Don’t think that your make-up with SPF is giving you enough sun protection because you’ll never apply enough make-up in order to reach the amount of SPF listed on the product. So be sure to always apply a sunscreen first and then your moisturizer and make-up.
Other Treatment Options
If you have the money for more expensive in-office treatments getting laser treatments from a dermatologist should produce faster results than using just home care products to treat your hyperpigmentation. Of course you’ll get the best results from a laser treatment if you take proper care of your skin both before and after the treatment. Follow the advice the doctor or their esthetician gives you; if they don’t give you any before and after advice go to another office.
You can also see an esthetician or dermatologist for a series of chemical peels that coupled with the correct home care regime can help get rid of hyperpigmentation once again faster than if you were just using products at home. Just as you need a good home care skincare regime before and after a laser treatment in order to get the best results you need to do the same with a chemical peel.
Sources and Further Reading:
- Dr. Leslie Baumann has an excellent article on her website that explains both the origins of different types of hyperpigmentation and offers a treatment plan as well: Disorders of Pigmentation
- Hydroquinone: A Debate by Dr. Leslie Baumann
- I used the books Physiology of the Skin and The New Ideal In Skin Health while researching this post
- 4 Reasons Hyperpigmentation is On The Rise – New Beauty
- This article is an important reminder about how sunscreen is a must on a daily basis: It Only Took One Sunburn To Ruin My Face Forever
My Related Posts:
- Help for Hyperpigmentation
- Chemical Peels For Darker Skin Tones
- 13 Reasons You Should Get A Chemical Peel From An Esthetician