Hyperpigmentation: Types, Causes and Remedies
Hyperpigmentation is the darkening of an area of skin by increased melanin. Melanin is the brown pigment that produces normal skin color. Hyperpigmentation occurs when an excess of this pigment forms deposits in the skin.
Hyperpigmentation is very common and usually harmless. These dark spots are exacerbated by sun exposure. People with darker skin tones tend to be more prone to hyperpigmentation, especially if they spend a lot of time in the sun.
It can affect any part of the body and can be very frustrating when it affects areas on the face and the back of the hands.
Types and Causes
This pigmentation is caused by changes in hormones. Because it most often occurs in pregnant women, it is also referred to as the pregnancy mask.
The discoloration has several causes including pregnancy, birth control pills, changes in estrogen and progesterone levels and thyroid dysfunction. In some incidents, it has even been linked to stress.
Melasma appears mostly on the face, and sometimes on the arms and neck.
It is advisable to avoid the sun as it will only worsen the problem. Slather on a broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30.
Age spots are oxidized skin lipids that turn yellow or brown. Also called liver spots, although they have nothing to do with the liver, they are primarily caused by exposure to harmful UV rays over many years. Your best defense in preventing them is to always wear a sunscreen when exposed to the sun, even on cloudy days! And don’t forget your hands, as this is one of the most common areas to get them.
These are caused by sun exposure and appear most frequently on exposed areas such as the face, hands and arms. They appear as small dark patches of skin.
Post-inflammatory Hyperpigmentation (PIH)
This discoloration of the skin can occur on any type of skin but is more common on darker skin tones. It is due to inflammation caused by trauma to the skin.
Causes range from cystic acne or a healing pimple, to overuse of any specific ingredient, deep chemical peels and a wound that forms a scar and subsequent discoloration results. Other causes are scratches, burns, cuts and bruises. Any type of rash, including psoriasis and fungal infections, can also cause PIH. Acne, pimples and sunburn are other common causes.
With PIH, it is very important to first establish the underlying cause and to treat that cause. For example, it is very important to avoid breakouts if the cause is acne, by following a healthy diet, and using the correct products to control sebum levels in the skin.
Some treatments you might see but we don’t recommend and why……
Prescription Creams with Tretinoin and Cortisone Creams
Topical corticosteroids have strong anti-inflammatory properties but have many side effects and therefore can only be used for a short time.
Prescription retinoid creams are effective, but they are powerful and can cause skin redness, excessive dryness, itching and scaling of the skin. New research shows that OTC retinol (Vitamin A) products are very effective but are much more gentle without all of the harsh side effects. We formulate two products that contain Retinol but also have the overall health of the skin in mind because both products deliver nutrients, anti-aging actives and antioxidants to repair damage and protect from free radicals. As a caution, women who are pregnant or nursing should avoid products containing any form of Vitamin A.
If you research ways to lighten hyperpigmentation, you will likely find reference to hydroquinone, which is why we mention it here. There are many products on the market that use hydroquinone as a method of lightening the skin and while it is effective, we believe there are other ways that are much safer and don’t damage the skin. Hydroquinone works by interfering with melanin production and lightens the skin. Using it may cause skin reactions such as redness and itching, dryness and mild dermatitis. Topical use has also been shown to break down collagen and elastin which leads to skin aging. In some people, especially with longer-term use, studies show ochronosis, or deposition of yellow-brown pigment in the dermis, and the skin becomes thicker and darker (think the skin on your heal). Using hydroquinone decreases the melanin pigments in your skin, making it more sensitive and vulnerable to UV damage. There are also studies linking hydroquinone to skin and renal cancer. Hydroquinone is banned in many countries. Questionable safety is putting it lightly – with so many downsides, we must ask, is it really worth the risk? We highly recommend turning to other effective, and much safer topical actives. For some people, it might be worth using it for a short time for the desired results – we always advocate for being an empowered, educated consumer and knowing all of the risks before using an active with known risks.
Safe and effective remedies for hyperpigmentation:
Here are some safe topical actives to consider: Vitamin C, Arbutin, Betulinic Acid, Kojic Acid, Licorice Extract and Vitamin A (retinol).
We recommend Kate’s Vitamin C Daytime Repair Serum which combines 3 forms of Vitamin C plus it’s loaded with antioxidants to repair and prevent damage. To increase skin cell turnover, we recommend Retinol Evening Renewal Serum at night. For best results:
In the AM:
Cleanse skin, apply Vitamin C Daytime Repair Serum to face, neck, and chest. Follow with moisturizer as needed.
In the PM:
Cleanse skin, apply Retinol Evening Renewal Serum to face, neck, and chest. Follow with moisturizer as needed.
Once per week:
Gently exfoliate the surface to remove darkened cells and encourage new, healthy skin cell growth. Kate’s Clearly Radiant Enzyme Mask is nature’s perfect method of exfoliating, while at the same time providing your skin with exceptional nutrition. In just 10 minutes or less, you begin a renewal process that will make your skin look and feel refreshed, smoother, brighter, and younger. To use, simply cleanse skin using warm water, apply the mask to face, neck, and chest, paying special attention to areas of hyperpigmentation. Allow to rest for up to 10 minutes provided you have no sensitivity. Rinse and apply serums, then moisturize as needed.
Glycolic Acid Peels
Glycolic cleansers, serums and moisturizers can be purchased over-the-counter. Glycolic Acid is an Alpha Hydroxy Acid (AHA) that functions as a chemical exfoliator. Glycolic Acid is small enough to penetrate deep into the layers of the skin where it can go to work removing damaged cells and making room for new, healthy skin cells.
Beta-hydroxy Acids (BHA’s) such as Salicylic Acid can also be used as a topical exfoliator to remove damaged, pigmented cells. BHA’s are also very effective in correcting acne which is a major cause of hyperpigmentation from residual breakouts. Prevent dark spots from occurring in the first place!
IPL (Intense Pulsed Light)
IPL is probably the best treatment available. Also known as photo rejuvenation, IPL is performed at either doctor’s offices or medical spas.
IPL treats the skin with quick intense flashes of light. This light energy penetrates deeply into the skin, breaking the pigment down into tiny particles. These particles can rise to the surface of the skin, appearing as scabs that will disappear within 7-10 days. The rest of these particles will get carried away by the body’s lymphatic system.
It is very successful in the treatment of freckles and brown spots that appear on the face and neck.
Microdermabrasion is a non-chemical procedure and does not destroy skin tissues. It definitely improves the general appearance and works very well for milder types of hyperpigmentation.
After any chemical peel or professional treatment such as Microdermabrasion or IPL, your skin is even more sensitive to the sun – be sure to protect your skin!
We know the sun plays a very big role in either causing hyperpigmentation or making an existing problem much worse. Bottom line is stay out of the sun and if you have to be in it, always slather on the sunscreen!
Tamryn is a licensed Esthetician who enjoys blogging about natural skincare and nutrition. She is currently working toward a Registered Holistic Nutritionist designation. She spends her spare time listening to music, being outdoors, and reading.