Hyperpigmentation can seem like a mystery. With so many causes, cures and cautions many of us are left exasperated and not sure what to do. In this piece, we try to demystify hyperpigmentation so you can confidently create your own winning plan for a peaches and cream complexion.
In this article, you will learn:
- What is Hyperpigmentation?
- What Causes Hyperpigmentation?
- Different Types of Hyperpigmentation
- Causes of Hyperpigmentation
- Treatment and Prevention
What is Hyperpigmentation?
Hyperpigmentation is the darkening of an area of skin by an overproduction of melanin pigment. Melanin is what gives our skin its color. Hyperpigmentation usually appears as brown spots or patches in the skin, and it can cover entire areas of our face and body.
What Causes Hyperpigmentation?
There are multiple causes of dark spots that appear on the skin and many of us experience discoloration from more than one of these causes. It’s important to understand the sources of your discoloration before you begin treating it. The wrong treatment may be ineffective or show improvement in the near term, but make your problem significantly worse in the medium and long term.
Different Types of Hyperpigmentation
Terminology can be confusing. Hyperpigmentation is often referred to in the following terms:
- Dark spots
- Sun spots
While the dark spots on your skin may all seem the same there are actually three types of hyperpigmentation:
- Sun-induced Hyperpigmentation
This is caused by unprotected sun exposure.
Melasma hyperpigmentation is generally caused by hormonal fluctuations or hormonal medication.
- Post Inflammatory Hyperpigmentation (PIH)
PIH is typically caused by injury to the skin.
Causes of Hyperpigmentation
Each type of hyperpigmentation has a different underlying cause. Some types are easily preventable, while others are more difficult as they are related to medication or the normal fluctuations of the human body.
It is important to understand that hyperpigmentation is not a disease with an associated cure. It is a lifelong condition that can be managed but requires diligence and consistency.
Fortunately, many of the treatments, ingredients and methods of prevention are good for your overall skin health so they are good habits to acquire regardless of the presence of dark spots.
Causes of Sun-Induced Hyperpigmentation
Sun-induced hyperpigmentation can occur on any part of the body that is exposed to the sun and heat. This includes freckles. Sun induced hyperpigmentation is generally superficial and, thanks to this, is easier to remedy.
In many cases, freckles can be removed through at home treatments and exfoliation. Sun induced hyperpigmentation can be confusing as hyperpigmentation due to other factors can be worsened by exposure to the sun even though the sun is not the underlying cause.
Causes of Melasma Hyperpigmentation
Melasma hyperpigmentation is generally due to hormonal issues and can have more than one cause – pregnancy, age related hormonal fluctuations, birth control and other medical treatments that involve hormones. This type of hyperpigmentation can affect the deepest layers of the skin. Due to this depth and the underlying causes of melasma, prevention and treatment are much more complicated and may require more aggressive treatments and a longer treatment time. It also becomes a lifelong problem that requires constant diligence and maintenance. It is more common in women as it is linked to the hormones progesterone and estrogen.
Melasma that occurs during pregnancy is sometimes referred to as a “pregnancy mask”. Melasma is more common in people that have darker skin tones compared with those who have fair skin. Exposure to heat and sunlight can further darken hyperpigmentation from melasma.
Causes of Post-Inflammatory Hyperpigmentation
Post-Inflammatory Hyperpigmentation (PIH) is the medical term given to describe the discoloration of the skin resulting from a wound to the skin. All wounds cause inflammation. Inflammation triggers pigment production in the skin. An overproduction of pigment after a wound is post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. It is the skin’s response to inflammation.
PIH can be caused by an injury to the skin resulting from cuts and burns, acne, sunburns, and in some cases, after cosmetic procedures administered by improperly trained practitioners. These cosmetic procedures include, but are not limited to, chemical peels, light treatments such as IPL and BBL, and lasers.
Again, this type of hyperpigmentation can be worsened by exposure to heat and the sun, even though light and heat are not the underlying causes of PIH.
Treatment and Prevention
Now that we have an understanding for the different types and causes of dark spots we can discuss prevention and treatment.
The most effective way to treat all forms of hyperpigmentation is prevention:
Daily use of a broad-spectrum UVA/UVB sunscreen is imperative. Protective clothing is a must. Broad-rimmed hats, scarves, pants, and shirts are very helpful in preventing further damage to your skin.
While heat and sun are not the underlying causes for all types of hyperpigmentation, good environmental protection can prevent sun related hyperpigmentation and manage the severity and depth of melasma and PIH.
In-office Procedures: Chemical Peels, Light Treatments, Lasers
Your doctor may use a woods lamp to judge the depth of your pigmentation. Deeper levels of pigmentation found in the dermal or second layer of your skin most often cannot be removed through at home topical treatments. In office laser treatments and chemical peels are required. These in-office treatments are a popular and effective way to treat hyperpigmentation.
Light treatments, such as IPL and BBL, and laser treatments target hyperpigmentation in the skin by pulling it up to the surface where it is then sloughed off. Chemical peels are also very common treatments used to help lighten and remove damaged pigment from the skin. Most patients require more than one treatment to achieve results with which they are happy.
There are cautions associated with any in-office procedures. Individuals with darker skin tones are often not suitable candidates for many types of light and laser treatments. Darker skin absorbs more light energy, and excess light energy can result in a post-inflammatory (PIH) darkening the skin. There are lasers that are safe for darker skin. Your doctor should be knowledgeable enough to steer you in the right direction but be sure to do you homework. Research whatever treatment your doctor recommends before undergoing the procedure.
In office treatment can significantly help with hyperpigmentation. But it is imperative that your health provider chooses the appropriate treatment for you skin type and underlying cause of hyperpigmentation.
Be sure to ask many questions around the suggested treatment and getting a second opinion is never a bad idea. In office treatments can be expensive and most likely will require more than one treatment.
- Important precautions for treating melasma with in office treatments:
- The only way to effectively and safely treat melasma is to understand what is causing it. If you suspect that you have melasma, make an appointment with a dermatologist.
- Some laser and light treatments can worsen melasma. When the light from these treatments hit pigment-producing cells (melanocytes), the cells are then stimulated to produce even more pigment at a higher rate. This results in further darkening of hyperpigmentation.
- Chemical peels can be effective for melasma, however, treatment should be recommended by medical professional.
This is our area of specialty – and we are very good at what we do!
It is essential to incorporate products into your daily regimen that help to prevent and treat hyperpigmentation. Most effective home care regimens will require twice daily applications of serums or creams, formulated specifically with active ingredients. Many regimens will combine both topical prescription and over-the-counter products.
Most common – Retin A, tyrosinase inhibitors and corticosteroids. Tyrosinase inhibitors prevent the formation of tyrosinase in the cell. Tyrosinase, generated by the cell as a response to an inflammatory event, is the precursor to the formation of pigment. If you inhibit the formation of tyrosinase you can stop the formation of dark spots. One of the most common tyrosinase inhibitors is Hydroquinone. At Circcell, we do not recommend the use of the Hydroquinone as it is a known carcinogen that has been banned in many parts of the world.
This includes high quality serums and creams with pigment inhibitors and brightening ingredients. Every home care routine should include a daily combination of vitamin C for photo-protection, SPF protection, anti-oxidant protection, the use of a tyrosinase inhibitor and some form of gentle exfoliation (anything too aggressive can trigger PIH). Any one of these types of products will help but a consistent combination of all of them works synergistically to dramatically diminish and prevent hyperpigmentation.
Most importantly, use sunscreen with a SPF 30 or higher. Sun protection and avoidance of sun exposure plays one of the biggest roles in the management of hyperpigmentation. This inexpensive form of prevention is the single most effective way to manage hyperpigmentation. We cannot stress enough the importance of using sunscreen every day.
Keep a wide brimmed hat in your car and wear it while driving. Dermatologists agree that a good amount of hyperpigmentation comes from sun and heat exposure during driving.
We’ve helped you understand the sources and treatments of hyperpigmentation. We are experts at beauty home care and have created effective, clean products that dramatically yet gently keep your skin discoloration free.
- Mandarin Cleansing Milk – contains licorice extract and citrus extracts to help brighten the skin and even out tone.
- Dew pH Perfector – 5% lactic acid helps to continually exfoliate the skin and aid in slowing down the formation of pigment. Exfoliation of the skin increases absorption of active ingredients in serums that treat hyperpigmentation. A combination of 10 amino acids improves skin texture and repairs damaged cells.
- Dramatic Lightening Potion – Hydroquinone-free, does NOT make skin sensitive to sunlight, and is SAFE to use during pregnancy. This product uses a tyrosinase inhibitor that is derived from botanicals.
Our advanced lightening potion is formulated specifically to treat and prevent hyperpigmentation of all kinds with a proprietary blend of 7 different ingredients – a combination of antioxidants, peptides, and plant extracts prevent and treat hyperpigmentation:
- Tetra peptide– Inhibits discoloration by interfering with cell communication that activates melanocytes and neutralizes UVB induced inflammation.
- Lumisphere- Provides an instant soft-‐focus effect on skin, stabilizes free radicals, absorbs both UVA & B.
- Non‐GMO Soybean extract– Stimulates protein and collagen production, DNA repair, and improves elasticity. Strongly increases UV tolerance after one week of use. Promotes healthy skin and even tone.
- Plant‐based peptidic extracts– Inhibits discoloration. Delivers ingredients directly to melanocyte cells to inhibit tyrosine activity, prevent oxidation, and limit inflammation.
- Daisy extract– inhibits the production of tyrosinase and promotes an even skin tone.
- Resveratrol– one of the most powerful known antioxidants.
- Yeast-derived ogliopeptide + soy‐derived amino acids– Potent peptides and antioxidants that gently exfoliate by accelerating cell renewal by loosening the connections that bind skin cells ready for turnover.
- 10% Vitamin C Ampoules – 3 forms of vitamin C, vitamin E, and 2 peptides work together to provide photo-protection and anti-oxidant protection and repair damaged skin cells that cause hyperpigmentation.
- Moisture Shield for Daytime regimen – moisturizer combined with a broad spectrum UVA/UVB sunscreen. This formula contains vitamin E for added anti-oxidant protection, Hyaluronic acid to hydrate and nourish the skin and olive sourced squalene for skin barrier protection.
- Extraordinary Face Oils for nighttime regimen – Finish off your nighttime routine with one of our oil blends to moisturize, heal and keep your skin glowing:
- Jacqueline’s Blend for anti-aging
- Nancy’s Blend for sensitive skin
- Wooshie’s Blend for oily/acneic skin
It can take years, possibly decades, to accumulate damage that results in visible hyperpigmentation. Additionally, melasma must be properly evaluated and treated with caution. While there is no true “cure” for hyperpigmentation, there are steps to take that can help achieve more evenly toned skin. Be consistent with your treatment and be patient with results.
Mechanical engineer and Wharton MBA, Maya Crothers, began her career in corporate America where she worked in consulting and operations for a variety of Fortune 100 companies. After leaving the corporate world and moving to Jackson Hole, WY she found the need for high performance, clean skincare that could stand up to extreme environments. This led to her founding Circcell Skincare. She lives in Jackson Hole with her husband, two children and a menagerie of animals.