Hyperpigmentation on the face can be bothersome and challenging to manage. It's a common skin disorder that affects many people.
Hyperpigmentation is when areas of the skin become darker than their surrounding area due to an excess amount of melanin. The most common cause is UV radiation from sunlight. However, other factors, such as hormones or certain medications, may also contribute. A range of conditions, including melasma, lentigo, post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH), and freckles, are all classified under the umbrella term "hyperpigmentation."
To effectively address hyperpigmentation on the face, you need to understand the causes and underlying mechanisms. Treatment options vary depending on which form of hyperpigmentation you have.
In the following sections, we'll explore all the options so readers can make informed decisions about how best to manage their condition.
Cellular Mechanism of Hyperpigmentation
Melanin, the pigment that gives skin its colour, is produced by melanocytes and distributed to nearby skin cells. We all have a certain amount of melanin genetically programmed to give us our normal baseline, skin colour.
Research suggests that factors such as inflammation, oxidative stress, UV radiation and certain hormone levels can all contribute to the development of hyperpigmented areas on the face. Additionally, several genetic variants have been linked to melasma gravidarum specifically.
Treatment options for hyperpigmentation vary depending on the cause and severity of the condition. Managing hyperpigmentation is an important component of anti-aging skincare routines. Some non-surgical approaches include:
- Topical creams to melanogenesis or inhibit tyrosinase activity.
- Laser treatments are used to break up excess pigment within the deeper layers of the skin.
- Chemical peels
Given these potential treatment methods, it's important to note that prevention measures are often just as effective at reducing unwanted pigmentation caused by environmental influences like extended sun exposure.
For example, sunscreen application throughout the day helps protect against excessive UVA/UVB light damage, while consuming antioxidant-rich foods like fruit, vegetables, and nuts helps combat free radicals.
Types of Facial Hyperpigmentation
When melanin production is increased or decreased in certain areas, you will see spots of skin that have pigment variability or focal hyperpigmentation.
This could be genetic (freckles) or a result of changes to your body (melasma), or skin damage (sun, inflammation). If you lose pigment, you have lighter (depigmented or hypopigmented) areas; one example is the autoimmune condition vitiligo. An absence of pigmentation/melanin is seen in people with the genetic condition albinism.
Post-inflammatory Hyperpigmentation (PIH) is one of the most common types of hyperpigmentation experienced by many individuals especially those with darker skin tones.
It can be caused due to any type of trauma, such as acne, eczema, burns, cuts, scrapes, insect bites and other irritants that damage your skin's protective barrier.
Because of its hormonal association, melasma is also known as the "mask of pregnancy." However, it can affect men and women of all ages. It is most prevalent in women with darker complexions who are pregnant or taking oral contraceptives.
The cause of melasma has not been definitively established; but research suggests that exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation is an important factor in its development. In addition, hormones such as estrogen and progesterone have been linked to the overproduction of melanin.
Sun Damage Hyperpigmentation - Solar Lentigines
Solar lentigines, or sun spots, are hyperpigmentation on the face caused by exposure to UV rays. These dark patches of skin commonly appear on the hands and face but can occur anywhere that has been exposed to long-term UV radiation.
The prevention of sun spots is primarily based upon minimizing sun exposure or protecting oneself from further UV damage via clothing and sunscreen. Sunscreens should contain an SPF of at least 30, provide broad spectrum protection (UVA/UVB), and possess ingredients like zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, avobenzone, octinoxate, and oxybenzone for optimal results in preventing additional UV-induced hyperpigmentation.
Age spots, solar lentigines, have also been called liver spots. The origin of the name "liver spot" is not entirely clear. The term is thought to be derived from the once-common misconception that these spots were directly related to liver dysfunction or damage. Modern medical understanding has debunked this myth.
Prevention of Hyperpigmentation
Some simple interventions can prevent the appearance of skin hyperpigmentation or at least diminish its severity.
- Sunscreen is the most important prevention method. You should be using high SPF, year-round, even if you're indoors most of the day. Avoiding excessive sun exposure (seek some shade) is also helpful.
- Leave your zits alone! Picking and popping are 2 very common causes of pigment spots and dilated pores. Seeing your doctor or dermatologist for medical treatments that will help eliminate acne is also essential.
- Good skincare. A proper skincare regimen doesn't have to be expensive. However, moisturization, exfoliation, and antioxidant and anti-inflammatory products will help diminish or prevent hyperpigmentation.
Medical Treatments of Hyperpigmentation on the Face
Medical treatment of hyperpigmentation should be done by a dermatologist, plastic surgeon, or another qualified and certified practitioner. A lot of harm and damage can be done when things like lasers are used by untrained individuals. The end result could be hyperpigmentation significantly worse than what you started with.
Another important reason is to have a proper assessment of your skin and sun-damaged areas to ensure there are no suspicious lesions that need removal or biopsy.
A third important reason to always start with a proper medical assessment is because people with varying skin colours have very different needs and patterns of hyperpigmentation.
Laser, IPL, Photofacials, and Cryotherapy
There are many minimally invasive methods to significantly reduce or completely eliminate pigmented areas and lesions. A recent survey revealed that up to 70% of individuals with diffuse hyperpigmentation have sought medical intervention for their condition.
The primary goal of laser treatments is to target the excess melanin under the skin's surface while leaving surrounding tissue unharmed. The energy from lasers works on melanin, which are then broken into smaller pieces and removed through various pathways.
A single session typically takes around 30 minutes, but multiple sessions may be required depending on individual circumstances. Downtime is minimal, and the results are often dramatic. It's normal to see an initial darkening of areas before they lighten and/or flake off.
Laser therapies offer cosmetic improvement without invasive procedures; however, they should not be considered an instant cure for all cases of hyperpigmentation.
Prescription Whiteners And Retinoids
These medications work together to reduce the amount of pigment produced by the cells, thereby lightening areas of hyperpigmentation on the face. This type of hyperpigmentation therapy needs ongoing medical supervision because of the prescribed nature of the treatments.
Prescription whiteners are topical creams containing active ingredients like hydroquinone which inhibit tyrosinase activity, reducing excess melanin production.
Prescription tretinoin can also be used topically to treat dermatologic disorders including hyperpigmentation as it will increase cell turnover rate, exfoliate dead skin cells and promote new cell growth with less pigment production.
These medications should only be used under a doctor's supervision as incorrect use may lead to side effects such as redness, dryness and irritation, or worse.
Neither of the above ingredients should be used in pregnancy.
Chemical peels are a medical treatment that can reduce the appearance of hyperpigmentation marks and age spots. They involve the application of an acid-based solution that removes the top layer of skin, revealing new skin underneath and helping to even out skin tone. Chemical peels vary in strength from mild, such as alpha hydroxy acids, to deep ones like trichloroacetic acid (TCA). The intensity of each peel is determined by its ingredients, pH level, and concentration.
The effects of chemical peels depend on the severity of the condition being treated; they may lighten or remove dark spots, smooth rough patches on the face, reduce wrinkles and fine lines, improve uneven texture and tone, and help with overall clarity.
In cases where excess production of melanin has caused facial pigmentation issues, chemical peels can stimulate cell turnover which helps minimize discoloration and bring forth healthier looking skin cells instead.
Can You Treat Hyperpigmentation at Home?
Yes, treating hyperpigmentation at home is achievable with various remedies and techniques. However, it's important to note that cosmetics should not be marketed as "treatments" because they aren't medical products and their effectiveness at the cellular level has not been proven. If you're thinking about getting a facial for hyperpigmentation, there are also a lot of options available.
Nevertheless, there are still plenty effective home-based options that can help reduce the appearance of hyperpigmentation. This is essentially what the entire skincare world is based on.
Let's dive into the available options to help you achieve a more even complexion.
Azelaic acid is a naturally-derived substance used as an effective treatment for areas of hyperpigmentation on the face. It works by reducing dark patches of skin and lightening dark pigmentation caused by sun exposure, acne scarring or other factors. Azelaic acid is available in many over-the-counter formulations and can be found in creams, lotions, gels and serums.
Studies have indicated that using an azelaic acid topical twice daily can help improve facial discoloration within two months. Other studies suggest that higher concentrations may produce results more quickly; however, it can also increase the risk of side effects such as redness and burning sensation.
It's essential to use sunscreen when treating hyperpigmentation with azelaic acid because this ingredient makes the skin more sensitive to the sun. Additionally, users should start slowly—using only a tiny amount every day until their skin adjusts to the product before increasing usage frequency or strength of formulation if needed.
Because of the known therapeutic effects (azelaic acid can be a prescription drug) and the possibility for significant irritation at high concentrations, limits are being placed on the amount cosmetics companies can put in their products, particularly in Canada. Also, the claims made by brands need to be cautious and not imply medical effects.
If you're like me and don't mind using lower-concentration products, azelaic acid is still a great option. It is effective. At lower concentrations, it is less irritating. It just takes longer to work.
Retinoids are another effective treatment for dark spots or patches on the face due to sun damage and other factors. Retinol works by helping to restore the natural balance of melanin production in the skin, resulting in fewer patches of skin discoloration.
It should be noted that while retinol might provide some relief from hyperpigmentation right away, its effects require time; like all skincare treatments results may take weeks, even months before they become visible, so patience is key here!
We don't have anything specific against retinol, it's an effective and evidence-based treatment. However, many of us cannot use it and need other effective options like bakuchiol, covered more below.
Vitamin C is a popular remedy for skin pigmentation. It works well and, although can be irritating, is generally much better tolerated by more people when compared to things like retinoids.
We've written much about L-ascorbic acid and a newer, more stable, less irritating version (that still works great) in our article about tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate.
This is another bareLUXE favourite ingredient - gentle for sensitive skin, yet still effective. Though retinoids may be the gold standard, many people cannot use them. Others choose not to use them for reasons like pregnancy. Think about it - you're pregnant, you have melasma, and now you have to change your skincare routine?? Yikes.
We've written extensively about the ingredient bakuchiol, the use of bakuchiol oil serums, and summarized all the current bakuchiol scientific evidence. If you're looking for a more gentle alternative to retinol, consider this effective, science-backed, and plant-based option.
Acids and Exfoliation
Exfoliation is critical for brightening your skin. If you mechanically remove dead, dull cells, you will instantly look brighter. Coupled with the fact that increasing cell turnover will help smooth out hyperpigmented and post-inflammatory or scarred areas and you'll understand why exfoliants are so important.
Adding in the aspect of chemical exfoliation using acids like glycolic or salicylic will also lighten dark spots even further. This is because acids used long-term don't just increase cell turnover. Many reduce melanin production directly as well. We've written a comprehensive guide for exfoliation for you to check out.
When using these products at home, start off gradually by applying only once weekly until you get comfortable with their usage and know how your skin reacts to them. To maximize effectiveness, combine acids with regular sunscreen protection during daytime hours, as unprotected exposure might worsen existing discolorations due to increased melanin activity triggered by UV rays from the sun.
Kojic acid is a naturally occurring substance derived from fungi. It is often used as an alternative to hydroquinone for its skin-lightening properties. It works by inhibiting the enzyme responsible for melanin production, which in turn can reduce the appearance of hyperpigmentation. Kojic acid is available in various over-the-counter products, including serums, creams, and soaps. However, it's essential to use these products as directed and be aware of potential side effects such as irritation or contact dermatitis.
Licorice extract, derived from the licorice plant's root, contains glabridin, which can inhibit melanin production and lighten dark spots. This extract also boasts anti-inflammatory properties, helping to soothe irritated skin and potentially reduce redness associated with hyperpigmentation. Licorice extract can be found in many skincare products, such as serums, creams, and face masks.
Arbutin is a natural derivative of hydroquinone, often used for its skin-lightening properties. It can help to inhibit melanin production, thereby evening out skin tone and reducing the appearance of hyperpigmentation. Arbutin is available in various over-the-counter skincare products, including serums, creams, and lotions. It is generally considered a safer and gentler alternative to hydroquinone, but as with any skincare ingredient, it's crucial to patch test and follow the product's instructions.
Niacinamide, a form of vitamin B3, is known for its brightening and anti-inflammatory properties. It helps improve skin barrier function, reduce redness, and inhibit melanin production, all of which can contribute to a more even complexion. Niacinamide is available in a range of skincare products, from serums to moisturizers. This ingredient is generally well-tolerated by most skin types, but it's still essential to patch-test new products and follow the recommended usage guidelines.
LED Light Therapy Masks
LED light therapy masks are a non-invasive, at-home treatment option for hyperpigmentation. These masks emit specific wavelengths of light, typically red and blue, which can help stimulate skin cells and promote healing. Red light, in particular, is thought to help reduce inflammation and boost collagen production, potentially improving skin tone and texture. Blue light may reduce acne-causing bacteria and inflammation, thus indirectly addressing hyperpigmentation caused by acne. Although LED light therapy masks are generally considered safe, it's essential to follow the manufacturer's instructions and avoid overuse to prevent skin irritation.
There is an endlessly growing list, particularly of natural extracts, that claim to improve hyperpigmentation. In our article about skin-brightening options, we've gone through some more of them, like lemon-peel bioferment, bearberry, and arbutin.
The most common forms of undesired hyperpigmentation are post-inflammatory, melasma, and solar. A range of cosmetic options at home may help address the condition, such as vitamin C, bakuchiol, hydroxy acids and others.
These treatments can provide a gentler approach than traditional bleaching methods. However, it is important to note that results will vary depending on the individual circumstance of each case. Additionally, skin care professionals may need to be consulted to identify which treatment option best suits an individual's needs. Finally, it is also essential to follow instructions carefully when undertaking any self-care routine to reduce potential risks or side effects.
There are numerous ways available individuals with hyperpigmentation concerns. By understanding the cellular mechanism behind this condition and having access to various cosmetic options both professional and at home, those affected by hyperpigmentation can work towards achieving their desired outcome without compromising safety or efficacy.
bareLUXE Skincare is committed to producing safe and effective products that remain close to nature. If you're working to even out your skin tone or improve the look of hyperpigmentation, our featured products include a Bakuchiol Serum, Vitamin C Oil, and Natural Exfoliating Face Scrub.
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Dr. Heather Smith developed her love for skinimalism and clean beauty years ago when she began making home remedies for her newborn's eczema. She is an expert in natural ingredients and active botanicals and has now launched bareLUXE Skincare - a full line of effective oil serums. She dedicates this blog to consumers who are researching ingredients and working to make their beauty ritual more natural and sustainable.
This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide medical advice or to take the place of such advice or treatment from a personal physician. All readers/viewers of this content are advised to consult their doctors or qualified health professionals regarding specific health questions. Neither Dr. Smith nor the publisher of this content takes responsibility for possible health consequences of any person or persons reading or following the information in this educational content. All viewers of this content should consult their physicians about their skincare concerns and routines.