Hyperpigmentation is common and not harmful, though some people find it embarrassing and unsightly. It occurs when the skin becomes darker in patches and is a result of excess melanin production in that part of the face, arms, or other parts of the skin.
What is Hyperpigmentation?
To learn how to get rid of hyperpigmentation, it’s helpful to first understand why it occurs. Hyperpigmentation affects people regardless of race or skin color. Freckles are one type of hyperpigmentation; these show up at birth and can be genetic.
Hyperpigmentation may also show up after scarring--one example is the hyperpigmentation that shows up after a pimple has come and gone, especially if it has been picked at.
Another popular kind of hyperpigmentation is melasma, also known as pregnancy mask since it shows up during pregnancy. Believe it or not, liver spots are also a type of hyperpigmentation--their scientific name is solar lentigines. While we see them mostly on elderly individuals, they can occur on anyone, as they are caused by the sun.
What's Happening Behind the Scenes When Hyperpigmentation shows Up?
Pigment in our skin--whether it’s the pink or brown on our lips, or the light or dark color of our arms--is produced by cells in our skin called melanocytes. When these cells come in contact with sunlight or experiences any kind of damage (acne or rashes, for example), they can go into overdrive.
They don’t just produce extra pigment, however; they can also leave the extra pigment in the wrong layers of the skin. This skin layer is where tattoo ink normally sits, which explains why hyperpigmentation can be so obvious and seem so much darker than the rest of our skin. The pigment can go deeper than this payer, however, making it even more difficult to treat.
What Causes Hyperpigmentation?
While acne, scarring, and other events can contribute to hyperpigmentation, the ultimate cause of hyperpigmentation is the sun. Ultraviolet rays from the sun cause damage to our skin, including stimulating those melanocytes to produce excess pigment, effectively changing the appearance of our skin.
Depending on the culture you’re part of, tanned skin is considered a positive or a negative, but most people don’t like when spots, lines, and strange discoloration begins to show up on their skin.
There’s one kind of hyperpigmentation that’s different from the rest, however--it’s called melasma.
What is the Difference Between Melasma and Hyperpigmentation?
Like liver spots or the pigmented scars left by acne, melasma is also a type of hyperpigmentation, but it’s slightly different than most other forms because it’s caused by hormonal changes in the body that occur during pregnancy, not by the sun.
This makes melasma much more difficult to treat than other kinds of hyperpigmentation because while staying of the sun will keep your problem from worsening, it’s not enough to treat your problem.
Pregnancy isn’t the only time that hormones trigger melasma, however. Some people experience pregnancy mask when they use certain kinds of birth controls, which mimic pregnancy hormones. While in that case, you can simply stop the birth control; it’s not always that simple.
The Role the Sund Plays in Hyperpigmentation
Without a doubt, your exposure to the sun is the number one instigator of hyperpigmentation. It both causes hyperpigmentation and worsens it. No matter how well you treat melasma, it’s vital to make sure you stay out of the sun, so you don’t worsen your hyperpigmentation all over again.
Here are our top tips for protecting yourself from further sun damage:
Steps to Getting Rid of Hyperpigmentation
If you’re ready to learn how to get rid of hyperpigmentation, you have a myriad of options to choose from. It’s important, however, that you first consult your dermatologist, as some of the following solutions aren’t suitable for all skin types or all people. Your doctor will be able to guide you through what’s available to minimize damage to your skin.
1. Over-the-Counter Lightening Creams and Face Acids
OTC lightening creams are usually your first line of treatment when you want to learn how to get rid of hyperpigmentation. While you can get stronger formulations of key ingredients from your doctor, these products contain key ingredients in smaller doses.
This sounds less effective, but it’s not always since lightening agents are also known for sometimes being very harsh on your skin. However, if you want quick results, you’ll be less likely to get them with an OTC cream versus a prescription treatment.
One of the most common lightening agents is hydroquinone. Hydroquinone acts like bleach and is used widely in both prescription and OTC treatments. Other popular options include licorice extract, niacinamide, which speeds up cell turnover, undecylenoyl phenylalanine, which inhibits the cellular signals that cause excess melanin production to take place, and N-acetylglucosamine, which blocks excess melanin production.
In addition to or in place of lightening creams, you can try face acids, like alpha hydroxy acids, malic acids, lactic acids, or glycolic acids. These slough off the top layer of skin and speed of cellular renewal, which leads to quicker cell turnover and can help minimize scarring and pigmentation.
2. Laser Peel or Intense Pulse Light (IPL) Therapy
In addition to chemical peels, which can be OTC or in-office, you can also resurface the top layer of your skin with lasers either through a laser peel or through intense pulse light therapy (IPL).
You have two options for laser peels: one involves an ablative laser which removes whole layers of skin and the other which involves non-ablative lasers which are targeted to a single layer of your skin to increase the growth of collagen and the appearance of tightened skin.
IPL therapy is a specific type of non-ablative laser therapy that can also be used for hyperpigmentation issues but is largely used for wrinkles, enlarged pores, and spider veins.
3. Dermabrasion and Microdermabrasion
In microdermabrasion and dermabrasion, dermatologists use handheld tools that have abrasive brushes or attachments. He or she will gently wipe them across your face, removing layers of the epidermis to reveal better, less pigmented skin below.
Often, you’ll need multiple treatments to see maximum impact--dermabrasion is more intense than microdermabrasion--but both these treatments have a downside for darker skin: they might cause more darkening or hyperpigmentation. This means they’re more suited to people with lighter skin, though your doctor can help you decide if this is the case for you.
4. Natural Remedies
If the steps above for how to get rid of hyperpigmentation feel a little too intense for you, you might be a good candidate for a natural home remedy for hyperpigmentation. Of course, these have varying success and are often fairly ineffective--those there’s always the odd testimonial from someone who’s tried them and found success!
That said, these remedies are at worse harmless and at best nourishing for your skin. Here are tips for how to get rid of hyperpigmentation naturally:
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Regardless of which treatment you choose, don’t forget to wear sunscreen and stay out of the sun!