You can call them sunspots, age spots, melasma or the mask of pregnancy, but these are all forms of hyperpigmentation. Darkened areas of skin develop over an extended period of time due to various factors and may appear as spots or patches.
Causes of Hyperpigmentation
Sun damage is the most common culprit of hyperpigmentation for people, but you can also develop hyperpigmentation from melasma or other hormone-related skin disorders. Some people even notice hyperpigmentation due to a separate inflammatory response, such as acne, psoriasis, burns, or other skin injuries. How does this happen and how do you reverse it?
How Pigment is Created
Your skin produces pigment for protection against harmful ultraviolet radiation. Melanocytes are specialized cells responsible for producing melanin or pigment in your skin. As the skin attempts to protect itself by producing more melanin, this highly regulated process can sometimes become unrestrained.
Ultraviolet radiation stimulates the skin cells to release chemicals that trigger melanocytes to produce more pigment. Melanocytes can also be influenced by inflammatory chemicals and hormones released by skin cells. The actual production of melanin involves a complex series of chemical reactions leading to either yellow-red or brown-black color development.
When your skin is exposed to UVA and UVB rays too often, the radiation may cause altered cellular reactions. Localized melanocyte cells will produce excess pigment because they are attempting to protect your skin cells. When your melanocytes produce a higher concentration of melanin in certain areas, those places will be darker.
Hyperpigmentation can also occur as a result of hormone fluctuations or medications that affect hormones, such as birth control pills. Pregnancy hormones can trigger melasma, also called the mask of pregnancy.
Any type of skin trauma can result in hyperpigmentation of the damaged skin. This may happen after surgery, severe burns, or some other deep tissue injury.
In some cases, hyperpigmentation may resolve itself over time. For instance, melasma during pregnancy may slowly fade away after childbirth.
There are many treatment methods for managing hyperpigmentation. Many of these treatments will require professional treatments and a continued regimen at home.
With any option you choose, make sure you treat the cause and the symptoms. For instance, if your hyperpigmentation arose from inflammatory acne, you should treat the acne along with the discoloration or the cycle will continue and hyperpigmentation will continue to resurface. By consulting with a treatment professional, you can receive a customized management plan to address your unique situation.
Home Care for Hyperpigmentation
Successful at-home treatments may focus on exfoliating to remove hyperpigmented skin cells and applying solutions to regenerate healthy skin cells.
Major skin care brands utilize low concentration retinoids and alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs). These compounds slow down pigment production and improve skin cell turnover. Other ingredients that may brighten and stimulate cellular regeneration include rosehip oil, aloe vera, kojic acid and licorice root. Of course, the gold standard for treating stubborn hyperpigmentation is still hydroquinone. Many skincare brands offer products that have a low percentage of this active. It is essential that you discuss your treatment plan with a professional because you cannot use hydroquinone every single day for an extended period of time.
Medical Spa Treatments for Hyperpigmentation
Chemical peels and microdermabrasion can strip away the top layer of skin cells, revealing lighter, brighter skin beneath. These options work well when you have corrected the cause of hyperpigmentation.
Laser therapy and photo facial rejuvenation using IPL (Intense Pulsed Light) can brighten skin and reduce the appearance of discoloration. The light penetrates the skin surface to target melanin and breaks down excess skin pigments to lighten discolored areas. IPL is non-invasive and offers results over a few treatments.
Micro-needling treatments for collagen induction can be used for deeper penetration of the affected area. If your hyperpigmentation is too deep for a chemical peel, then micro-needling may be a better option for you. A series is typically required for best results.
If your hyperpigmentation is more severe, you may need further treatments or a more intense treatment regimen. Most hyperpigmentation cases can be resolved through the combination of specialized therapy sessions and treatment applications.
Prescription Management of Hyperpigmentation
For complicated hyperpigmentation conditions, you may need medical prescription management. Medical professionals can prescribe stronger retinoids than you will find over-the-counter.
Prescription hydroquinone blocks the chemical process that induces melanocytes to produce melanin. Unfortunately, this medicine can cause ochronosis (permanent skin discoloration) if used excessively, so it is essential to follow the protocol given to you by the professional.
Tretinoins and corticosteroids may be used in conjunction with hydroquinone because they speed up the skin’s natural cycle of cellular regeneration. You may even be able to get a triple cream with all three compounds together.
In many cases, you can prevent hyperpigmentation, depending on the cause. In order to prevent skin discoloration from sun damage, you need to avoid direct sun exposure or apply a broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher.
If your hyperpigmentation is linked to hormone therapy, discuss an alternative solution with your provider. As always, you should consult your medical professional before beginning a medical treatment regimen.