How to Deal with Hyperpigmentation In Your Skin
Here's everything you need to know about how to get rid of hyperpigmentation (if you want!) and why it happens in the first place.
Maybe pimples or blackheads have been leaving lingering dark spots behind, somewhere between a shadow or a scar. Or you might have noticed the overall tone of your skin becoming less even and more patchy, especially after sun exposure.
Either way, you have hyperpigmentation to thank. And, yeah, it's kind of the worst.
Hyperpigmentation is basically an overproduction of melanin (the pigment naturally found in skin, hair, and eye color) that can cause areas of skin to appear darker in color. It can be congenital (aka something you're born with) but can also develop over time, says Daniel Belkin, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist at the Laser & Skin Surgery Center of New York. While hyperpigmentation looks different for everyone depending on skin type, texture, and genetic predisposition, it commonly presents in patches or smaller spots or bumps.
Hyperpigmentation can also be frustrating — there's no quick fix for it, despite the number of products out there that promise to reduce or diminish dark spots and even out complexions. These days, the skin-brightening language found on skin-care packaging can be more emotionally complicated than helpful, especially as those with higher levels of melanin (those with olive and deeper skin tones) are more likely to develop certain kinds of hyperpigmentation and have it occur more frequently, more severely, and for longer periods of time.
Regardless of your complexion, hyperpigmentation can be a complicated skin condition to tackle on your own. Here, experts share details on what causes hyperpigmentation, how it can be prevented, how to get rid of hyperpigmentation, and the best treatments for hyperpigmentation.
What Causes Hyperpigmentation?
Hyperpigmentation occurs when melanocytes (the cells in your skin that contain melanin) in one concentrated area of the skin become overactive. It's a protective mechanism, explains Purvisha Patel, M.D., board-certified dermatologist and founder of Visha Skincare. "They get excited to grow and produce pigment or melanin when exposed to ultraviolet radiation, inflammation, or hormonal changes." Since these cells exist to protect your skin, they get bigger when this damage occurs, causing a darkening of the skin.
You might have hyperpigmentation without knowing it, says Dr. Belkin. Higher amounts of melanin in certain areas can manifest as freckles, and higher numbers of melanocytes can form moles, which is why you'll commonly see more freckles or moles develop in the summer months or after extended periods of sun exposure. Sunspots and age spots, otherwise known as liver spots, are also forms of hyperpigmentation.
One of the most common forms of hyperpigmentation is post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. When this happens, an inflammatory condition — such as a bug bite, acne bump, or eczema — turns from red to brown, leaving behind a mark that may take months or even years to naturally fade, explains Dr. Belkin. Blue visible light (the kind coming from your screened devices), rashes, and scratches can also result in inflammation or trauma that skin may react to with increased pigment production.
Hyperpigmentation can also be caused by melasma, which is a mottling — a darkening or bluish-purple marbling — of the skin usually caused by hormonal changes (ex: during pregnancy). While the initial cause of these types of hyperpigmentation is internal, external factors like sun exposure can worsen the effects.
How Do You Prevent Hyperpigmentation?
Sun protection is the number one approach recommended by each of these experts for preventing hyperpigmentation. Broken skin and sensitive skin is especially prone to hyperpigmentation, which occurs in response to damage or wounds on the skin.
"Sunscreen, sunscreen, sunscreen," says Rita Linkner, M.D., of Spring Street Dermatology. "If you experience a wound or rash, make sure to give that skin extra SPF when it's healing to prevent hyperpigmentation from developing."
So, if your skin is sensitive or prone to breakouts or you're dealing with a cystic situation, be sure to slather on even more SPF than usual as part of your preventative hyperpigmentation skin routine. (Try these best face sunscreens according to customer reviews.)
How Do You Get Rid of Hyperpigmentation?
Hyperpigmentation can be treated at home — keep reading for the best hyperpigmentation product recommendations — but there are in-office dermatologist-administered options as well. Chemical peels, microneedling, and laser treatments are some of the in-office procedures typically used to treat hyperpigmentation. (Here's a guide to those options for treating hyperpigmentation.)
All three experts here agree that pairing in-office treatments with topicals (gels and lotions containing ingredients that slow down or halt melanin production) is the most effective route to a more even skin tone. Dr. Belkin says his typical in-office approach to treating hyperpigmentation begins with sun protection, active topicals, and, potentially, a light laser peel to lift off pigment. "Immediately afterward, I'll take advantage of the now porous stratum corneum (the skin's outermost layer) to apply actives, such as vitamin C and tranexamic acid," he says.
Talk to your derm to find out what option is best suited for your skin type and concern, but don't despair if visiting a doctor isn't an option for you. "In-office chemical peels are my go-to," says Dr. Linkner. "But at home, there is a slew of medical-grade skin-care ingredients that can complement in-office peels to speed up the brightening process."
It's also important to note that hyperpigmentation doesn't disappear for good after being treated. "The biggest misconception when treating hyperpigmentation is that once treated, it will not come back," says Dr. Patel. Those little melanocytes are prone to excitement, and hyperpigmentation is quick to return and develop in new areas. So it's important to keep your SPF game strong in addition to adding products to your skin-care routine that treat hyperpigmentation.
The Best Products for Treating Hyperpigmentation
For starters, there's one ingredient you'll probably want to skip: Hydroquinone, which can be found in both OTC and Rx strengths. While it's one of the most common ingredients in the world for shrinking melanocytes and preventing them from making melanin, Dr. Patel explains that it can lead to complications when used over a long period of time, one of which is irreversible hyperpigmentation. (It's even banned in the EU, Japan, and Australia.) Dr. Linker seconds that, saying, "I'm not a huge fan of hydroquinone," especially for those who have sensitive skin. "It's notorious for irritating the skin," she says.
Note: You should be aware of any active ingredient sensitivities you already have before trying to treat hyperpigmentation at home with OTC products, says Dr. Linkner. Always read product labels and keep track of products that don't work for you. If you have sensitivities or concerns, be sure to patch-test potential irritants in an area like your inner wrist or the crook of your elbow. And always remember to introduce new products gradually so you can gauge their effectiveness accurately, be sure to read labels before introducing one or more of these products to ensure they can be safely layered on your skin, and use lots of lots of sunscreen. Not only does sun exposure throw hyperpigmentation into hyperdrive, but any powerful ingredients that penetrate the top layer of your skin can cause your skin to be extra sensitive. (Related: Signs You're Using Too Many Beauty Products)
As for what you should look for, Dr. Patel recommends kojic acid, licorice, vitamin C, arbutin, and tranexamic acids, which can be used alone or in combination, especially with bakuchiol — all of which reduce hyperpigmentation through exfoliation, brightening, and blocking specific pathways of melanin formation, meaning the risk of reoccurring hyperpigmentation is reduced. Luckily, these ingredients can be delivered in multiple formats so you can add in products that gel — no pun intended — with your regular skin-care routine.
If you like serums, SkinCeuticals Discoloration Defense Serum (Buy It, $98, dermstore.com) is a great choice; it's packed with both tranexamic and kojic acids. If you've got your skin-care routine down to a science and don't want to introduce too much hyperpigmentation-battling newness, you might try The Ordinary's 100% L-Ascorbic Acid Powder (Buy It, $6, sephora.com). You can mix this powder into other products you already use, like moisturizers and serums, for an added brightening boost. (Also check out this plastic surgeon's new skin-care line for hyperpigmentation.)
Other good ingredient choices include glycolic acid (a great exfoliator) and vitamins C and A, according to Dr. Linkner. A great gentle option featuring glycolic, tartaric, and lactic acids is Drunk Elephant's T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Resurfacing Night Serum (Buy It, $90, sephora.com). Or, for the simplest application ever, try another overnight treatment featuring recommended licorice extract and tranexamic acid: Peace Out Microneedling Dark Spot Brightening Dots (Buy It, $28, sephora.com), which you simply stick on the areas you want to target.
Dr. Linkner also likes to tell patients dealing with hyperpigmentation to "add a product to their routine which helps the skin heal itself by shielding the stem cells from stress," so look for anti-inflammatory and healing properties. One of her favorite products to recommend is Rodan Fields Reverse Dual Active Brightening Complex (Buy It, $102, rodanandfields.com) since it contains vitamins A and C (which help to improve overall skin complexion and brightness). The other is Heraux Serum (Buy It, $250, revolve.com) which promotes wound healing with the added benefit of vitamin C for a brighter, more even skin tone.
In addition to shielding cells from stressors, another way to treat hyperpigmentation at home includes blocking melanin production and shrinking the cells that do it. Visha Skincare's Advanced Correcting Serum with Illuminotex (Buy It, $52, amazon.com) accomplishes this using Illuminotex, an ingredient Dr. Patel developed herself as a safe and effective alternative to harsher chemical treatments such as hydroquinone. (Also, if you're specifically struggling with dark spots from acne, consider these products.)
All that said, know that hyperpigmentation isn't dangerous — it's simply a cosmetic issue — but it can be incredibly stressful and emotionally taxing. (There's even a specific area of dermatology called psychodermatology because your skin's health and mental health are so intertwined.) If you're unhappy with repeatedly occurring hyperpigmentation or you've found OTC products not to be successful, talk to a dermatologist about hyperpigmentation treatments they can offer. Just remember, at the end of the day, a little melanin never hurt anybody.