Everything You Need To Know About Hyperpigmentation

It's a universal skin concern that affects people of all skin types and tones–but the good news is, it can be treated *and* prevented.
Everything You Need To Know About Hyperpigmentation

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Whether it’s discolouration on your chin from a breakout that’s come and gone, or sun spots making an appearance on your chest after years of not-so-diligent sunscreen application, or the freckle-like spots of melasma (a.k.a. the "mask of pregnancy"), we’ve all experienced some form of hyperpigmentation. It's a universal skin concern that affects people of all skin types and tones with a wide variety of underlying causes–but the good news is, there are ways to avoid hyperpigmentation and get rid of it.

We sat down with Dr. Douglas C. Wu, an Edmonton dermatologist who now practices in California, and Dr. Sonya Abdulla, a dermatologist at Dermatology on Bloor in Toronto, to answer our questions about how to treat and prevent hyperpigmentation.

What is hyperpigmentation?

Hyperpigmentation is a broad term used to describe any discolouration of the skin, explains Wu, whether it’s an acne scar, sun spots (sometimes called liver spots) or melasma.

While summer and spring are prime hyperpigmentation seasons thanks to stronger UVB rays (the ones that cause sunburn), UVA rays are present year-round and damage the deeper levels of the skin, which can also trigger discolouration. In winter, dry air and lower humidity levels can lead to irritation, which can also cause dark spots. In short, hyperpigmentation is a concern no matter the season.

What causes hyperpigmentation?

There are multiple factors that can trigger hyperpigmentation. The most common cause is chronic sun exposure, which can lead to benign marks that pop up in areas of the skin that get a lot of sun such as the cheeks, chest, hands and forearms, says Abdulla.

Along with damaging UV rays, Wu goes on to explain that hyperpigmentation can also occur from skin injuries, inflammation, irritation, a genetic predisposition, hormonal factors and certain medications that can play a role in general skin health—all of which stimulate the pigment-making cells in the skin.

What is melasma?

Melasma is a type of hyperpigmentation that’s characterized by blotchy, irregular brown patches on the skin, explains Abdulla. It most often occurs on the cheeks, forehead, nose and upper lip, but it can also affect the chest and forearms. Unlike other forms of hyperpigmentation, it can be caused by hormonal changes.

Think of it this way: All melasma is hyperpigmentation, but not all hyperpigmentation is melasma.

What causes melasma?

Melasma can be triggered by sun exposure or by hormonal changes in the body. The skin condition is more common in women, often appearing during pregnancy, after starting oral contraceptive pills or during menopause.

“Melasma is referred to as the ‘mask of pregnancy’ for that reason,” says Abdulla, noting that the skin condition is driven by fluctuations in estrogen levels. The link between estrogen and melasma is not fully understood, though it is believed that the hormone influences the pigment-making cells in the body and that an increase in estrogen can make cells more sensitive to sunlight. While estrogen may cause some people to develop melasma, she notes that sun and heat typically play a bigger role in activating the condition.

According to Wu, aside from pregnancy and oral contraceptive pills, hormone therapy (which is used during menopause and to treat some types of cancer) is another culprit. Lifestyle factors, like stress, can also contribute to the worsening of melasma. This means that, like many other skin conditions such as eczema, melasma is unpredictable and can flare up.

Melasma requires a more specialized approach to prevention, treatment and maintenance. Using pigment-busting ingredients (more on those later) regularly can help keep it under control between flare-ups, but visiting a dermatologist to discuss treatment is a good idea. Aside from at-home skincare routines, hydroquinone and oral tranexamic acid can be prescribed if necessary.

Are some people more likely to develop hyperpigmentation and melasma than others?

While hyperpigmentation and melasma can affect anyone, people with darker skin tones are more likely to develop the conditions. Genetics can also play a role in how prone an individual is to certain types of hyperpigmentation.

How do you treat hyperpigmentation and melasma?

Both Wu and Abdulla swear by the same two-step routine when dealing with skin discolouration. “Daily, year-round sun protection and topical pigment-controlling active ingredients are the mainstays of treatment for hyperpigmentation and melasma,” says Wu.

Abdulla recommends layering a vitamin C skincare product underneath your sunscreen in the morning. Vitamin C, typically used for brightening, isn’t a one-trick pony—it also minimizes free radical damage caused by unstable molecules that attack healthy cells, which helps prevent visible signs of aging such as wrinkles, support collagen production and improve the look of hyperpigmentation. Over time, regular vitamin C application will deliver an improvement in fine lines, skin luminosity, as well as a more uniform and radiant complexion.

While sun protection and targeted skincare are tried and true methods for minimizing hyperpigmentation, each case is different and thus has to be treated with a targeted approach. Both experts say the right diagnosis is key when treating hyperpigmentation. An effective treatment plan relies on your doctor determining whether your dark spots stem from trauma to the skin (such as an injury or acne scarring), sun damage or melasma.

Depending on your skin, some procedures that are commonly used to treat dark spots, like microneedling, chemical peels and laser treatments can actually make melasma worse. For a more targeted and personalized treatment plan, it’s best to make an appointment with a board-certified dermatologist who can guide you through your options.

What are the best skincare ingredients to treat hyperpigmentation and melasma?

Vitamin C is a dermatologist-backed, clinically-tested powerhouse ingredient for the prevention and treatment of dark spots, but it’s far from the only option for treating hyperpigmentation. Ingredients like retinol, niacinamide, arbutin, kojic acid, tranexamic acid and AHAs such as glycolic and lactic acids are also recommended. However, they should be worked into your routine slowly and one at a time. (Some potent actives don’t play well together, so it’s important to educate yourself or ask an expert for advice before mixing them.)

“Sun protection and vitamin C are meant to be used on a daily basis, but [other] need to be approached with caution before committing to daily use,” warns Abdulla. Jumping headfirst into using potent skincare ingredients like retinol and AHAs can trigger inflammation in some skin types, which could worsen hyperpigmentation.

How do you prevent hyperpigmentation and melasma?

Prevention is better—and much easier—than cure when it comes to all forms of hyperpigmentation, so it's worth repeating again: Diligent sun protection is the most important preventative step you can take, so it's worth finding a sunscreen formula that works for you. To highlight the importance of prevention, Abdulla notes that once the tendency for hyperpigmentation has been triggered in your skin, it will likely persist and lead to more dark spots.

Wearing SPF 30 or higher regardless of the weather forecast is your best line of defense, plus it will also help minimize fine lines and wrinkles over time and protect you against skin cancer. Protective clothing, sunglasses and wearing wide-brimmed sun hats are also useful prevention tools, adds Wu.

Want to take care of dark spots at home? Shop the best products for hyperpigmentation below.

Garnier SkinActive Vitamin C Super Glow Serum, $15


A bottle of Garnier Vitamin C Super Glow Serum for an article on what is hyperpigmentation.

Formulated with a low-dose cocktail of vitamin C, niacinamide and salicylic acid, this affordable serum is suitable for even the most sensitive skin. It brightens skin, lightens hyperpigmentation marks, calms redness and gently exfoliates, with results visible in as little as three days.

CeraVe Skin Renewing Vitamin C Serum, $43


A tube of CeraVe Skin Renewing Vitamin C Serum for an article on what is hyperpigmentation.

This fast-absorbing gel-cream serum is fragrance-free and ideal for all skin types. The 10 percent concentration of vitamin C is gentle enough for daily use and enhanced by skin-loving ingredients like barrier-boosting ceramides and hydrating hyaluronic acid.

La Roche-Posay Anthelios Ultra Fluid Sunscreen with SPF 50+, $27


A bottle of La Roche-Posay Anthelios Ultra Fluid Sunscreen with SPF 50+ for an article on what is hyperpigmentation.

Want to protect your glow? Stock up on this ultra-popular broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 50+ that's been formulated with sensitive skin in mind. It goes on completely clear and provides a seamless matte finish that's perfect as a base for makeup.

Murad Rapid Dark Spot Correcting Serum, $106


A bottle of Murad Rapid Dark Spot Correcting Serum for an article on what is hyperpigmentation.

Tranexamic acid—an active that fades existing hyperpigmentation and prevents the formation of new dark spots—is the star ingredient of this correcting serum. It also contains glycolic acid to slough away dead skin cells and a patented antioxidant technology to even out skin tone.

The Ordinary Alpha Arbutin 2% + HA Serum, $15


A bottle of The Ordinary Alpha Arbutin 2% + HA Serum for an article on what is hyperpigmentation.

This budget-friendly serum contains arbutin—a powerful skin-brightening ingredient that helps fade sun spots and acne scarring—and hyaluronic acid. It's gentle enough to use twice a day.

Caudalie Vinoperfect Instant Brightening Moisturizer, $88


A jar of Caudalie Vinoperfect Instant Brightening Moisturizer for an article on what is hyperpigmentation.

This oil-free gel moisturizer is infused with light-reflecting pearl particles for an instant glow-up, but it also works over time to even out skin tone. It contains viniferine (the line's star brightening ingredient, which can also be found in its popular serum), hyaluronic acid, squalane and niacinamide.

Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting 6% Mandelic Acid + 2% Lactic Acid Liquid Exfoliant, $53


A bottle of Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting 6% Mandelic Acid + 2% Lactic Acid Liquid Exfoliant for an article on what is hyperpigmentation.

Dull, rough skin and hyperpigmentation are no match for this exfoliator packed with mandelic and lactic acids. Together, the ingredients promote a smooth, bright complexion and quick cell turnover, which helps fade dark spots.

Glow Recipe Cloudberry Bright Essence Toner, $52


A bottle of Glow Recipe Cloudberry Bright Essence Toner for an article on what is hyperpigmentation.

Pat this essence toner on skin daily after cleansing to reveal a brighter complexion. The hero ingredient, Cloudberry, is packed with vitamin C and works in tandem with Coenzyme Q10, a naturally occurring antioxidant that strengthens skin.

Dr. Dennis Gross Advanced Retinol + Ferulic Perfectly Dosed Retinol Universal 0.2% Treatment, $57 for 8 treatments


A package of Dr. Dennis Gross Advanced Retinol + Ferulic Perfectly Dosed Retinol Universal 0.2% Treatment for an article on what is hyperpigmentation.

Adding retinol to your routine is one of the most effective ways to deal with hyperpigmentation. This pre-soaked overnight peel comes in both 0.2 percent and 0.5 percent concentrations, with the addition of bakuchiol, ferulic acid, squalane and hyaluronic acid.

The Inkey List Tranexamic Acid Serum, $21


A bottle of The Inkey List Tranexamic Acid Serum for an article on what is hyperpigmentation.

With a two percent concentration of both tranexamic acid and vitamin C, this gel treatment makes quick work of dark spots, acne scarring and uneven skin tone.

Peach & Lily Peach Slices Dark Spot Microdarts, $22 for 9 patches


A box of Peach Slices Dark Spot Microdarts for an article on what is hyperpigmentation.

These patches are lined with tiny, self-dissolving darts infused with niacinamide and vitamin C to brighten and cica and licorice extract to soothe skin. They can be worn overnight or under makeup to make post-blemish hyperpigmentation disappear.

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