In the wild, animals with spotted markings blend into their surroundings. But on us humans, brown splotches on the upper lip, forehead and cheekbones draw attention to an underlying issue: skin pigmentation.
While not dangerous, pigmentation is stubborn to treat. You used to have to book a clinic-only treatment, which came with a hefty price tag. But that’s all changed now. Thanks to advances in science, we’re seeing more over-the-counter brands giving the professionals a run for their money.
What causes skin pigmentation?
Experts think skin pigmentation is the result of melanocytes (the colour-making cells in your skin) going into overdrive.
‘Your body produces melanin to protect you from the sun – an over production shows up as brown spots and hyperpigmentation,’ says dermatologist Dr Dennis Gross.
Melasma vs hyperpigmentation – what’s the difference?
Hyperpigmentation is an umbrella term that refers to any discolouration on the skin. ‘It’s a catchall term that covers a number of different complaints. But the top three that I see in clinic are melasma, post-acne marks and sun damage,’ explains skin expert Dr Sam Bunting.
Acne scarring is a form of post-inflammatory pigmentation. It occurs as a result of trauma to the skin. Darker skin tones are more prone to this type of pigmentation because of increased levels of melanin in the skin. Any injury like a picked spot makes those melanocytes jump into action.
Aside from causing freckles to blow up into large sunspots, unprotected sun exposure can exacerbate other skin conditions, too.
Melasma is another type of hyperpigmentation. Often referred to as ‘the mask of pregnancy,’ it frequently appears as symmetric darkened patches on the face during pregnancy. There are pregnancy beauty products, designed to help if you are expecting.
A spike in hormonal changes is thought to be the cause. Which is why melasma can also be triggered by oral contraceptives. Again sun exposure can make it look more pronounced.
Pollution and pigmentation
‘Once inside the skin, pollution can cause chronic inflammation,’ says Dr Tom Mammone, Vice President of Skin Physiology and Pharmacology at Clinique. ‘This stimulates melanocytes, giving you unwanted pigmentation.’
Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that protects against damaging free radicals caused by pollution. Other things to remember are: keep your skin’s moisture barrier in tact with hydrating ingredients like hyaluronic acid. ‘We’ve been able to prove that pollution tears tiny holes in the skin’s barrier, causing moisture loss, so this is a good ingredient to have in your arsenal,’ says Dr Mammone.
Ingredients that form a film over the skin’s surface will also help with that. ‘Alteromonas ferment, from marine bacteria, is brilliant at preventing pollution particles from adhering to the skin,’ says dermatologist Dr Barbara Sturm, who has made it a hero ingredient in her Pollution Drops.
How to treat skin pigmentation
‘Suncreen and antioxidants are your best bet for preventing future hyperpigmentation,’ says Dr Bunting. ‘In addition to its antioxidant properties, vitamin C is also known to inhibit the production of melanin in your skin. Bakuchiol is another key antioxidant. It also suppresses the activity of the melanocytes so is a useful new ingredient to have in your skin pigmentation toolkit.’
Other good brightening agents include kojic acid and azelaic acid, a yeast that deactivates the enzyme tyrosinase, which helps to produce melanin.
Just be patient – all pigmentation-reducing treatments take at least two months of diligent use for the real fading to begin.
If you have melasma due to pregnancy or taking birth control pills, it may go away once you’re no longer pregnant or using that kind of hormonal contraception.
But it’s worth saying that the deeper the pigment, the tougher it is to treat. So if a section of skin is consistently left unprotected in the sun, you should look at in-clinic treatments to help to brighten it.
‘Professional chemical peels, like my in-office Alpha Beta Peel, are commonly used to treat hyperpigmentation,’ Dr Gross tells us.
IPL (intense pulsed light) is another option for sunspots, he continues. ‘It involves light-based energy pulsed onto the skin while simultaneously targeting blood vessels. The light seeks out the discoloration in the skin to lift it up and out.’