Uneven skin pigmentation, or hyperpigmentation, is a common skin condition in which dark spots and dark patches of skin appear on the face, hands and other parts of the body that are regularly exposed to the sun. This article outlines the different types of hyperpigmentation and explains what causes them. We look at how you can help prevent hyperpigmentation in the first place, as well as the steps that you can take to reduce dark spots and patches once they have formed.
Hyperpigmentation What causes dark spots and how can I reduce them?
What is hyperpigmentation and what are the different types?
Hyperpigmentation is the term used to describe areas of uneven pigmentation in the skin.
Hyperpigmentation appears as darkened patches or spots that make the skin look uneven, and these spots are known as age spots or sun spots. Hyperpigmentation is also at the heart of skin conditions such as melasma and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.
People with dark skin are normally more affected by hyperpigmentation marks than those with a lighter skin tone, because skin pigmentation is stronger in dark skin.
Hyperpigmentation: pigment spots such as age spots
Pigmentation spots such as age spots, which are also known as sun spots, are caused by exposure to the sun.
For this reason, they appear mainly on body parts that are frequently exposed, such as the face, neck, décolleté, hands and arms. They tend to be small, darkened patches of skin. You can read more about what causes them and learn how to reduce them in What causes age spots and how can I reduce them?
Also known as chloasma, melasma is a condition where larger patches of hyperpigmentation develop mainly on the face.
Although it can affect both men and women, melasma is most common in women and is thought to be triggered by changes in hormone levels. Melasma occurs in 50% of pregnant women in the UK and in 10-25% of women taking oral contraceptives,1 and so it is sometimes referred to as “the mask of pregnancy”. You can read more about melasma in What causes melasma and how can I reduce dark patches on my skin?
- The International Dermal Institute, Melasma Unmasked by Dr Claudia Aguirre quoting Kang, H. Y., & Ortonne, J. P. (2010). What Should Be Considered in Treatment of Melasma. Annals of Dermatology, 22(4), 373-378.
Hyperpigmentation: Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation
There are other factors that can cause patches of skin to become darker, such as scarring, birthmarks, solar, or actinic, keratoses and skin cancers, but these aren’t considered to be forms of hyperpigmentation.
Consult your dermatologist or pharmacist if you’re concerned about any of your dark spots, or if they start to bleed, itch, or change in size or colour.
What causes and/or triggers hyperpigmentation?
Hyperpigmentation is caused by an increase in melanin. Melanin is the natural pigment that gives our skin, hair and eyes their colour. A number of factors can trigger an increase in melanin production, but the main causes are sun exposure, hormonal influences, age and skin injuries and inflammation.
Sun exposure and hyperpigmentation
Sun exposure is the number one cause of hyperpigmentation, as it is sunlight that triggers the production of melanin in the first place. Melanin acts as your skin’s natural sunscreen by protecting you from harmful UV rays, which is why people tan in the sun. But excessive sun exposure can disrupt this process, leading to hyperpigmentation.
Hyperpigmentation and hormones
Hormonal influences are the main cause of a particular kind of hyperpigmentation known as melasma, or chloasma. It is particularly common among women and is thought to occur when oestrogen and progesterone, the two key female sex hormones, stimulate the overproduction of melanin when the skin is exposed to sunlight.
Hyperpigmentation can also be a side effect of certain hormone treatments.
Hyperpigmentation and age
As the skin ages, the number of melanin-producing cells, known as melanocytes, decreases. The remaining cells increase in size, however, and their distribution becomes more focused. These physiological changes explain the increase of age spots in those over the age of 40. You can read more about how the skin ages in skin ageing.
Hyperpigmentation, skin injuries and inflammation
Hyperpigmentation, disease and medication
Hyperpigmentation is also symptomatic of a number of illnesses, such as certain autoimmune and gastrointestinal diseases, metabolic disorders and vitamin deficiencies.
It can also be triggered by chemotherapy drugs, antibiotics, antimalarials and anti-seizure drugs.
How can I prevent the formation of hyperpigmentation?
Sun protection is the most significant step that you can take in helping to prevent hyperpigmentation in the first place. It is important to remember that the sun’s rays affect the skin even on cloudy days, and so it is vital that you give your skin the daily protection that it needs. As well as reducing hyperpigmentation, Eucerin Anti-Pigment Day SPF 30 offers effective UVA and UVB (SPF 30) protection and prevents the formation of further sun-induced pigment spots.
Limiting the skin’s exposure to the sun will also help to reduce instances of hyperpigmentation. Try to keep out of the sun between the hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., when the sun's UV rays are at their strongest, and wear protective clothing, such as sunhats and glasses, whenever possible. When the skin is exposed to sunlight, apply and regularly reapply a sun protection product:
- With a suitable SPF level
- Which has been specially formulated for your skin type and condition
How can I reduce existing pigment spots?
While prevention is best, there are steps that you can take to make pigmentation spots fade, and to prevent their reappearance, once they have appeared on your skin.
Dermo-cosmetic solutions for hyperpigmentation
If you are concerned about hyperpigmentation, look out for skincare products that have been formulated to address this concern and are clinically and dermatologically proven to be effective.
The Eucerin Anti-Pigment range has been specially formulated to reduce hyperpigmentation for more even, radiant skin. All four products in the range – a day cream, night cream, serum, pigment control and spot corrector – contain Thiamidol, an effective and patented ingredient that acts at the root cause of hyperpigmentation by reducing melanin production. It has been clinically and dermatologically proven to reduce dark spots and prevent their reappearance. The first results are visible after two weeks, and the skin improves continuously with regular use.
Furthermore, with SPF 30 and UVA filters, Eucerin Anti-Pigment Day offers effective protection from the sun and prevents the formation of additional sun-induced pigmentation spots.
Whilst Thiamidol is Eucerin-patented, there are other active ingredients that are commonly used to treat hyperpigmentation, albeit with varying efficacy. These include: Arbutin, Azelaic Acid, Kojic Acid, other Resorcinol derivatives, such as B-Resorcinol, and Vitamin C and its derivatives.
A dermo-cosmetic solution is non-invasive and can be used year-round, as part of your daily skincare routine, to reduce hyperpigmentation. It can also be used to extend the results of a dermatological treatment.
Hyperpigmentation removal: dermatological treatments
Dermatological treatments such as chemical peels and laser therapy can help to reduce hyperpigmentation:
- Chemical peels involve applying a chemical solution to the face, neck and hands to exfoliate the skin, i.e. remove dead skin cells. This, in turn, stimulates the growth of new skin. Read more about chemical peels in What are chemical peels and how do they work?
- Laser therapies have much the same effect, but tend to be more precise. This is because the dermatologist has more control over the intensity of the treatment. These therapies involve ‘zapping’ the affected areas with high-energy light. The mildest treatments work just on the skin’s epidermis (surface layer), while the more intense treatments can penetrate the deepest layers of the skin. Find out more in Laser therapy: how should I care for my skin after treatment?
Dermatologists may also prescribe and/or use hydroquinone, which is still regarded as the most effective topical agent for reducing hyperpigmentation. It can, however, only be used for limited periods of time because, like other forms of chemical peel and laser treatment, it can irritate the skin and actually cause post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, especially in people with darker skin.