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Hyperpigmentation: what is it, why does it appear and how can it be treated?

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We run through everything you need to know about hyperpigmentation. 

Alongside adult acne and eczema, hyperpigmentation is a common condition that can affect pretty much anyone, no matter your skin type or skin tone. It comes under many guises, including melasma (that tends to affect pregnant women) and dark spots (which are more likely to affect areas exposed to sun, like the face and arms).

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As hyperpigmentation rises the ranks of the most common skin conditions out there, we’ve taken it upon ourselves to answer all your pressing questions, including what causes it and (more importantly) how it can be treated.

What is hyperpigmentation?

“Hyperpigmentation simply refers to areas of the skin that are darker (more pigmented) than the skin’s natural tone. There are various types of hyperpigmentation which all relate to the same issue but are caused by different things.” explains Bianca Estelle, founder of Bea Skin Care.

What is the most common type of hyperpigmentation?

“The word hyperpigmentation is the umbrella term that loops together many different types and causes of excess pigmentation issues, from hormonal melasma, sun spots, age spots to PIP (Post Inflammatory Pigmentation) caused by scaring such as acne scaring or injury,” adds Georgie Cleeve, founder of skincare brand Oskia

What are the main causes of hyperpigmentation?

“Hyperpigmentation is caused by increased melanin production. Our skin has specialised cells, called melanocytes, which produce the dark pigment, melanin. It gives skin its colour and some natural protection from sunlight, but over-exposure to sunlight, hormonal influences, ageing and skin injury or inflammation can cause an increase in melanin and trigger hyperpigmentation,” says Dylan Griffiths, medical manager at Eucerin.

“Hyperpigmentation appears as dark patches and age spots (also known as sun spots) that make skin look uneven. The overproduction of melanin is also the root causes of conditions such as melasma and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. While hyperpigmented skin is normally harmless it can cause distress and impact the quality of life of those that experience it,” he adds.

What does hyperpigmentation look like?

“In Caucasian skin, hyperpigmentation can often appear as pinkish or red areas, while darker skin tends to present pigmentation in a much more obvious way, and this can look blemish-like,” says Estelle.

Are darker skin tones more prone to hyperpigmentation?

“Yes, for a few reasons. One is that darker skin is more sensitive and therefore, more reactive to the damage that can cause hyperpigmentation. Another reason is that darker skin has more melanin (pigment) within it, which means it’s easier to stimulate,” explains Estelle.

“Lastly – and unfortunately – there is a lack of education around when it comes to sun protection. Many people believe that darker skin tones don’t require sun protection. This couldn’t be more wrong,” says Estelle. “Whilst darker skin is richer in melanin and has some increased protection against the sun in comparison to Caucasian skin, it’s still susceptible to damage. Even though a person has black skin which may originate from Sub-Saharan Africa or elsewhere with desert-like conditions, living in western countries means that genetics have deviated and thus, skin protection is vital,” she adds. Thankfully, sunscreens that don’t leave a white cast on dark skin are easier to find than ever before.

How long do hyperpigmentation products take to work?

“Between 6-8 weeks, so at least 1-3 skin cycles, which allows melanin to ‘grow out’. However, many see a dramatic difference in much less time, depending the cause and type of hyper-pigmentation,” says Cleeve.

What is the best way to treat hyperpigmentation?

SPF is the most significant step you can take in terms of prevention. “It’s important to remember the sun’s rays affect skin even on cloudy days (80% of the sun’s harmful effect still hit the skin on cloudy days), so it’s vital to give your skin the daily protection it needs with an effective UVA and UVB protection to prevent the formation of additional sun-induced pigment spots. Limiting skin’s exposure to the sun will also help to reduce instances of hyperpigmentation. Try to keep out of the sun during its most intense hours and wear protective clothing including sunhats and sunglasses whenever possible. When skin is exposed to the sun, apply and regularly reapply a sun protection product,” says Griffiths.

However, Estelle also suggests having chemical peels. “Contrary to popular belief, these can be used on darker skin tones. When it comes to products, opt for those containing AHAs (alpha hydroxy acids) to stimulate cell renewal, and also look for look for Tyrosine suppressants such as mandelic acid and kojic acid. Tyrosine is an enzyme that helps our bodies to produce melanin so if you block this tyrosine pathway, then you’ll be less reactive to UV wounds/trauma,” she says.

Vitamin C and other proven anti-oxidants also help to neutralise the damage caused by pollution and free radicals. 

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