Hyperpigmentation 101: Why it Happens and How to Treat It

    Hyperpigmentation 101: Why it Happens and How to Treat It

    As you get older, it’s quite common for certain patches of your skin to take on a darker tone than others. 

    Known as hyperpigmentation, this occurs when certain patches of skin produce higher levels of melanin than normal. Hyperpigmented skin can range from tiny, barely noticeable dark spots to large patches of blotchy, brown-gray skin. 

    Like other skin conditions, there’s no single cause of hyperpigmentation. Your skin can become darkened as a result of sun exposure, genetics, fluctuations in your hormone levels, pregnancy, conditions like melasma and even medication like hormonal birth control.

    Dealing with hyperpigmentation can be a frustrating process. Luckily, a range of science-backed options are available to help you even out your skin tone and make darkened, hyperpigmented patches of skin less visible.

    Below, we’ve explained why and how hyperpigmentation happens, as well as the most common triggers that can affect your skin. We’ve also listed the most effective, science-backed treatment options for getting rid of hyperpigmentation for good.

    How Does Hyperpigmentation Happen?

    Hyperpigmentation happens when your skin produces excessive amounts of melanin, causing you to develop a darker skin tone.

    Melanin is a natural pigment that your body uses to give your skin its color. Everyone produces a certain amount of melanin naturally through their skin cells. The amount of melanin your skin produces varies based on factors like your genetics, ethnicity, hormones and lifestyle.

    Melanin serves as a powerful form of natural protection against UV radiation, helping to reduce DNA damage from spending time in the sun.

    This is why your skin naturally starts to look tanned and darker after you spend time outside. In response to UV exposure, your melanocytes (the skin cells that produce melanin) increase your melanin production, giving your skin an extra level of protection.

    Most of the time, hyperpigmentation happens when specific areas of skin produce more melanin than others.

    This can give your skin a blotchy, inconsistent tone. Hyperpigmentation usually affects areas of your skin that are frequently exposed to sunlight, such as your face, neck, shoulders, arms and hands. 

    Hyperpigmentation can also affect areas of your skin that are already darkened. Age spots and freckles can both become darker as a result of hormonal fluctuations, sun exposure and other factors that contribute to skin hyperpigmentation. 

    There are several major triggers for hyperpigmentation, all of which can contribute to a blotchy skin tone:

    • Genetics. Genetics appear to play a role in hyperpigmentation. If your parents or other family members have age spots or other types of hyperpigmentation, you may be more likely to develop hyperpigmentation yourself.
    • Sunlight. Exposure to UV radiation from sunlight can increase the amount of melanin produced by your skin. If you’re prone to hyperpigmentation, this can give your skin a blotchy appearance that worsens as you spend more time in direct sunlight.
    • Hormones. Your body’s production of androgens, estrogen and other hormones can affect your skin. Along with acne, hyperpigmentation is a common skin condition caused by hormonal fluctuations.
    • Pregnancy. The hormonal fluctuations that occur during pregnancy can also trigger hyperpigmentation. Many pregnant women develop sun spots, as well as other skin discoloration conditions such as melasma.
    • Skin damage. Damage to your skin from acne, cuts, rashes and surgery can cause hyperpigmentation. Certain skin diseases can also leave scars and dark spots that worsen with UV exposure and hormonal fluctuations.

    Individually, all of these factors contribute to hyperpigmentation. They can also have a combined effect. For example, if you’re genetically prone to hyperpigmentation, use hormonal birth control and spend lots of time in direct sunlight, these factors can all darken your skin tone. 

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    What Does Hyperpigmented Skin Look Like?

    Hyperpigmented skin can take several different forms, ranging from common age spots to large, symmetrical patches of darkened skin caused by melasma.

    Freckles are the most common, visible form of hyperpigmentation. Freckles develop as a result of your genetics (you’ll inherit them from a parent) and UV exposure. When exposed to the sun, freckles get darker as your skin cells ramp up their production of melanin.

    For the most part, freckles are a harmless result of your genetics and aren’t likely to signal any health issues. 

    Another common form of hyperpigmentation is age spotting. Age spots (also known as “liver spots”) are small, round patches of skin that form on the face, shoulders, hands and other areas that receive a lot of UV exposure.

    Other forms of hyperpigmentation include post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, which happens after your skin is injured, and melasma, a hormonal condition that can happen during pregnancy or after you start using hormonal medication. 

    Not all hyperpigmented skin has the same color. Lightly hyperpigmented skin can just look like a mild suntan, while severely hyperpigmented skin (such as freckles and age spots) can take on a color that’s several shades darker than your natural skin tone. 

    It’s also possible for your skin to become hypopigmented as a result of low melanin levels. If you have a naturally dark skin tone, stretch marks and other skin injuries can cause patches of skin to take on a lighter, less pigmented color that clashes with its surroundings. 

    How to Treat Hyperpigmented Skin

    Hyperpigmented skin can be stressful and annoying. While it’s usually possible to hide darkened skin using makeup, simply knowing that some parts of your skin are darker than others can take a toll on your self-confidence and wellbeing.

    Luckily, hyperpigmented skin is almost always treatable. A variety of science-backed treatments are available for hyperpigmentation, some of which can help you completely get rid of excessive melanin production and maintain a consistent skin tone.

    We’ve listed all of the FDA-approved, science-backed treatments for hyperpigmentation below, starting with easy-to-use topical treatments:

    Hydroquinone

    Hydroquinone is a topical medication that lowers your skin’s production of melanin. It’s one of the most common and effective treatments for hyperpigmentation, with studies showing that it works for everything from UV-induced skin hyperpigmentation to melasma

    Used topically, hydroquinone works by reducing melanin production in your skin cells. Over the course of several months, this can help darkened, blotchy skin become lighter, giving your skin a more consistent and natural skin tone.

    While low-strength hydroquinone creams are available over the counter, you’ll need a prescription to buy higher-strength hydroquinone products designed for hyperpigmentation and melasma.

    Our guide to hydroquinone and melasma goes into more detail on how hydroquinone works, as well as how you can use it to treat hyperpigmented skin. 

    Kojic Acid

    Kojic acid is a naturally-occurring chelation agent that’s produced as a byproduct of fermented rice. It works by reducing your production of tyrosine, an amino acid that your body uses as an essential building block for melanin. 

    Used topically as a skincare ingredient, this can produce a mild but noticeable lightening effect that makes kojic acid a good treatment for hyperpigmentation.

    From an effectiveness standpoint, kojic acid isn’t as strong as hydroquinone. 

    In a 2013 study, researchers compared kojic acid and hydroquinone, noting that while both treatments worked for lightening facial melasma (a form of hyperigmentation), hydroquinone was superior.

    Because of this, it’s best to use kojic acid for mild cases of hyperpigmentation that don’t need the heavy duty results of something like hydroquinone. 

    Tretinoin

    Tretinoin is a topical retinoid that can reduce the effects of UV damage on your skin, helping to make hyperpigmentation less visible. 

    As a retinoid, tretinoin works by speeding up your body’s skin cell turnover rate. By replacing old skin cells with newer ones at a faster pace, skin that’s photodamaged and darkened fades away faster, making age spots, melasma and other hyperpigmentation less of an issue.

    Studies show that tretinoin works as a treatment for hyperpigmentation, including in people with dark skin tones

    Like hydroquinone, tretinoin is a prescription medication. It’s available in a variety of strengths and forms, including topical skin creams. Tretinoin and hydroquinone are often used together, with studies showing that the two medications might work better together than separately

    As with other topical treatments, it can take several months to see results from tretinoin. Our guide to tretinoin and melasma (a specific form of skin discoloration) goes into more detail on how tretinoin works, as well as how you can use it to treat hyperpigmented skin. 

    Lifestyle Changes

    While medication can help to get rid of hyperpigmentation, the best way to stop your skin from becoming darkened and discolored is to change your habits and lifestyle. Lifestyle-related tips and tactics for controlling skin hyperpigmentation include:

    • Avoiding sunlight. Spending excessive time in the sun can worsen hyperpigmentation, especially if you have existing age spots or melasma. Do your best to avoid being in the sunlight when UV radiation is strongest (Generally from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.)
    • Using SPF 15+ sunscreen. While there’s no need to protect your skin if you’re going out for a minute or two, it’s important to use at least SPF 15+ sunscreen if you’re going to spend a significant amount of time in bright, sunny areas.
    • Wearing a hat. As well as protecting yourself with sunscreen, it’s best to shade your face with a hat on sunny days. Covering up is always the most effective way to avoid direct sunlight and UV damage.
    • Avoiding scratching, rubbing or otherwise damaging your skin. Skin trauma is a common cause of hyperpigmentation. If you get acne, itchy skin or any other form of skin irritation, avoid scratching it to reduce your risk of hyperpigmented scars. 

    Learn More About Treating Skin Hyperpigmentation

    From age spots to melasma, hyperpigmentation affects millions of people in the U.S. alone. Like many skin conditions, it’s something that often gets worse as you get older, become more stressed or deal with life events such as pregnancy.

    Our guide to hyperpigmentation and melasma explains some of the most common differences between these two common types of skin discoloration, as well as the most effective treatment options for each condition.

    This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.