Allure Podcast

The Science of Beauty: What is Hyperpigmentation?

On this episode of The Science of Beauty podcast, we talk all things hyperpigmentation — like dark spots and melasma — from treatment options to prevention techniques. (Available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts.) This episode made possible by Olay.
what is hyperpigmentation

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For our second episode of The Science of Beauty, our hosts took the liberty of being just a teeny bit selfish... and decided to explore "What is hyperpigmentation?", a condition they’re both actively treating.

To be fair, it seems like you have questions about hyperpigmentation, too. Hosts Michelle Lee, editor in chief, and Jenny Bailly, executive beauty director, says it’s one of the topics they receive the most questions about from Allure readers. So take a listen — and scroll on — for the answer to every possible question you might have about hyperpigmentation.

What is pigmentation?

To really understand hyperpigmentation, we need to go back in time — way, way back. Evolution over hundreds of thousands of years is responsible for the diverse palette of human skin tones that we see across the world today. It’s theorized that our ancestors developed dark, permanent pigment in their skin, called melanin, as a form of natural protection against the sun. Melanin is produced in cells called melanocytes that live in our epidermis (the outermost layer of our skin).

“Melanin is magic because it's kind of our protection against ultraviolet light from Mother Nature,” says Mona Gohara, an associate clinical professor of dermatology at Yale School of Medicine, during our podcast. In general, the amount of melanin in our skin determines our skin color, and there are two different types found in the human body: eumelanin and pheomelanin. Eumelanin is the melanin behind sunspots and it’s why more pigmented skin is less likely to burn, develop skin cancer, and age as quickly as lighter skin. Pheomelanin is the yellowish-red pigment that’s present in all skin types, but especially abundant in people with fair skin. It lacks protective powers from the sun and can actually heighten skin’s sensitivity to UV rays, causing fairer skin tones to burn quickly and accrue more sun damage over time.

What is hyperpigmentation?

“Hyperpigmentation is the point in time wherein your melanocytes, your little pigment-producing factories, have decided that it's time to work overtime,” explains Gohara. “They've decided that it's time to churn out more melanin, and they do that when they feel threatened [and] when they're triggered to do [so].” This kind of reaction can be caused by a variety of potential factors (more on that next!), so it’s important to protect your skin each and every day so your melanocytes don’t go into overdrive.

What causes hyperpigmentation?

There are several things that can make your melanocytes feel like they need work really, really hard:

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1. The Sun

No surprise here, but the biggest cause of hyperpigmentation is the sun. When our skin is exposed to the sun's rays, melanocytes are naturally stimulated to produce more melanin in an effort to protect the skin from burning. This sun-fueled overproduction of melanin causes the dark spots on our body that we recognize as sunspots. Freckles, which are typically genetic and develop in childhood, are just baby sunspots, says Gohara. They’re dark in the summer and fade in the winter (unlike sunspots), and are typically rather small. Surprisingly, age spots — which people often think are solely caused by aging — are the same thing as sunspots. “People come in and say ‘I have age spots,’ but really they’re sunspots,” explains Gohara. “If you were 100-years-old and never went out in the sun, you wouldn’t have any of those spots.”

Artificial Light

Similar to UV light from the sun, visible light (yes, from lightbulbs) can cause pigment overproduction as well — especially on darker skin tones. Blue light from smartphone screens and computers can also trigger hyperpigmentation in some people, says Gohara. “Melasma [can be triggered] by blue light, too,” she confirms. (More on melasma in a minute.)

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Heat

One of the more unknown causes of hyperpigmentation: heat. Heat — whether it’s from hot yoga or sitting by a fireplace — can be another trigger for melanocytes. These pigment factories react when they’re injured, and heat is a form of injury. You’re more likely to wind up with heat-induced dark spots if you’re Asian, African-American, or Latinx, since susceptibility to hyperpigmentation is genetic.

Hormones

An increase in estrogen — often from pregnancy or birth control pills — can also cause muddy-looking splotches on the forehead, cheeks, or chin. This blotchiness is known as melasma, and it differs from regular hyperpigmentation because it is primarily initiated by hormonal influences. It occurs most commonly in people with darker skin tones, likely because darker skin tones naturally have more active pigment-producing cells. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, 90% of people who get melasma are women (although, it is possible for men to get melasma as well due to factors such as genetic predisposition, illness, or certain medications). This condition is often called the “mask of pregnancy” since it frequently occurs in pregnant women who are experiencing dramatic hormonal changes. Melasma can flare on its own, but sun exposure can exacerbate it.

Acne

Finally, acne can be a major cause of dark spots. Just when you think you’ve officially won the battle against a particularly difficult pimple, a brown spot may begin to emerge in its place. This kind of hyperpigmentation, called post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH), is due to the trauma that acne causes in your skin. This trauma can result in localized melanin production that can last longer than the pimple itself.

How to Prevent Hyperpigmentation

If you listened to our first episode of The Science of Beauty, you know how strongly we feel about sunscreen. Not only does it help prevent the collagen loss that causes lines and laxity, it’s also the easiest way to prevent hyperpigmentation. Mineral sunscreens with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide are the best protection against the full spectrum of light (including blue light) which, as we now know, can cause discoloration. Those with Caucasian skin have a low natural protection against UV rays, so SPF is especially vital. Fair skin is naturally equipped with the equivalent of approximately an SPF 3.4, whereas dark skin tones have an SPF of about 13.4.

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While those with Black or Brown skin have a natural boost in sun protection, they actually need to take extra precautions to prevent discoloration. Those with Black skin should avoid mechanical exfoliants (i.e., grainy scrubs), irritating skin-care ingredients (such as alcohol, propylene glycol, and lanolin), Intense Pulsed Light (IPL) treatments, and ablative lasers — all of which can cause light and dark spots. East Asians tend to have particularly sensitive skin, so should also be sure to test products containing glycolic or lactic acid on a small area under the chin before putting it all over your face. These alpha hydroxy acids can cause redness and can even increase melanin production, leading to dark patches.

The Best Ingredients & Products for Fighting Dark Spots

There are plenty of dark spot-fighting products on the market, but the gold standard of lightening solutions is hydroquinone. When used consistently, it fades spots in about three months. When paired with a retinoid, it begins to lighten splotches in just four to six weeks (sometimes sooner).

However, there’s a lot of controversy surrounding this ingredient. (Though it’s often referred to as a “bleaching” agent, hydroquinone does not in fact bleach the skin. It inhibits the pigment-forming enzyme tyrosinase, thereby keeping new cells from darkening.) Research showed the benzene derivative, which the European Union banned for cosmetic use in 2001, could be carcinogenic in rodents — though some experts say extrapolating those results for humans is too big a leap.

Hydroquinone has also been linked to the development of a disorder called ochronosis, which can actually lead to more hyperpigmentation instead of less. Even though Dr. Gohara asserts that this is much more common in Africa and not so much in the United States, she recommends using hydroquinone for shorter periods of time in order to lower the overall risk of developing ochronosis.

Gohara says that retinoids — like prescription tretinoin and over-the-counter retinols — are also great for fading spots since they block the transport of melanin to epidermal cells and lower the activity of melanocytes. For an effective and relatively inexpensive retinol option, Jenny recommends Olay Regenerist Retinol 24 Max Night Serum, which can be found at drugstores.

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Alpha hydroxy acids, like glycolic, also reduce the appearance of dark spots, by increasing skin cell turnover to slough away excess surface pigment. Michelle uses Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Alpha Beta Universal Daily Peel to help exfoliate her skin and eliminate discoloration.

Gohara also recommends using a product with Vitamin C, or L-ascorbic acid. The potent antioxidant helps interrupt melanin formation. “I put on the SkinCeuticals CE Ferulic serum, about five or six drops on my face and neck, under my sunscreen each morning,” says Jenny. “Every time we interview a dermatologist, they say they use it, so I have followed their lead.”

The Best In-Office Treatments for Hyperpigmentation

While the ease of at-home products is appealing for many, in-office treatments are certainly the quickest and most effective course of action when it comes to diminishing dark spots. But before you get any treatment, you should tell your doctor your full family history to make sure you don’t risk any adverse side effects. “Ethnicity, or the culture you identify with, does not confer skin type,” explains Gohara. “I could culturally identify as Black, but have really light skin. But if one of your parents has darker skin, you could have a tendency, even with light skin, to get post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.”

Ultimately, there’s no one-size-fits-all for treating discoloration at the doctor’s office. But generally, chemical peels and lasers are the go-to. But while a series of chemical peels can help with hyperpigmentation, proceed with caution. Those prone to PIH may see their condition worsen. Pigment-specific peels, like pyruvic acid, are recommended since studies have shown this ingredient is specifically effective for diminishing hyperpigmentation.

Lasers have also revolutionized the treatment of pigmentary disorders, but Gohara emphasizes that you must tread lightly when choosing the best one for you — those with Black and Brown skin are most at risk for these devices to worsen hyperpigmentation instead of reducing existing dark spots.

Near-infrared lasers, like Nd:YAG lasers (Neodymium-doped Yttrium Aluminum Garnet), are typically best for more pigmented complexions. This kind of laser leaves the top surface of your skin intact while only heating the lower layer to target pigmentation. Studies have shown favorable results (especially when combined with topical treatments). Intense pulsed light (IPL) therapy — also known as photofacial or photorejuvenation — stimulates collagen production but is also used for overall pigmentation issues and studies have shown measurable improvement.

Our Hosts Favorite Dark Spot Correctors

Michelle’s Current Favorites

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“I’m a big fan of exfoliating regularly,” says Michelle, adding that she uses the Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Alpha Beta Universal Daily Peel to slough off dead skin. She also likes to use the RéVive Perfectif Even Skin Tone Serum Dark Spot Corrector every day. “I don’t use it all over my face, though,” she says. “I do one or two pumps and then concentrate it on my cheeks, which is where most of my hyperpigmentation is.”

Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Alpha Beta Universal Daily Peel

RéVive Perfectif Even Skin Tone Serum Dark Spot Corrector

Jenny’s Current Favorites

Each morning, Jenny applies the SkinCeuticals CE Ferulic serum under her sunscreen for antioxidant protection. At night, she uses the Olay Regenerist Retinol24 Max Night Serum because it doesn’t irritate her skin and helps encourage cell turnover. She often alternates it with Shani Darden Retinol Reform, created by celebrity facialist Shani Darden.

Skinceuticals CE Ferulic Serum

Olay Regenerist Retinol 24 Max Night Serum

Shani Darden Retinol Reform

The Bottom Line

Successfully treating hyperpigmentation requires a commitment to both at-home products and in-office treatments. It’s also a classic ounce-of-prevention situation — protecting your skin against the triggers that cause discoloration in the first place is the most sure-fire (and, mostly, easy!) way to keep your complexion clear and even-toned.


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