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My face is covered in freckles, which I fully embrace. Hyperpigmentation, on the other hand, isn't quite as welcome. If you've ever dealt with discoloration and unwanted dark spots, you know that they can be a pain to deal with. So to learn more about what hyperpigmentation is, as well as underlying causes, preventative measures we can take, and how to get rid of it, we decided to ask dermatologist Jenna Queller, MD, FAAD, to share her wisdom and expert guidance.
Meet the Expert
Dr. Jenna Queller, MD, FAAD is a board-certified dermatologist who is highly trained in medical dermatology, dermatologic surgery, and cosmetic dermatology. She received her medical degree from Drexel University and completed her residency in dermatology at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center.
What is Hyperpigmentation?
"Hyperpigmentation is a common, usually harmless condition in which patches of skin become darker in color than the normal surrounding skin," Queller clarifies. "This darkening occurs when an excess of melanin, the brown pigment that produces normal skin color, forms deposits in the skin. Hyperpigmentation can affect any skin color. However, some people are more prone to it than others."
And hyperpigmentation also varies in onset. It can be the "result from years of sun exposure and then slowly appear over time, or it can appear suddenly," Queller says.
Underlying Causes of Hyperpigmentation
The culprits of hyperpigmentation can vary from hormonal changes to environmental factors and lifestyle choices.
"Skin diseases such as acne can leave dark spots after the condition clears," Queller explains. "Other causes of dark spots are injuries to the skin, including some surgeries. Freckles are small brown spots that can appear anywhere on the body but are most common on the face and arms. Freckles are an inherited characteristic."
Another common form of hyperpigmentation is age spots or liver spots.
"They occur due to sun damage and are referred to by doctors as solar lentigos or lentigines," Queller says. "These small, darkened patches are usually found on the hands and face or other areas frequently exposed to the sun."
Hyperpigmentation driven by hormonal changes or sun exposure is known as melasma.
"[Those] spots are similar in appearance to age spots but are larger areas of darkened skin that appear most often as a result of hormonal changes," Queller says. "Pregnancy, for example, can trigger overproduction of melanin that causes the 'mask of pregnancy' on the face. Women who take birth control pills can also develop hyperpigmentation because their bodies undergo a similar kind of hormonal change. If one is really bothered by the pigment, then birth control pills should be stopped. It is also very important to use sunscreen and reapply often when pregnant or on birth control pills if prone to melasma."
How to Prevent Hyperpigmentation
When it comes to preventing almost all skincare concerns and getting rid of hyperpigmentation, remember this mantra: "Sunscreen, sunscreen, sunscreen!"
"Freckles, age spots, and other darkened skin patches can become darker or more pronounced when skin is exposed to the sun," Queller explains. "This happens because melanin absorbs the energy of the sun's harmful ultraviolet rays in order to protect the skin from overexposure. The usual result of this process is skin tanning, which tends to darken areas that are already hyperpigmented. Wearing sunscreen is a must. The sunscreen should be broad-spectrum, meaning it blocks both UVA and UVB rays."
How to Get Rid of Hyperpigmentation
- Chemical Peel. You can arrange a chemical peel with your dermatologist or a qualified salon in your area. If you've never gotten one before, Queller describes it as "the application of a chemical agent to the skin, which causes the controlled destruction of a part or of the entire epidermis, with or without the underlying dermis, which leads to shedding and removal of superficial lesions." This results in the regeneration of new skin and deeper tissues. Peels are a "well-known modality of treatment for melasma," Queller explains. Basically, chemical peels work because they remove unwanted melanin by causing a "controlled chemical burn" to the skin.
- Laser Treatment. If chemical peels aren't for you or you're looking for an extra therapy, try a laser treatment. Since some conditions of hyperpigmentation are close to the surface of the skin and others are much deeper, you'll want to ensure that you choose the right laser accordingly. "The new PiQo4 Laser has the ability to target pigment at different levels of the skin," Queller says, so it addresses numerous condition types. "It uses energy aimed at the brown spot of concern, shattering it rather than transforming it into heat. Too much heat can result in more downtime and occasionally worsens hyperpigmentation, especially on darker skin types," she explains. Other options are the Clear + Brilliant laser and Intense Pulsed Light (IPL). "IPL is a broadband source of light that is used for photorejuvenation, and Clear + Brilliant is one of the lightest resurfacing lasers, perfect for achieving glowing, radiant skin with minimal downtime. It produces very shallow wounds in the skin that stimulate skin renewal and remove superficial damage, skin imperfections, and excess skin pigmentation," Queller says.
- Prescription Creams. "Most prescription creams used to lighten the skin contain hydroquinone, which lightens and fades darkened skin patches by slowing the production of melanin, allowing those dark spots to gradually fade to match one's normal skin color," Queller explains. "Prescription bleaches contain twice the amount of hydroquinone, the active ingredient, as over-the-counter skin bleaches. In more resistant cases, the percentage of hydroquinone can be increased and/or tretinoin or kojic acid may be compounded into the prescription medication." Keep in mind that, according to Queller, these can be irritating to sensitive skin and usually take about three to six months to show improvement.
Shop the skincare essentials to get rid of hyperpigmentation:
When it comes to over-the-counter products to incorporate into your skincare routine, Queller recommends looking out for those with ingredients like kojic acid, alpha hydroxy acid (known as AHA), ascorbic acid (vitamin C), licorice extract, and tranexamic acid, all of which can reduce hyperpigmentation. See below for some of our favorites.
This creamy mask contains two types of vitamin C, a water-soluble derivative that delivers an immediate glow and an oil-soluble derivative that helps protect against UV damage. It also contains AHAs for a brighter, softer, and even-toned appearance.
This lactic acid formula from Sunday Riley exfoliates dead skin to allow your fresh, younger-looking skin to rise to the surface and thrive in its place. Use it as a mask or put it on under your moisturizer for it to function as a serum.
Full of antioxidants, peptides, and soothing plant oils, this potent cream will improve stubborn signs of damage. It's great if you're looking for something that targets your under-eye area in particular.
Here's an awesome product for anyone looking for a cleanser with AHAs in it. This oil-free, foaming gel cleanser is gentle yet effective, as it exfoliates your skin to improve texture.
This all-natural face mask boosts radiance and hydration, softening skin texture, visibly minimizing the appearance of pores, and reducing signs of hyperpigmentation.
As always, don't forget to apply a daily coat of sunscreen. This stick is convenient to carry around with you, and it also makes it easy to apply SPF to areas like your nose, lips, and the delicate skin around the eyes. Bonus: It's not at all greasy.
When you notice hyperpigmentation on your lips, try this vitamin E–rich lip cream.
Containing 20% vitamin C, this potent but lightweight treatment will stimulate natural collagen production, promote firmness, brighten and even complexion, and give you a radiant healthy glow.
If you have dry or sensitive skin, a hydrating face mask is always a good idea. Complete with AHAs, this sleep mask will hydrate, smooth, and clear out your dead skin cells.
Here's a great gel-based eye serum that firms, lifts, and plumps your skin. With a matrix of hyaluronans, it supports natural elastin synthesis and brightens the pigments around your eyes, making it a great way to target dark circles and puffiness.
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Choi W, Yin L, Smuda C, Batzer J, Hearing VJ, Kolbe L. Molecular and Histological Characterization of Age Spots. Exp Dermatol. 2017;26(3):242-248. doi:10.1111/exd.13203
Unmasking the Causes and Treatments of Melasma. Harvard Health Publishing. October 2018.