Hyperpigmentation is a common skincare concern that can arise for a variety of reasons. It presents itself as dark patches of skin, and while not always a cause for concern, dark spots may cause stress when looking in the mirror. Understanding the ins and outs of dark spots can help you prevent them, treat them, and feel less anxious when you see them.
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What Causes Dark Spots?
Hyperpigmentation is an extremely common skin condition that can result from numerous causes. The most common causes of dark spots are the following:
- Reactions to certain medical conditions or medications
- Extended sun exposure
- Injury or skin inflammation
- Hormone changes
- Blue light from smartphones, computer screens and other electronic devices
Dark spots can affect people of all ages and skin types; some cases are preventable, while others are due to genetics, medical conditions and other nonpreventable circumstances.
Types of Hyperpigmentation
Hyperpigmentation is more prevalent among older individuals and those with darker skin tones. The three major types of hyperpigmentation include age spots, melasma, and postinflammatory hyperpigmentation.
- Age spots: Age spots are tan, brown or black spots on the skin that appear due to excessive sun exposure. They are most commonly found on the hands, face, chest or other sun-exposed areas of the body. Age spots, or solar lentigines, are more common in older adults and occur after years of sun exposure. However, young people can have age spots too.
- Melasma: Melasma, also known as chloasma, is darkened skin in areas larger than age spots. These spots are often on the face, forehead, or stomach. Prevalent during pregnancy, melasma is often called “the mask of pregnancy.” It is also common among women who take hormonal birth control pills.
- Postinflammatory hyperpigmentation: The symptoms of postinflammatory hyperpigmentation present themselves as patches or spots of darkened skin. They appear due to an inflammatory skin condition, such as eczema or acne. Postinflammatory hyperpigmentation can occur anywhere on the body.
All skin types can present the symptoms of hyperpigmentation, and it’s not always preventable. However, there are several actions you can take to reduce your chance of seeing dark patches or spots on your skin.
- Prevent infection and inflammation: The first step in the prevention process is to tackle potential problems, such as wounds, open pimples or bug bites. These issues can cause infection and inflammation, which may result in hyperpigmentation. Clean the skin using a gentle cleanser (no harsh scrubbing) and refrain from picking scars and scabs.
- Prevent excessive sun exposure: Sun exposure is one of the most common causes of hyperpigmentation and one of the easiest to control. Prevent excessive sun exposure by wearing sunblock SPF 30+, a hat and UV-protective clothing. Mineral sunblocks, such as those containing zinc or titanium dioxides, are most effective in preventing hyperpigmentation. The more diligent you are about protecting your skin from the sun, the less likely you are to see symptoms of hyperpigmentation due to sun exposure.
Avoid using skincare products that contain retinol during the day. Ultraviolet rays can destabilize the ingredients in retinol skincare products and increase photosensitivity. Opt for pigment-stabilizing skincare products to reduce the chance of hyperpigmentation, whether due to inflammation, hormones or UV damage.
Hyperpigmentation can occur for a variety of reasons, including genetic, hormonal, environmental or metabolic factors. Several of those factors may be combined, meaning there is no single way to treat hyperpigmentation for everyone.
A combination of at-home skincare and clinic-based methods can result in a significant reduction of hyperpigmentation. Some forms of hyperpigmentation are more difficult to treat, such as postinflammatory pigmentation. Individuals with darker skin types may also see remaining signs of pigmentation after treatment, but often at a satisfactory level.
- Meet with your dermatologist: The first step in treating hyperpigmentation is to meet with a dermatologist. They will provide a diagnosis of your skin condition to help you pursue the most effective treatment methods. A dermatologist can also determine if your hyperpigmentation may be a sign of skin cancer.
- Consider topical creams: Several topical creams can brighten the natural color of the skin and reduce dark spots. Retinols are effective in blocking receptors that determine how much pigment the skin shows. They may also lighten the skin and reduce wrinkles, fine lines and discoloration. Remember to use retinol creams at night because they can cause photosensitivity.
- Laser treatment: Laser treatment uses targeted pulses of a broad spectrum of light to reduce hyperpigmentation. More intense ablative lasers remove layers of the skin, while nonablative lasers promote collagen growth. Laser treatment often requires multiple sessions to see results.
- Chemical peel: Chemical peels are often effective in treating hyperpigmentation resulting from sun exposure. A chemical peel procedure involves applying a chemical solution to the skin to remove the top layers. This procedure treats discolored skin, scars and wrinkles.
Professionals must perform chemical peels because they can cause skin damage if done incorrectly.
Hyperpigmentation is often harmless, but many individuals want to reduce dark spots to return to clearer, more uniform-looking skin. Understanding dark spots and what causes them can help you and your dermatologist find the best prevention and treatment methods for you.
To learn more about hyperpigmentation, please see the accompanying resource.
Christian Slavin is the founder and CEO of Zapatat. Slavin has a background in health care and received his MBA with honors from Harvard Business School. After studying tattoo removal for several years, he founded Zapatat in 2009 to make tattoo removal more accessible, safer, and more pleasant.