The best brightening treatments for hyperpigmentation
Of all the obstacles to a glowing complexion, hyperpigmentation is definitely one of the most annoying. These dark spots and patches of uneven skin tone seem to appear overnight yet take weeks, if not months or years, to completely fade – if they do at all.
At least that is the case when it’s left to its own devices. Our skin is naturally equipped to tackle hyperpigmentation, relying on cell turnover to gradually heal the damage. But with skin taking an average of 28 days to complete the process – and many marks taking repeat cycles to totally disappear – sometimes a little assistance is all it needs to restore it to its former state.
What causes hyperpigmentation?
When we describe something as ‘hyperpigmentation’, we tend to mean one of three things: sun damage, post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, or melasma. A surge in melanin (AKA our natural skin pigment) is to blame for all three – but the explanation for this surge differs…
The ghosts of pimples past have an annoying habit of lasting longer than pimples themselves. Your body’s way of dealing with life post-breakout (or any kind of cut, burn, or bug bite) is to flood the skin with extra melanin, which is what creates those stubborn red or brownish marks.
While it can affect anyone, anywhere, those with darker skin tones tend to be more prone to post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. The good news is that it will almost always fade on its own. The not-so-good news? This process can take everything from days to years, depending on the person.
Despite being nicknamed the ‘mask of pregnancy’, pregnant women aren’t the only ones affected by the brown or greyish patches known as melasma.
A combination of sun exposure, genetics and hormonal changes are usually to blame, which is why pregnancy can be a trigger. However, it’s also been linked to menopause, contraceptives, and even the menstrual cycle.
The face is a hotspot for melasma – especially the forehead, cheeks, upper lip, and bridge of the nose – but it can technically appear anywhere on the body. If it does, it’s usually the arms, neck, shoulders, or anywhere that gets a lot of sunlight.
Burning and tanning aren’t the only consequences of sunbathing. Repeated, unprotected exposure to the sun’s UV rays speeds up melanin production. Not only does this make post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation and melasma worse, but it can create totally new signs of damage – ranging from a few subtle freckles, to dark, stubborn sun spots.
Sometimes known as liver spots, age spots, or solar lentigines, these are flat and similar to post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation in colour. There’s no rule about where these can and can’t appear, but you’ll typically notice them in areas frequently exposed to the sun, such as the face, chest, back, or arms.
Again, these will normally fade on their own in time. However, they rarely disappear completely without intervention.
How can I get rid of hyperpigmentation?
Stubborn though it may be, there are plenty of ways to aid skin in its mission to brighten and fade hyperpigmentation. Some hyperpigmentation is more stubborn than others (hello, melasma) but a handful of specific skincare products and treatments can make a dramatic difference…
Actively improving hyperpigmentation requires one thing: speeding up cell turnover. And when it comes to doing this at home, you need an acid exfoliant.
Salicylic, lactic, azelaic, and kojic acids are all popular – and effective – options, but most dermatologists recommend glycolic acid for brightening skin. With the smallest molecule size, it delves deepest into the skin to dissolve dead cells and unveils the fresher, newer, and less pigmented layers underneath.
Hyperpigmentation features on the long list of concerns tackled by retinol. Whether you opt for a retinol or a stronger prescription retinoid, it can take a while for your skin to acclimatise. But once you’ve settled into a routine with the right one for you, this powerhouse of an ingredient delves deep into the skin to speed up cell turnover and deal with hyperpigmentation well beneath the surface. Just be extra careful with your SPF – retinol makes skin even more sensitive to the sun.
As an antioxidant, vitamin C plays multiple roles in our skincare routine. Its usefulness for hyperpigmentation comes from its ability to inhibit melanin production – brightening and evening your skin tone over time. Apply each morning post-cleansing and pre-moisturising to get the full impact.
While at-home acid exfoliation can make a difference, it’s professional chemical peels that deliver rapid results. The strength of the peel – and the acid used – will depend on the depth of damage. A light peel will remove the uppermost layer of skin, encouraging collagen production to improve mild hyperpigmentation. Melasma, however, requires a deeper peel as it’s rooted so far in the skin. The deeper the peel, the longer the downtime, but you’ll emerge from the other side with brighter, more even skin.
If your hyperpigmentation is pretty minor (think dark spots or mild unevenness) then microdermabrasion is a handy solution. Quick and non-invasive, this involves your practitioner buffing away dead skin cells with abrasive diamonds or crystals. With repeat sessions comes a complexion that’s softer, smoother, and more uniform in tone.
Laser and IPL
Penetrating deep into the skin to break up melanin, laser and IPL are favourites for targeting stubborn hyperpigmentation. As it technically uses light not laser, IPL is the gentler of the two – making it perfect for sensitive skin tones, but more time-consuming if you’re trying to shift darker, larger patches.
How do I avoid getting it in the first place?
As with anything, prevention is easier than cure. Combining the two is the best – and easiest – way to bid goodbye to your hyperpigmentation forever.
Stock up on sunscreen
Without sunscreen, the rest of this list is pretty pointless. The only way to fully resolve hyperpigmentation is to shield it from getting even worse – and the only way to shield it properly is to wear sunscreen, rain or shine, 365 days a year.
As for the product itself, remember that any sunscreen is better than no sunscreen. However, physical sunscreens (better known as mineral sunscreens) are ideal for those with hyperpigmentation or melasma, as they sit on the skin’s surface and act like a shield against more UV rays (i.e. culprit number one for dark spots). Chemical sunscreens are also effective but act more like a sponge; its active ingredients absorbing the UV rays before your skin soaks them up.
Limit touching your skin
It’s a vicious cycle. You get a pimple, which causes hyperpigmentation. You try to make it disappear by squeezing it – which leads to even worse hyperpigmentation.
Tempting though it may be, refrain from so much as touching your blemishes. The longer your skin is inflamed, the higher the risk of post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.
A multitude of benefits
So, as irritating as hyperpigmentation may be, you do not have to live with it. And happily, the skincare and treatments that tackle it are also excellent all-rounders when it comes to brightening tone, evening out texture, and lessening the signs of aging. What are you waiting for?
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