What to know about hyperpigmentation

Hyperpigmentation is the name given to patches of skin by health care professionals that become darker than surrounding areas of skin.

Hyperpigmentation forms include spots of age, melasma, and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.

Each has different causes, and a variety of treatments and products, including creams and cosmetic procedures. We’ll talk about these below.

What is hyperpigmentation?

Hyperpigmentation on a lady's face

Hyperpigmentation happens when more melanin is produced by the skin, the pigment which gives the skin its colour. This can make the skin appear darker spots or patches than surrounding areas.

Hyperpigmentation is one common condition in the skin. It affects people of every type of skin.

Some types of hyperpigmentation, including melasma and sun spots, are more likely to impact skin areas that are exposed to sun exposure, including the face, arms , and legs.

Other types of hyperpigmentation, such as cuts , burns, acne or lupus, form after an injury or skin inflammation. These can happen in any place on the body.

Having extra pigment is usually harmless in some areas of the skin but can sometimes indicate another medical condition.

How to get rid of hyperpigmentation

Although hyperpigmentation is harmless, some people want to rid themselves of it. There’s a range of possible methods of treatment and home remedies that people can try.

To avoid, or to stop, hyperpigmentation becoming more prominent:

  • Avoid exposure to the sun. Use a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher to protect the skin and stop hyperpigmentation from becoming darker.
  • Avoid picking at the skin. To prevent hyperpigmentation from forming after an injury, avoid picking at spots, scabs, and acne.

People may try the following treatments to lighten dark skin patches and eliminate hyperpigmentation:

Topical creams

Many people treat hyperpigmentation with topical treatments. Topical treatments are to include skin lightening ingredients such as:

  • azelaic acid
  • corticosteroids
  • hydroquinone
  • kojic acid
  • retinoids, such as tretinoin
  • vitamin C

Cosmetic procedures

Many cosmetic procedures can also lighten areas of the skin to reduce the hyperpigmentation effect.

Cosmetic hyperpigmentation procedures shall include:

  • laser therapy
  • intense pulsed light
  • chemical peels
  • microdermabrasion

People who consider undergoing one of these procedures should discuss the process with a skin care specialist, or dermatologist, and possible side effects.

Home remedies for hyperpigmentation

Natural treatments can also be used to lighten areas of hyperpigmentation. There are however no large-scale human studies to confirm that any of these remedies are effective.

If a person decides to try a new medication or natural remedy, they should always first use the drug on a small patch of skin and avoid using it if the skin gets irritated.

A 2018 review study suggests that the following natural treatments could reduce the hyperpigmentation appearance:

Aloe vera

Aloe vera may help treat hyperpigmentation.
Aloe vera may help treat hyperpigmentation.

Aloesin, a compound found in aloe vera, may help to lighten hyperpigmentation. Aloesin functions by inhibiting melanin production in the skin.

One research indicates taking capsules of aloe vera in pregnant women may alleviate melasma.

People will apply aloe vera gel directly from the plant onto the skin daily. However, no work has specifically connected aloe vera to reduced areas of hyperpigmentation, so scientists still don’t know how successful this strategy is to be used.

Licorice

Extracts of licorice can help lighten hyperpigmentation. Research suggests that glabridin, a licorice extract, may have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and skin whitening effects.

People on areas of hyperpigmentation that use creams containing glabridin.

Green tea

Green tea extracts have the potential to improve hyperpigmentation. For several years , researchers have researched green tea because of its strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.

Very limited research suggests green tea extracts can enhance melasma and decrease sunburn. Scientists need more research before they can completely grasp whether or not green tea will potentially improve symptoms.

Types and symptoms

Below is a table of the most common types of hyperpigmentation and their symptoms:

TypeSymptomsWhere on the body?Who can it affect?
Age spots, also called liver spots or solar lentiginesBrown, tan, or black spots that appear on skin with sun overexposureThey commonly appear on the face and hands, or on sun-exposed areas of the bodyAge spots usually appear on older adults or after extended sun exposure
Melasma, also called chloasma or “the mask of pregnancy”Large patches of darkened skinThey often appear on the forehead, face, and stomachWomen, people who are pregnant or taking birth control pills, and people with darker skin are more likely to develop melasma
Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentationSpots or patches of darkened skin that appear after an inflammatory skin condition, such as acne or eczemaThey usually appear on the face or neckPeople who have had inflammation or an injury to the skin

Causes of hyperpigmentation

The hyperpigmentation cause is dependent on type. Hyperpigmentation is triggered most often by:

Sun exposure

The body develops more melanin to protect the skin from excessive sun exposure. This can cause dark spots or patches which are called age spots or sun spots on the skin.

Skin inflammation

After people have had skin inflammation, areas of the skin can darken. That can include acne, eczema, lupus, or skin injury. People with darker skin have greater risk of developing post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.

Melasma

Darker skin patches can form when humans undergo hormonal changes. This form of hyperpigmentation, during pregnancy, is normal.

Reactions to drug use

Hyperpigmentation can be caused by other medications, such as antimalarial drugs and tricyclic antidepressants. Patches of the skin can turn grey in these cases.

Chemicals may also sometimes cause hyperpigmentation in topical treatments.

Medical conditions

More severe causes of hyperpigmentation include Hemochromatosis and Addison’s disease.

The disorder of addison has an effect on the adrenal glands. In certain areas of the body it may cause hyperpigmentation including:

  • folds of skin
  • lips
  • elbows and knees
  • knuckles
  • toes
  • inside of the cheek

Other symptoms of Addison’s disease include:

  • fatigue and weak muscles
  • nausea
  • vomiting and diarrhea
  • weight loss
  • stomach pain
  • dizziness

If they experience any of those symptoms, a person should see their doctor.

Hemochromatosis is an inherited condition which causes too much iron to be present in the body. It can cause hyperpigmentation which makes the skin look darker or tanned.

If a person experiences the following symptoms of hemochromatosis, they should see their doctor:

  • fatigue
  • stomach pain
  • joint pain
  • weight loss

Hyperpigmentation and melasma

Melasma affects more women than men.
Melasma affects more women than men.

Melasma is one hyperpigmentation type. Melasma typically occupies a wider region of the skin compared with other forms of hyperpigmentation and generally occurs on the face.

Melasma affects many women, affecting men just 10 percent of the time. Other forms of hyperpigmentation refer similarly to men and women. Melasma is more common in darker-skinned people and can run within the family.

Doctors are still uncertain about what causes melasma but it can often be caused by a change in hormones.

Doctors are still uncertain about what causes melasma but it can often be caused by a change in hormones.

Pregnancy and taking pills for the birth control can also induce melasma. Doctors sometimes call melasma the “mask of pregnancy,” as it can cause darker skin on the face. The melasma normally disappears when a person is no longer pregnant, or stops taking birth control pills.

Melasma can disappear on its own but it may not disappear without care. People will fade or decrease melasma in the same way that other hyperpigmentation forms would.

Diagnosis

Individuals with hyperpigmentation should see a specialist, who can recognize the condition and cause. A doctor may take a small skin sample, or a biopsy, to identify the cause of the hyperpigmentation.

Doctors typically only look at the skin to treat melasma and other forms of hyperpigmentation. Occasionally, they can use a special light called the light of a Wood to examine the skin.

A physician or dermatologist may then establish a treatment plan, if necessary.

Summary

Hyperpigmentation is a common skin disorder that, for many reasons, can affect a lot of people. Hyperpigmentation forms involve spots of age, melasma, and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.

Hyperpigmentation is a harmless skin condition that the use of prevention methods such as cosmetic treatments, creams, and home remedies.

If a person notes other symptoms alongside hyperpigmentation, they should seek their doctor’s advice.

If a person wishes to treat hyperpigmentation for cosmetic reasons, they may seek advice from a dermatologist, who can advise them on the best available treatment methods.

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