Hyperpigmentation: What Causes It and Treatment Options

Hyperpigmentation is not at all uncommon, but that doesn't make the condition any less frustrating. These areas of darkened skin pigment are often referred to as "age spots" or "liver spots" when they appear on aging skin and "sun spots" when they appear after a summer in the sun. So what causes hyperpigmentation? Technically, it occurs when melanocytes, the cells responsible for giving our skin its pigment, become overactive and produce more melanin. It can also occur due to a proliferation of melanocytes in the skin. 

In relatable terms, the following are examples of situations that can cause hyperpigmentation:

  • Skin injury, such as an acne blemish or burn. This occurs because the inflammation process that helps skin heal causes an increase in the production of melanin, which darkens the area of skin. This darkened patch remains long after the injury has healed.
  • UV exposure, which results in patches called "solar lentigines." Better known as sun spots, this type of hyperpigmentation typically resembles a freckle, but much larger. Approximately 90% of light-skinned individuals over the age of 60 have solar lentigines but they usually begin developing as early as our twenties.  
  • Hormonal fluctuations, such as during pregnancy or following use of birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy. This type of hyperpigmentation occurs when estrogen and progesterone levels are elevated, which spark an increase in melanin production. This type of hyperpigmentation can result in a mask-like appearance on the face and is clinically referred to as melasma or chloasma. 

How Do You Prevent Hyperpigmentation?

Allow us to scream it from the rooftops: sunscreen! When sunscreen is properly used (reapplied every few hours throughout the day) and combined with protective clothing, UV rays are unable to leave their mark on the skin. 

While hyperpigmentation caused by skin injury or hormonal fluctuations is more difficult to control, sunscreen use is still vital. This is because UV exposure causes existing areas of hyperpigmentation to darken. Sunscreen helps to minimize the appearance of these areas.

(Read "Is SPF 15 Enough?" to learn about selecting the right SPF for your skin.)

How Do You Treat Hyperpigmentation?

Hyperpigmentation treatment falls into two main camps: topical treatments and professional procedures. In particularly stubborn cases or when faster results are desired, a combination of the two is recommended. 

Topical Treatments

Among the ingredients found to be most beneficial in the topical treatment of hyperpigmentation are hydroquinone, azelaic acid, mandelic acid and kojic acid, the latter of which is used in Lexli Lightening Lift, an  aloe vera face mask beneficial in minimizing the appearance of hyperpigmentation. Also helpful is niacinamide, which is found in Lexli Acne Moisturizer with Sunblock, a product that not only moisturizes the skin, but also aids in the reduction of hyperpigmentation caused by blemishes. While products like these are beneficial for anyone with hyperpigmentation, more severe cases may require the use of prescription-strength formulations. 

Also important is a regular exfoliation practice. When a chemical exfoliator with a low pH is used on the skin, cellular turnover is encouraged and pigmented cells are broken up. This helps to not only minimize existing pigment but to also keep hyperpigmentation at bay. Consider a product like AloeGlyC┬« glycolic acid exfoliator, which features a pH similar to a professional peel but without the risk of burning due to a high concentration of aloe vera. AloeGlyC is especially beneficial in the treatment of hyperpigmentation because it contains vitamin C to help brighten skin and prevent free-radical damage.

(Read "How to Exfoliate" to learn how to get optimal results from an exfoliation practice.)

Professional Treatments

Before booking a professional treatment, first consult a licensed esthetician to have your skin evaluated. He or she will determine the most appropriate treatment for your specific skin type and the degree of hyperpigmentation on your skin. 

Among the procedures that may be utilized are non-ablative treatments (which do not remove the top layer of skin) like:

  • microdermabrasion
  • laser
  • Thermage┬«
  • intense pulsed light
  • superficial chemical peels

as well as ablative treatments (which do remove the top layer of skin) including:

  • dermabrasion 
  • medium-to-deep chemical peels

While ablative procedures often provide better results more quickly, the inflammation they cause can occasionally result in worsened hyperpigmentation.

In all cases of hyperpigmentation, if you have concerns about the cause or degree of pigment, it's best to see your dermatologist who can make treatment recommendations and monitor your progress.

Simple Skincare, Beautiful Skin: A Back-to-Basics Approach

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