The Final Boss Hyperpigmentation Treatment Guide To End All Hyperpigmentation Guides
Hyperpigmentation is tough. Here’s our 101 guide to get real results without the headache.
According to 2022 Statista data, acne remains the leading skincare concern for Millenial and Gen Z beauty consumers. However, a different beauty priority regularly pushes its way to the surface — particularly for Black and brown folks — revealing a ripe spot for industry focus.
Hyperpigmentation is a common condition that’s often a residual consequence of acne. While abnormal dark spots can affect anyone, they are so common amongst darker skin tones that skincare professionals regularly report hyperpigmentation as the leading cause for BIPOC patients to seek out medical and cosmetic skin care. Despite an acne-driven industry, hyperpigmentation takes control of the wheel more often than the numbers let on.
Since you’re reading this, you’re likely well acquainted with hyperpigmentation and how difficult it is to tackle. Dark spots form quickly, almost with a vengeance, and hang around with a white-knuckled grip long after the inciting incident ends. There’s so much contradicting information about magic bullet ingredients claiming to eradicate the problem that it can feel demoralizing. After years of dark spot solution craze, many are still asking, “What is the best way to treat hyperpigmentation?” The most revealing answer comes with an understanding of why hyperpigmentation is such a beast to begin with.
What is Hyperpigmentation?
Hyperpigmentation, popularly called “acne scarring”, is abnormal skin darkening that usually manifests as spots or patches. It typically appears after unprotected sun exposure, an inflammatory bout of acne, wound healing or an improperly administered skincare treatment. Certain medications and pregnancy can also cause a type of hyperpigmentation called melasma.
Hyperpigmentation almost always follows damage, so it’s best thought of as part of your skin’s defense mechanism. That means the tan you love is actually your skin taking up arms against the sun in an attempt to protect you.
How Do Dark Spots Form?
When your skin experiences trauma, the inflammatory response triggers the release of various materials (like complex proteins) that all help to initiate and regulate healing. These substances also relay messages to your melanin-making cells, called melanocytes, instructing them to go into hyperdrive.
Melanocytes are normally responsible for the color of your skin, hair and eyes. When hyperactivated, they produce too much melanin and release it into neighboring skin cells ultimately creating abnormal darkening.
We all have a similar number of melanocytes, but the type, amount and configuration of melanin determine your risk level for hyperpigmentation. Melanocytes in deeper skin tones produce a darker type of melanin and demonstrate higher baseline activity. Consequently, it takes less inflammation to trigger more intense darkening.
Why Is It Hard To Treat?
Dark spots you can see on the skin’s surface are just the tip of the iceberg. Melanocytes sit at the very bottom layer of your epidermis making melanin that is released into neighboring skin cells, dispersed through the middle layers and carried to the surface. Certain ingredients, like exfoliants, are great at removing what’s already been revealed but do little for what’s happening below. That’s why comprehensive formulas and a well-curated routine are required to stand a chance against this multifaceted issue.
Hyperpigmentation is also cumulative. Additional inflammation and continued sun exposure keep melanin production in overdrive, compounding the original problem. Sunscreen, though highly effective, is still yet to become a daily personal care item. 46% of Americans never wear sunscreen and misconceptions around melanin’s natural sun protection decrease regular SPF wear among darker skin tones. Successfully treating hyperpigmentation not only calls for a holistic skincare regimen but also a mass perspective shift on the role sunscreen plays in our lives.
Okay, So What Should I Do?
Get good with your sunscreen
Unprotected sun exposure = inflammation = hyperpigmentation. Many ingredients that treat hyperpigmentation increase skin’s sensitivity to sunlight which threatens the progress you’re trying to make. Find a sunscreen that works for your preferences and lifestyle and get in the habit of wearing it daily. It may not feel sexy at first, but it’s one of the best tools against dark spots, premature aging and acne too.
Don’t neglect your barrier
Your skin barrier is the root of all things good. Healthy skin responds better to active ingredients making the hydration, moisture and support parts of your skincare something to focus on.
Antiinflammatory ingredients like centella asiatica, green tea, zinc and peptides are common in barrier products and can help offset the skin’s melanin-making response to damage.
Grab a retinoid!
Vitamin C has had its day in the sun, but retinoids take the cake for treating hyperpigmentation. The secret to beating back dark spots is targeting every layer where hyperpigmentation forms. An effective routine against hyperpigmentation will slow melanin overproduction at the source, disperse what’s traveled to the middle layers and remove what’s been revealed on the surface.
Retinoids simultaneously perform many of these functions. Retinol and stronger or prescription retinoids like tretinoin slow melanin overproduction and decrease how much is transferred to surrounding skin cells. The result is similar to finally patching a hole in a sinking canoe. Instead of constantly bailing out water, we can finally focus on getting back to shore.
Retinoids also stimulate new, healthy skin cells to migrate to the surface, increasing how fast abnormally pigmented cells shed off.
The best retinoid results come from nightly usage — if you can tolerate it. Start using every other night, or every two nights and build up your tolerance gradually.
Add an exfoliant
Exfoliants increase cell turnover by removing dead, pigmented skin lying on the surface. Some exfoliants have secondary properties that can increase moisture, reduce acne-causing bacteria and calm inflammation which help treat the underlying causes of hyperpigmentation.
When choosing an exfoliant, be mindful of the other actives in your routine and your skin’s tolerance. Newbies should consider lactic or mandelic acid cleansers for short-contact treatments that are less likely to strip your barrier. Experienced acid users can reach for higher percentages or stronger acids like glycolic to increase results.
Be strategic about your acid use and listen to your skin. Start with two or three times a week and avoid doubling up on retinoids and exfoliants. Feeling dry and irritated? Decrease exfoliation and increase your barrier maintenance. Slow and steady wins the hyperpigmentation race!
Keep using your vitamin C (and friends)
Though vitamin C isn’t the one-stop-shop it’s cracked up to be, it can still be helpful. Vitamin C is part of a group of brightening ingredients called tyrosinase inhibitors. Like retinoids, brighteners block the overproduction of melanin in various ways. When used in partnership with sunscreen — these ingredients are powerful dark spot faders.
Other tyrosinase inhibitors we love : kojic acid, arbutin, licorice, azelaic acid and tranexamic acid.
Remember, hyperpigmentation is stubborn so allow at least three to six months of diligent work to see results. Although there’s no magic potion, a comprehensive suite of products and a whole lot of patience will move the needle.