If you’ve ever noticed lingering, stubborn dark spots on skin — perhaps the leftovers of an angry pimple or the freckled remains of a long weekend in the sun — then you’ve probably had hyperpigmentation. It might take decades of summers in the sun before you realize it, but eventually, most of us experience hyperpigmentation in one or more forms. And yes, some people are more susceptible than others.
To learn more about hyperpigmentation and how to remove dark spots on your face (and prevent them in the first place), we spoke with dermatologist Carly Roman of Modern Dermatology in Seattle. Roman also explains how sun exposure increases hyperpigmentation’s prevalence over time, and how it worsens existing dark spots. Here is her expertise on the topic, along with some of the best ingredients for hyperpigmentation treatment and prevention (plus our favorite products utilizing said ingredients).
What Is Hyperpigmentation?
Hyperpigmentation is exactly what it sounds like: It’s a contained, often localized darkening of the skin, wherein the skin’s melanocytes produce pigment in response to some trigger. Often, that trigger is sun exposure, inflammation or hormonal shifts.
“Hyperpigmentation increases as we age,” explains Roman. “Skin cell turnover slows as we age, revealing a more uneven and patchy skin tone.” And if cellular turnover slows, so does healing and resilience of the skin itself. Suddenly, that dark spot on the face takes months to disappear, rather than a few days at most.
What Are the 3 Types of Hyperpigmentation?
To better understand hyperpigmentation — and perhaps your own encounter with it — you need to first know the different types of hyperpigmentation.
- Post-Inflammatory Hyperpigmentation: This is the type that lingers on the face after acne or other lesions. “This type of hyperpigmentation occurs deep within the skin (the dermis) leaving behind a dark brown or gray-brown color,” says Roman. “PIH will resolve with time, though it can take several months.
- Sun and Age Spots: “Age- and sun-related hyperpigmentation is called actinic damage,” says Roman. It’s a form of sun damage; all that exposure to UV rays can mess with your cellular DNA and ability to repair itself. “This typically leads to an increase in melanin within the epidermis, which leads to a light brown to dark brown discoloration,” she adds.
- Melasma: Often known as “the crown of pregnancy,” melasma is caused by a fluctuation of hormones, but can also be a result of radiation (like through UV rays or infrared light). It leaves a patch of brownish or grayish freckles across the face.
Who Gets Hyperpigmentation?
Hyperpigmentation can affect anyone, but people who experience excessive sun exposure (and those who do so without proper SPF defense against UV rays) are the most susceptible to hyperpigmentation — and more so with each passing year. That being said, hyperpigmentation is more prolific in individuals with more melanocytes (the producers of pigment). So, it is those individuals with darker skin tones who are likelier candidates in the first place.
And, of course, pregnant women are most likely to experience melasma due to a change in hormones. Secondly, individuals who experience intense bouts of stress or who have thyroid conditions are also more vulnerable to this type of hyperpigmentation.
What Causes Hyperpigmentation?
“The biggest contributor to hyperpigmentation is cumulative sun exposure,” says Roman. But that goes hand in hand with age as a contributing factor: “With increasing age we’ve had more sun exposure to discolor and age our skin.” (Hence the increased odds of hyperpigmentation over time.) Hormonal shifts in the body are also a significant factor, as is any additional exposure to UV radiation or infrared lights.
How Do You Prevent Hyperpigmentation?
The simplest way to prevent hyperpigmentation is one you’ve been preached about your entire life: wearing sunscreen. Except you need to wear it every day, and not just on the days of heavy sun exposure. UV rays are omnipresent, even on cloudy or wintry days, and they seep through the glass when we’re inside.
Roman goes one step further and advocates for a physical/mineral sunscreen (as opposed to a chemical-based one). She says zinc oxide sunscreens are always your best bet against UV rays. The ingredient will deflect UV rays and prevent them from even entering the skin, which is what happens with chemical options, after which the UV rays are neutralized.
If applying sunscreen daily seems extraneous, then simply add it to your morning skincare regimen by purchasing a sunscreen and moisturizer combo that contains an SPF of 30 or greater. (Again, with a zinc oxide defense.) Here are two of our favorite options:
The Best Ingredients for Preventing Hyperpigmentation
There are many active ingredients that can prevent the development of hyperpigmentation — and too many to dive into in-depth here. But Roman has a few primary favorites for her patients.
Roman advises adding a vitamin C–packed product to your morning regimen. “Antioxidant-rich Vitamin C serums will help to brighten and even out your skin tone in addition to preventing further sun and environmental damage,” she says. The trick is to get a serum that is carefully balanced and protected from light exposure and oxidation since the ingredient itself is easily rendered useless by these things. Here’s one that we stand by since you mix it yourself (and know that it hasn’t aged past its usefulness on the shelves):
Retinol and Glycolic Acid
“If you wanted to take your skincare routine one step further, you would also add either a retinol or glycolic acid treatment at night,” Roman adds. “These treatments work to speed up skin turnover, which helps to reduce uneven pigmentation.” Retinol creams are available OTC or in higher-grade prescriptions and can reduce and prevent acne as well as signs of aging (wrinkles, fine lines, dull skin, etc).
Glycolic acid is one of many alpha-hydroxy acids that “resurface” the skin, as Roman noted, to accelerate cellular turnover and keep the youngest, healthiest, brightest cells on the surface at any given time. Both ingredients come with a small set of rules regarding how to safely use them (and how often), so be sure to read the instructions on any product you purchase or seek the consult of your trusted dermatologist.
Here are two gentle products we like that are easy to incorporate into your regimen.
How Do You Treat Hyperpigmentation?
While it’s important to know how to prevent dark spots, there’s a good chance you’re here because you’re already experiencing hyperpigmentation. If you’re wondering how to get rid of dark spots with the best hyperpigmentation treatment, the top hyperpigmentation treatment answer looks remarkably familiar. “Sunscreen!” Roman says. “Sunscreen will be the most helpful treatment and preventive step.” That’s because sun exposure can worsen the existing dark spots on the face, due to the stimulation of more melanocytes. To remove dark spots, you’ve got to take preventative measures, as if they weren’t even there in the first place.
The Best Ingredients for Hyperpigmentation Treatment
In addition to daily SPFing, there are several active ingredients one can seek out in a dark spot remover or dark spot corrector, says Roman. “If the pigmentation is mild, a good skin care regimen may be all you need.” Here are her favorites:
- Hydroquinone: Roman lists hydroquinone as “the gold standard,” and notes that severe cases of hyperpigmentation will require a prescription for a higher percentage. (This is one of the most common ingredients used in melasma treatment, especially.)
- Azelaic acid: Azelaic acid is popular in hyperpigmentation treatment, Roman says, due to its ability to block the enzyme tyrosinase, which is responsible for the production of melanin (so, azelaic acid is what’s called a tyrosinase inhibitor).
Niacinamide: Another effective ingredient for removing dark spots caused by pimples is niacinamide (Vitamin B3), an antioxidant that brightens skin and minimizes the appearance of hyperpigmentation.
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- Tretinoin: A fourth (and certainly not the final) best dark spot corrector ingredient is tretinoin, a high-grade retinoid. Speak with your dermatologist about this option, to get a prescription for the most effective results. (And to get proper advice on incorporating tretinoin into your nightly routine.) It is especially helpful in minimizing PIH (post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation), such as acne dark spots on the face.
Clinical Treatments for Hyperpigmentation
“If you’re looking for more dramatic or faster results, that is when you would want to consider procedural-based options such as peels or lasers,” Roman says. These include:
- Intense Pulse Light: “The most common procedure we do in our office is a light-based treatment called Intense Pulse Light (IPL), which helps to reduce both redness and brown associated with age and sun,” Roman says. This is a fairly painless procedure that effectively destroys the melanin itself.
- Chemical Peels: While you can buy many lighter-grade peels at home, you might consider a clinical, professionally administered one if treating stubborn hyperpigmentation. This removes the epidermis layer of the skin and more effectively gets to the dermis and the root of the pigmentation problem.
- Dermabrasion and Microdermabrasion: A more physical deterioration of the epidermis. Microdermabrasion targets epidermal hyperpigmentation by buffing away the surface-level problem, while dermabrasion treats conditions that nest further down, in the dermis.
- Laser Peel: Instead of using chemical ingredients to dissolve the epidermis, this procedure is laser-based. There are ablative lasers that peel away the epidermis, as well as non-ablative ones that seep into the dermis and stimulate collagen production for a less agonized approach.