You might worryingly ponder why you have blotchy pigmentation aka hyperpigmentation. Of course, you may reflect on time spent outside in the sun over your lifetime without a broad-spectrum sunscreen. But before you beat yourself up over it, not all hyperpigmentation is directly caused by the sun.
And, if you wish to treat it successfully, it’s worth knowing the four leading causes and what can be done about them.
So, let’s take a closer look at what’s happening below the surface of your skin.
What is hyperpigmentation?
Hyperpigmentation is a common skin condition that affects millions of people around the world. It’s caused by an uneven overproduction of melanin resulting in patches of pigment.
Melanin is activated when the skin is exposed to the sun, and it’s the body’s way of thickening it to protect it from future sun exposure. The more melanin your body produces, the darker the pigmentation.
For those who diligently protect their skin from the sun, hyper-pigmentation can be kept at bay. Even so, despite all our best efforts, pigmentation can appear unexpectedly.
There are reasons beyond sun exposure when pigment will become blotchy and uneven—contraceptive medication, chronic stress or when the skin is injured all play a part in triggering unwanted pigment.
Hyperpigmentation can occur regardless of your natural skin colour.
The 4 Most Common Causes of Blotchy hyperpigmentation.
#1 Long-term sun exposure.
So, let’s start with the obvious. Long-term sun exposure, usually starting from childhood.
Where you live, your ethnicity and how consistent you are with applying broad-spectrum sun protection will determine how much irregular and blotchy pigmentation patches appear on the skin.
Sun damage and hyperpigmentation will likely occur without adequate UV broad-spectrum sun protection in your skincare routine.
#2 Hormonally-induced hyperpigmentation.
Also known as melasma, it can occur as a consequence of pregnancy, as a reaction to the contraceptive pill or hormone replacement therapy.
Melasma can be identified as a mask-like area of pigmentation on the face that can take on the shape of a butterfly. However, melasma can appear on areas of the body where the skin has not been exposed to the sun.
Stimulated by hormonal influences, melasma is heat responsive, which means sun exposure is not the only trigger. Even sitting in front of an open fire or a heated environment can darken underlying pigmentation and make it more visible.
Melasma can be challenging, although it can be relieved when the hormonal triggers are no longer present. Some women find their melasma completely resolves itself postpartum or when they cease hormonal medication.
So, although essential, you will need more than broad-spectrum sun protection to stop melasma.
If you have melasma, you should avoid treatments involving any heat-related devices, such as laser machine technology, as these treatments will exacerbate melasma.
Instead, speak to your skincare professional about [medical-grade skincare] and gentle chemical peels specifically formulated to reduce hormonally induced pigmentation.
#3 Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.
Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) occurs when the skin has suffered a trauma. The aftermath of acne is an excellent example of PIH, where acne scars become pigmented when exposed to the sun.
Other times, PIH can be activated by strong chemical peels, treatments with microdermabrasion, or laser equipment during the initial healing stages.
Immediately after these treatments, the skin is susceptible to sun-induced pigmentation. Preparing the skin with [medical-grade skincare] and complying with all post-treatment advice will minimise the risk of post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, along with total avoidance of sun exposure is essential.
Fitzpatrick skin types between 3 – 6 are particularly susceptible to PIH post-treatment, and additional care should be taken for these skin types.
#4 Stress-induced hyperpigmentation.
Another somewhat surprising cause of hyperpigmentation can be long-term or chronic stress conditions.
Hyperpigmentation can be triggered when the stress hormone cortisol goes unchecked in the body over time, as with chronic stress.
Cortisol activates the melanin-stimulating hormones, triggering a cascade of events within the skin’s dermal layer, leading to hyperpigmentation.
Managing stress is not always easy; it can affect many aspects of the body, including our skin. So, it’s worth seeking help if you can.
How can you treat hyperpigmentation?
You might be feeling the quest to minimise hyperpigmentation can seem overwhelming and the results underwhelming.
When a skincare professional approaches treatment options for you, it’s crucial to identify the underlying cause.
Your skincare professional should approach melasma, post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation or stress-induced hyperpigmentation with caution and avoid any treatment devices that generate a heat response.
Start with skincare ingredients.
Medical-grade skincare and active skincare products contain ingredients that have been shown to minimise hyperpigmentation, regardless of the cause.
Retinoids (vitamin A)
Regardless of the cause of hyperpigmentation, the best place to start is with topical retinoids.
Retinoids are a class of compounds derived from vitamin A.
Retinol, retinaldehyde, and retinyl esters are over-the-counter skincare formulations with varying potency and outcomes.
Retinoids enter the skin cell to repair and restore cell function via cell receptors that recognise and accept vitamin A. Once inside, they repair any damage to the cell’s DNA and restore the skin cell to optimal function.
This is important because skin damage caused by the sun leads to the cell’s DNA, or its blueprint, becoming dysfunctional, which contributes to developing uneven hyperpigmentation.
As retinoid formulations can vary in potency, it’s essential to introduce vitamin A gradually to minimise a retinoid reaction.
Among all its many positive attributes, vitamin C will reduce inflammation and, when topically applied directly to the skin, will minimise the heat response that triggers hyperpigmentation.
By doing this, vitamin C inhibits the activation of the enzyme tyrosinase.
What is tyrosinase? Fair question. Tyrosinase is the enzyme that stimulates melanin production, and if it’s overstimulated and becomes dysfunctional, an uneven distribution of pigmented cells is scattered throughout the skin.
By reducing the heat response activated by the sun, vitamin C will turn off the switch, so to speak and minimise uneven hyperpigmentation.
Also known as Vitamin B3, it’s a mainstay in most well-formulated effective skincare preparations.
Amongst its many skin-loving qualities, niacinamide protects the skin from heat, reducing inflammation and stopping the transfer of pigment to surrounding skin cells to reduce the spread of uneven pigmentation.
Arbutin, a natural skin-lightening ingredient derived from the bearberry and once applied to the skin, converts to hydroquinone to lighten pigmentation.
Like vitamin C, its action inhibits the enzyme tyrosinase and minimises pigment stimulation.
Bearberry extract is well-accepted by most skin types and is a beneficial ingredient in preventing and minimising hyperpigmentation.
Active skincare ingredients are an essential piece of the puzzle, gradually reversing hyperpigmentation, but it will take time, and a consistent approach is necessary.
Using a combination of active skincare ingredients will help reduce the visible signs of hyperpigmentation. Of course, if you’re serious about preventing or reversing hyperpigmentation, then a broad-spectrum sunscreen will be an essential part of your daily routine.
And once you’ve stabilised the health of your skin, you may want to seek advice on other treatments such as IPL Laser and LED Light Therapy.
And now you?
Do you struggle with hyperpigmentation? If you’ve got a question or comment, you can reach me here. Or, if you found this article, why not share it on your socials?
See you next time.
This article was produced in partnership with The Global Beauty Group. To learn more about any treatments or skincare mentioned in this article, you can contact them via email for a treatment specialist in your area.