Asian woman waring no makeup is looking off camera, shot against a white background

Hyperpigmentation is the appearance of uneven color on the skin. Freckles, sun spots, discolouration caused by scarring, and melasma (the mask of pregnancy) are all common examples of hyperpigmentation. 

Caused by the overproduction of melanin (pigment) in skin cells called melanocytes, hyperpigmentation can be easily triggered by heat, UV exposure, physical trauma (like acne and picking), genetics, hormones, climate, and even lifestyle activities involving a lot of heat (sauna, hot yoga, etc). 

Often people with darker skin tones are more prone to hyperpigmentation simply because they have more melanin in their skin.  

“For those who have a lot of melanin, that means they are more prone to having more hyperpigmentation because they have more melanin to begin with. Those who don’t have as much melanin can still respond with hyperpigmentation, they can also respond with something called erythema. The dark skinned person can also respond with erythema but it won’t be as noticeable.” (Ref)

Types of Hyperpigmentation

There are different types of hyperpigmentation and it is important to differentiate between them to understand the proper cause and treatment for each specific case of hyperpigmentation. 

  • Melasma aka Chloasma - often referred to as the “mask of pregnancy”, melasma is caused by changes in hormone levels. Melasma is common in pregnancy, post-partum, and for people taking oral hormonal prescriptions. 
    • The severity of melasma can be influenced by genetics, UV exposure, and heat exposure.
  • PIH - Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation - caused by trauma to the skin. Acne, scarring from wounds, eczema, and even mosquito bites can irritate melanocytes and trigger over-production of melanin. 

    • Some skincare treatments such as laser treatment, hair removal, harsh chemical peels, and intense scrubs can trigger hyperpigmentation, especially for people with darker skin tones. For people with less melanin, it could appear as erythema, which is a redness of the skin caused by injury. 

  • Pigment Spots, Sun Spots, Freckles, Solar Lentigines - caused by sun exposure and mainly appear on areas of the body frequently exposed to the sun (face, neck, ears, chest, hands, arms)

    • Non-solar pigment spots are more related to genetics. 

  • Chronic actinic dermatitis - an immune mediated reaction to the sun or artificial light. Very uncommon and underrecognized, it primarily affects men over 50 years (see ref)

        Causes/Triggers of Hyperpigmentation

        • Genetics

        • UV exposure (sun exposure)

        • Hormones 

        • Climate 

        • Lifestyle choices (hot activities - sauna, hot yoga, and even spicy foods or cooking over a flame)

        • Skin conditions causing trauma - acne, injuries and scarring, eczema. 

        • Cosmetic treatments/products causing trauma - laser hair removal, chemical treatments, and harsh physical scrubs. 

        Sun exposure is the #1 influence of hyperpigmentation because sunlight triggers the production of melanin. Even if sun exposure isn’t the root cause of hyperpigmentation it can make its appearance even darker. (Ref)

        Note:  “Hyperpigmentation is also symptomatic of certain illnesses such as some autoimmune and gastrointestinal diseases, metabolic disorders and vitamin deficiencies. It can also be triggered by certain medications such as chemotherapy drugs, antibiotics, antimalarial and anti-seizure drugs” (Ref)

        Prevention of Hyperpigmentation

        • Choose a mineral sunscreen

        • Minimize prolonged sun exposure 

        • Avoid picking 

        • Wear a hat

        • Be mindful of harsh skincare treatments and healing from invasive surgeries. 

        Choosing a mineral sunblock is the number one recommendation with dermatologists. Especially POC dermatologists. (See our Summer Zinc Cream). This is because mineral sunscreens stop UV rays from penetrating the skin, preventing irritation, inflammation, and hyperpigmentation. 

        Mineral sunscreens can be tricky for those with darker skin tones because of the white cast of the zinc oxide. Miiko Skin Co is currently formulating variants for darker skin tones - if you’d like to get a free sample click here to email us.

        Although chemical sunscreen ingredients do not have the white cast, they are not as effective at preventing hyperpigmentation. This is because chemical sunscreens work by absorbing into the skin, and therefore still absorb UV rays and heat - which can result in inflammation and hyperpigmentation.

        For more preventative options, we recommend watching this video:

        Treatment for hyperpigmentation

        At home

        • Gentle Exfoliation - key word “gentle” because harsh exfoliation can actually be traumatic to the skin and cause hyperpigmentation

          • Try a Konjac Sponge.

          • Finger massage.

          • Chemical exfoliants like the Apple Toner, or natural products with lactic acid, or mandelic acid. 

        • Antioxidant rich masks - here is a recipe from vogue “Blend 200ml of thick Greek yoghurt (for lactic acid), with a papaya (rich in exfoliating enzymes), the juice of a lemon or lime (for citric acid and vitamin C), half an avocado and a teaspoon of hydrating manuka honey. Then apply as a mask for 20 minutes. Maybe do this once per week. Even if it doesn’t help with pigmentation, your skin should feel lovely and soft afterwards.”

        • Antioxidant rich products - Apple Toner, Golden Serum, Luminous Serum, Simplicity Serum, i-Zinc, and Turmeric Rose Cream

        • Tyrosinase inhibitors - azelaic acid, kojic acid, licorice root, alpha arbutin, and niacinamide.

        • Vitamin C extract - great, but is most effective when used as a stand alone treatment.

        See a health provider about

        • Tyrosinase inhibitors, chemical facials, or other deeper tissue treatments. 

        • See a dermatologist who can understand your skin type and skin tone. SOCS | Skin of Color Society lists minority dermatologists 

        Hyperpigmentation for darker skin tones

        There is not enough research being done for ethnic minorities with darker skin tones and the relationship between skin cancer and sun exposure. However, it is clear that sun exposure can increase the appearance of hyperpigmentation. 

        Important message for those with darker skin tones -  Because you have more melanin in your skin, you are more likely to experience post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. Finding skincare and treatment providers with experience treating darker skin tones is beneficial. See SOCS | Skin of Color Society.

        • Be mindful of physical (gritty) exfoliants

        • Chemical exfoliants (specifically glycolic acid) Products with glycolic acid (above 5%) can create hot spots 

        • Picking and intense facial treatments 

        References and Resources:

        May 10, 2021 — Kimiko Foster
        Tags: Skin Health

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