What is Hyperpigmentation?

Jan 16, 2022


I am obsessed with my hyperpigmentation. I’m not going to lie, it is all consuming as my body is covered from head to toe with - as I call them, “polkadots”. After years of outdoor activities in the Arizona sun, my skin is hyperpigmented and I’ve become an expert in treating and preventing it. So, what is it and how do we get rid of it?

Hyperpigmentation is where your melanocytes decide to go into overdrive in order to protect you. It’s actually a reaction caused by a variety of factors such as sun, heat, artificial light, acne, hormones and more. These internal and external factors turn your melanocyte cells on and they churn out more melanin to protect themselves.

As no surprise, sun is the biggest culprit. When skin is exposed to the sun’s rays, melanocytes are stimulated and produce more melanin to help protect the skin from burning. UV light from the sun and artificial light from devices and even lightbulbs can do the same – cause overproduction of melanin – especially in darker skin tones. What most people don’t realize is heat will also cause hyperpigmentation. Your skin doesn’t know if you are in the sun, sitting in a sauna or in a hot yoga class. All it knows is there’s a threat which triggers melanocytes to go into overdrive.

There are also internal triggers that kick these cells into action. Hormones or an increase of estrogen will cause brown patches to surface. Also known as melasma because it differs from regular hyperpigmentation and is hormone influenced. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, 90% of people who get melasma are women (although, it is possible for men to get melasma as well due to factors such as genetic predisposition, illness, or certain medications). Melasma can flare on its own, but sun exposure can exacerbate it. And let’s not forget about acne, cuts or bruises leaving behind something called post inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH).

No matter what the source, the end result is the same: melanocyte cells get triggered and start over producing melanin resulting in dark, brown spots that don’t seem to go away. So, how do we fight these little monsters?

Sunscreen is the first line of defense. Mineral sunscreens with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide are the best protection against the full spectrum of light. You can even use them indoors to protect you from HEV blue light from your devices.


Tyrosinase inhibitors are my go to. Tyrosinase is an enzyme that triggers your melanocyte cell and forces it to go into hyperdrive producing melanin. Certain ingredients inhibit this enzyme from triggering the melanocyte cell into action. For example, haia uses gallic acid in their HD Restructuring & Brightening Collection to minimize tyrosinase from turning on your melanocytes. Check out their Kakadu Plum Antiox-C Serum for this ingredient as well as powerful Vitamin C which is known as a natural lightener and brightener.

Hydroquinone, a fairly controversial ingredient has been used for decades to fight dark spots. Also a tyrosinase inhibitor, hydroquinone was considered the gold standard in lightening for years. It’s often been referred to as a bleaching agent, but it actually doesn’t bleach the skin. By inhibiting the pigment forming enzyme tyrosinase, it will help block new cells from darkening. There are multiple carcinogenic concerns related to hydroquinone and as well as side effects like ochronosis. This can actually lead to more hyperpigmentation instead of less which you’ll find more common in darker skin types. Eminence Organics uses a hydroquinone alternative in their Bright Skin collection that will give you the same lightening benefits without the clinical side effects associated with hydroquinone.

Retinoids like prescription tretinoin and over-the-counter retinols are also great for fading spots since they block the transport of melanin to epidermal cells and lower the activity of melanocytes. Again, Eminence uses a retinol alternative in their Firm Skin collection so consumers can use the products daily without experiencing the side effects usually associated with retinoids such as dry, flaky, itchy skin that is thinned, sun sensitive and damaged.

For men, the Dry Collection from Organic Male OM4 features powerful ingredients to combat hyperpigmentation, and for more intense cases, the High Alpine Brightening Isolate is a top pick!

Many more ingredient options are available such as Vitamin C to lighten and brighten the skin, acids like pyruvic and glycolic to help cell turnover, bearberry and licorice to brighten and even skin tone. If you’re looking for more immediate results, in office treatments are available. Lasers, broad band light (BBL) and intense pulse light (IPL) also known as photo facial or photo rejuvenation — stimulates collagen production but is also used for overall pigmentation issues. I’ve been getting IPL’s annually for 10 years and find pairing that with daily products has been invaluable in my fight against hyperpigmentation.

But remember, not all treatments are suitable for all skin colors. East Asian skin tends to be sensitive and should test products with acids in them before applying all over face. People with black or brown skin have to take extra precautions to prevent discoloration. They should avoid mechanical exfoliations, IPL, BBL and irritating ingredients. Near-infrared lasers, like Nd:YAG lasers are the best for darker skin types.

There’s no one-size fits all when it comes to treating your hyperpigmentation. Combating discoloration requires a commitment to both at-home products and in-office treatments. A good rule of thumb is to prevent rather than correct. So, take measures to prevent your skin from the triggers in the first place and you’ll keep a clear, even toned complexion.

Written by Jennifer Sposato

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