How To Treat Hyperpigmentation On All Skin Types

By Ashleigh Cometti
Pigmentation has met its match with our picks of products to brighten dark spots. Photo / Getty Images

Halt pigmentation in its tracks with the latest topicals and treatments designed to even out all complexions.

No matter how robust your daily skincare regime may be, chances are you’re likely to experience some form of dark spots in your lifetime.

Dark spots, also known as hyperpigmentation, are one of

According to dermatologist Dr Andrew Alexis, hyperpigmentation accounts for countless appointments made with doctors and dermatologists annually, but very few effective and non-damaging solutions exist. “Many sufferers spend years trying to tackle the condition,” he explains.

But what is hyperpigmentation, exactly?

Excuse the science speak — hyperpigmentation is produced in cells known as melanocytes, which exist in the stratum basale layer of the skin’s epidermis. These cells are responsible for producing different pigments in the skin, one of which is melanin. When melanocytes become exposed to sunlight or are damaged by other factors, they produce increased amounts of melanin which causes skin to darken.

Below, two skin experts share their insights into this tricky-to-treat skin condition, along with their shopping list of ingredients designed to brighten skin.

Get to know your pigmentation

Several factors can lead to pigmentation issues, says Selina Mithen, the innovation lead, research and development manager at Advanced Skin Technology.

“Melanocytes can be stimulated by a wide variety of factors such as UV exposure (the most common trigger), hormones (as in the case of pregnancy, contraceptive and HRT medications), medications, ageing, melanocyte dysregulation and even psychological stress,” she says.

The most common forms of hyperpigmentation include:

Melasma is most often found on different areas of the face and describes areas of darkened or discoloured skin. As it’s often hormone-related, how difficult melasma is to treat hinges on a multitude of factors, Mithen says, including age, skin health and the persistence of the causing factors like continuing to take the oral contraceptive pill.

Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation is visible where any skin injuries or inflammation has occurred. This includes exposure to allergens, along with scratching or picking (sorry), or skin disorders like acne, eczema and psoriasis.

Solar lentigo are areas of flat, well-defined patches of hyperpigmentation most common in sun-exposed areas on mature skin types.

Lipofuscin, also known as age spots or liver spots, are commonly seen on older skin types, and are flat with well-defined borders. Surprisingly, lipofuscin is not caused by melanocytes, rather it occurs in ageing cells which are unable to remove waste from within the cell. This process can be sped up by excess exposure to free radicals, which can damage the cell even faster.

Acanthosis nigricans presents as skin thickening in body fold areas including the neck, armpits and groin, but can sometimes occur on the face as well. This condition is caused by metabolic disorders, including diabetes and insulin resistance.

Hyperpigmentation can occur in any skin tone or skin type, but our experts agree that the type of pigmentation disorder can vary greatly depending on where skin sits on the Fitzpatrick phototype scale.

“Generally, UV will cause more photoaging, sun damage and hyperpigmentation in fair skin types, while post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation will occur more commonly in skin that contains more pigment, such as Asian, Indian and African skin types,” Mithen says.

Dr Alexis adds: Types 1 to 3 (very fair to medium skin) are most prone to solar lentigo, types 3 and 4 (medium and olive skin) to melasma, and types 4 to 6 (olive to black skin) to post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.

Call in the pros

Consistency is key when it comes to treating stubborn hyperpigmentation — the journey to an even-toned complexion is not always a smooth one. It can take weeks or months to see significant results, especially considering the persistent factors that cause pigmentation to keep coming back.

“To achieve a good result in treating hyperpigmentation, it takes a consistent approach with the right treatments and products, protecting the skin and having patience,” Mithen says.

If your budget allows, booking in for a consultation with your dermatologist or aesthetician is a sure-fire way to find the best treatment suited to your individual needs.

Dr Alexis warns that many in-clinic treatments can come with a raft of side effects, including irritation, peeling, redness, swelling or darkening of treated areas, so it’s best to do your research before you commence any treatment plan.

Mithen’s picks of treatments run the gamut from IPL (Intense Pulsed Light Therapy), to laser, microdermabrasion and chemical peels.

IPL is ideal for addressing pigmentation caused by UV damage, but is only suited to those with paler skin types (think phototypes 1, 2 and 3 on the Fitzpatrick scale). The same rings true for certain types of laser treatments, as the beam of light is attracted to melanin in the skin, which gets heated up and destroyed — meaning it’s most effective on pale skin.

Instead, those with darker skin tones might like to try chemical peels or LED light therapy, which can address hyperpigmentation without damaging the surrounding skin tissues.

One such peel is the new two-phase Dermalogica Melanopro Peel System, $999, which couples an in-clinic treatment with a homecare programme to turbocharge results. The clinical-strength peel aims to target sun spots, acne scarring, melasma, dull skin and rough skin texture thanks to its blend of 10 per cent azelaic acid, alongside salicylic acid, tranexamic acid, retinol, niacinamide and acetyl hexapeptide-1.

After the initial application of the Intensive Peeling Masque, which is left on the skin for a few hours before being removed at home with water, a home care programme is followed for six weeks. Expect to see slight peeling and redness in the days immediately after the treatment, followed by brighter, glowing skin as the weeks go on.

Supercharge your skincare

Support any in-clinic treatments with a long-term maintenance plan, in the form of a robust skincare regime to keep dark spots at bay.

Maximise your routine with ingredients which claim to help fade existing dark spots and prevent new ones from occurring, or those that boost skin cell turnover to resurface skin and restore its radiance.

Ingredients like retinol (in its many forms), alpha hydroxy acids (like glycolic or lactic acid) alongside arbutin and kojic acid rank highly on Mithen’s list of preferred ingredients, but one stands out above the rest.

“One of the best all-round ingredients for addressing hyperpigmentation is tranexamic acid. This is due to its non-irritating effect on the skin. It is well tolerated, effective and a great option for individuals prone to post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation or sensitivity,” Mithen says.

Vitamin C is equally efficacious at treating dark spots — it boasts excellent anti-inflammatory benefits which moonlight as tyrosinase inhibitors, or chemicals which inhibit the production of melanin in the skin.

Think of sunscreen as your first line of defence in the fight against hyperpigmentation. Mithen recommends applying SPF daily, even throughout winter or in cooler climates.

In addition, consider adding these super serums to your skincare routine:

La Roche-Posay MelaB3 Serum, $63. For Dr Alexis, the new breakthrough ingredient Melasyl is one to watch. Backed by 18 years’ worth of research, Melasyl is the patented ingredient contained in La Roche-Posay’s newest innovation. Instead of simply blocking melanin, Melasyl is said to intercept melanin precursors, meaning it can stop the overproduction of melanin early on in the process.

Aspect DR Complete Pigment Plus Age Support, $179, contains all the ingredients Mithen loves, including her go-to tranexamic acid to address the appearance of existing skin discoloration and age spots. This effective-yet-gentle serum is well-suited to hormonally-imbalanced or sensitised skin, thanks to the addition of barrier-fortifying ingredients like phytoestrogens.

Emma Lewisham Skin Reset Serum, $152, is brimming with 20 active ingredients to help reduce and prevent hyperpigmentation, without interrupting the skin’s natural processes. It does so with a specialised complex of seven alpine plant extracts which works in synergy with the brand’s vitamin C to slow the production of melanin and prevent future dark spots from forming.

Kiehl’s Clearly Corrective Dark Spot Solution, $123. Sun spots have met their match with Kiehl’s dark spot serum, which contains activated vitamin C and salicylic acid to reduce discolouration, promote skin clarity and restore radiance. It’s especially effective on post-blemish marks, and known acne-fighter salicylic acid will banish blemishes ongoing.

Dermalogica PowerBright Dark Spot Peel, $160, is an at-home peel with helps to fade surface-level dark spots while easing inflammatory triggers that can lead to skin sensitivity or post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. It does so with its blend of 12 per cent AHA + PHA, alongside algae-derived omega-3, niacinamide and tranexamic acid for skin that’s brighter and more even-toned.

E.S.K Complexion Correction Patches (16pk), $229, harnesses microneedle technology to address age spots caused by solar lentigo while visibly reducing fine lines on the face, neck and decolletage. Each patch is dotted with 2000 dissolvable microneedles which cause micro-traumas in the skin to deliver active ingredients, like tyrosinase inhibitor 4-N-Butylresorcinol, deep within the epidermis.

Ashleigh Cometti is an Auckland-based beauty journalist with more than 12 years’ experience in the industry. After joining the Viva team in 2018 and being appointed as beauty editor in 2020, Ash has fine-tuned her skills at sniffing out new fragrance launches, discovering the next generation of talented makeup artists, and writing about all things that feed her obsession as a skincare fanatic.

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