Maybe pimples or blackheads have been leaving lingering dark spots behind, somewhere between a shadow or a scar. Or you might have noticed the overall tone of your skin becoming less even and more patchy, especially after sun exposure.
Either way, you have hyperpigmentation to thank. And, yeah, it's kind of the worst.
Hyperpigmentation is basically an overproduction of melanin (the pigment naturally found in skin, hair, and eye color) that can cause areas of skin to appear darker in color. It can be congenital (aka something you're born with) but can also develop over time, says Daniel Belkin, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist at the Laser & Skin Surgery Center of New York. While hyperpigmentation looks different for everyone depending on skin type, texture, and genetic predisposition, it commonly presents in patches or smaller spots or bumps.
Hyperpigmentation can also be frustrating — there's no quick fix for it, despite the number of products out there that promise to reduce or diminish dark spots and even out complexions. These days, the skin-brightening language found on skin-care packaging can be more emotionally complicated than helpful, especially as those with higher levels of melanin (those with olive and deeper skin tones) are more likely to develop certain kinds of hyperpigmentation and have it occur more frequently, more severely, and for longer periods of time.
Regardless of your complexion, hyperpigmentation can be a complicated skin condition to tackle on your own. Here, experts share details on what causes hyperpigmentation, how it can be prevented, how to get rid of hyperpigmentation, and the best treatments for hyperpigmentation.
What Causes Hyperpigmentation?
Hyperpigmentation occurs when melanocytes (the cells in your skin that contain melanin) in one concentrated area of the skin become overactive. It's a protective mechanism, explains Purvisha Patel, M.D., board-certified dermatologist and founder of Visha Skincare. "They get excited to grow and produce pigment or melanin when exposed to ultraviolet radiation, inflammation, or hormonal changes." Since these cells exist to protect your skin, they get bigger when this damage occurs, causing a darkening of the skin.
You might have hyperpigmentation without knowing it, says Dr. Belkin. Higher amounts of melanin in certain areas can manifest as freckles, and higher numbers of melanocytes can form moles, which is why you'll commonly see more freckles or moles develop in the summer months or after extended periods of sun exposure. Sunspots and age spots, otherwise known as liver spots, are also forms of hyperpigmentation.
One of the most common forms of hyperpigmentation is post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. When this happens, an inflammatory condition — such as a bug bite, acne bump, or eczema — turns from red to brown, leaving behind a mark that may take months or even years to naturally fade, explains Dr. Belkin. Blue visible light (the kind coming from your screened devices), rashes, and scratches can also result in inflammation or trauma that skin may react to with increased pigment production.
Hyperpigmentation can also be caused by melasma, which is a mottling — a darkening or bluish-purple marbling — of the skin usually caused by hormonal changes (ex: during pregnancy). While the initial cause of these types of hyperpigmentation is internal, external factors like sun exposure can worsen the effects.
How Do You Prevent Hyperpigmentation?
Sun protection is the number one approach recommended by each of these experts for preventing hyperpigmentation. Broken skin and sensitive skin is especially prone to hyperpigmentation, which occurs in response to damage or wounds on the skin.
"Sunscreen, sunscreen, sunscreen," says Rita Linkner, M.D., of Spring Street Dermatology. "If you experience a wound or rash, make sure to give that skin extra SPF when it's healing to prevent hyperpigmentation from developing."
So, if your skin is sensitive or prone to breakouts or you're dealing with a cystic situation, be sure to slather on even more SPF than usual as part of your preventative hyperpigmentation skin routine. (Try these best face sunscreens according to customer reviews.)
How Do You Get Rid of Hyperpigmentation?
Hyperpigmentation can be treated at home — keep reading for the best hyperpigmentation product recommendations — but there are in-office dermatologist-administered options as well. Chemical peels, microneedling, and laser treatments are some of the in-office procedures typically used to treat hyperpigmentation. (Here's a guide to those options for treating hyperpigmentation.)
All three experts here agree that pairing in-office treatments with topicals (gels and lotions containing ingredients that slow down or halt melanin production) is the most effective route to a more even skin tone. Dr. Belkin says his typical in-office approach to treating hyperpigmentation begins with sun protection, active topicals,apply actives, such as vitamin C and tranexamic acid," he says.
Talk to your derm to find out what option is best suited for your skin type and concern, but don't despair if visiting a doctor isn't an option for you. "In-office chemical peels are my go-to," says Dr. Linkner. "But at home, there is a slew of medical-grade skin-care ingredients that can complement in-office peels to speed up the brightening process."
It's also important to note that hyperpigmentation doesn't disappear for good after being treated. "The biggest misconception when treating hyperpigmentation is that once treated, it will not come back," says Dr. Patel. Those little melanocytes are prone to excitement, and hyperpigmentation is quick to return and develop in new areas. So it's important to keep your SPF game strong in addition to adding products to your skin-care routine that treat hyperpigmentation.