What causes Pigmentation and how to manage it effectively
When we think about how the face ages, the first things that spring to mind are the obvious ones such as lines, wrinkles and sagging skin. Often, we forget how uneven skin tone sprinkled with brown spots can give away our age, sometimes even more so than lines and wrinkles. In this guide, we discuss the different types and causes of pigmentation, what you can do to prevent it as well as the different ways that pigmentation is treated.
What is pigmentation?
Firstly, there are different types of pigmentation: hypopigmentation, hyperpigmentation and melasma. Identifying which type you’re suffering with is the first step to finding a solution. Hypopigmentation is the result of a reduction in melanin production and can be a result of vitiligo, albinism and skin damage such as scarring. Hyperpigmentation, on the other hand – the brown spots on areas of the skin – that’s the result of sun damage. Hyperpigmentation shows up as brown patches or small dark age spots that build up over the years.
Then there’s melasma, a condition where the pigmentation seems to be forming a butterfly-shaped ‘mask’ of colour across the face and is brought on by hormonal fluctuations. Melasma can be harder to treat than other forms of pigmentation, but it’s not impossible.
What causes pigmentation problems?
We all have melanin in our skin which is what gives our skin it’s base colour and can make the skin tone even or uneven. The primary purpose of melanin is to protect our skin cells from the sun. When we expose our skin to UV rays, it prompts the melanocytes – the cells that produce melanin – to produce more melanin to protect itself. That response is what results in a tan, but it’s also a sign of sun damage.
Excessive sun exposure causes damage to our skin cells, so our body begins to overproduce melanin as a defence mechanism, resulting in the formation of those well-known dark spots.
Although it’s a major culprit, UV exposure isn’t the only cause of hyperpigmentation. Hormonal changes, particularly in pregnancy, can also lead to the overproduction of melanin.
How skincare can help
There’s a lot you can do for pigmentation with skincare alone, so it’s always worth exploring a good skincare regime before looking into treatments, starting with sunscreen. Wearing sunscreen will not only prevent future damage, but it will stop the damage that has already been done from getting worse. Choose a broad-spectrum sunscreen that will protect from both UVA and UVB rays and reapply it throughout the day if you can. Try the Institut Esthederm Photo Reverse which offers full protection from the sun’s rays, stopping hyper/hypopigmentation in their tracks while also reversing existing pigmentation and lightening the skin.
The right skincare can do wonders for fading existing brown marks, but you need to use it consistently, every day, and with care.
There are a few key ingredients for fading pigmentation. Firstly, there’s Vitamin C, arbutin and azelaic acid. These all belong to a group of substances called tyrosinase inhibitors, and they work by stopping the skin from producing so much pigment in the first place.
Alpha hydroxy acids can help to reduce and fade pigmentation marks. These exfoliating acids, which include glycolic and lactic acid, have a peeling action on the skin which encourages the shedding of the outer pigmented layers, revealing a fresher, brighter complexion.
Retinol creams can also help with pigmentation. They increase cell turnover and inhibit the activity of tyrosinase, the melanin-producing enzyme, fading pigmentation while keeping the skin hydrated and glowing. Retinol also works well in combination with Hydroquinone, a prescription depigmenting agent used to lighten areas of darkened skin by decreasing the formation of melanin in the skin.
Some people now favour Cysteamine cream over Hydroquinone as it has proven to be more effective and doesn’t require any downtime. Cysteamine is found naturally in human cells and reduces melanin in the skin’s epidermis.
Hero products for managing pigmentation
SkinCeuticals Discolouration Defense: Formulated with 1.8% Tranexamic Acid (to prevent further darkening of the skin), 5% Niacinamide and 5% HEPES (a type of acid that activates the skin’s natural enzymes to effectively exfoliate the skin), this serum delivers a more even and radiant skin tone in as little as two weeks.
Skin Better AlphaRet Peel Pads: This patented, triple-acid (glycolic, lactic and salicylic) formulation, enhanced with a patented retinoid, AlphaRet, exfoliates the skin, leaving it smooth and bright.
Skin Better AlphaRet Overnight Cream: This product is ideal for more sensitive skin types. It’s designed to exfoliate the surface of your skin and also speed up cellular renewal. Sounds intense, but the reason it’s known to be less irritating is that the ingredients are developed to break down gradually. This, theoretically, allows the skin to better deal with each ingredient and its common side-effects. It’s also made with hydrating and soothing ingredients like bisabolol and portulaca extract, as well as hyaluronic acid, to counteract any dryness and keep skin moisturized.
Obagi Nu-Derm System: Obagi Nu-Derm is a unique skincare treatment kit to be used at home. It targets pigmentation by blocking melanocyte activity, removing dead cellular build-up and strengthening the epidermis to prevent further damage.
Cyspera Cysteamine Cream: Cyspera is the first and only topical cream containing cysteamine hydrochloride (HCl) to diminish the appearance of stubborn skin discolouration. It effectively improves the appearance of persistent brown patches and dark spots while minimising the recurrence of skin discolouration with continued use.
What treatments are available?
When it comes to treating pigmentation in a clinic, the main options are either lasers, IPL (intense pulsed light) or chemical peels. A practitioner will need to assess the pigmentation in your skin before deciding which treatment is going to produce the best result.
IPL and laser devices use targeted light beams to break up the clusters of pigment under the skin. The light is attracted to the pigment and shatters it into fragments that the body can dispose of. It’s worth noting that laser devices work best on paler skin tones; on darker skin tones, there is a higher risk that light treatments can lead to hypopigmentation.
Disclaimer: Please be aware that results and benefits may vary from patient to patient taking into consideration factors such as age, lifestyle and medical history.