While a smattering of freckles is often deemed ‘cute’ in our youth, larger areas of pigmentation those uneven patches of brown skin on the face, décolletage and hands – become much more bothersome as we age, and can add years to our appearance. If we could turn back time, I’m sure we’d all slather on the sunblock to protect our delicate young skin from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays. However, it might interest you to know that the sun isn’t the only culprit when it comes to skin discolouration, known as hyperpigmentation. In fact, there are numerous factors at play, including hormonal imbalances, acne, chemical reactions and even eczema. The good news is that hyperpigmentation can be treated. Here, we delve into three of the main causes of this patchy problem and identify the brightening products that can help tackle it.
One of the most common causes of hyperpigmentation, melasma is a skin condition that can be influenced by both solar radiation and hormones. “The causes of hormonal pigmentation are complex, but there are several triggers, including sun exposure, pregnancy or hormone treatments, including the oral contraceptive pill,” says Tracy, former brand manager at The Skin Institute. It commonly appears as blotchy patches of brown skin, usually on the forehead, cheeks and upper lip. The condition is more common in darker skin tones and isn’t always curable, but it can be treated to reduce its appearance. Tracy recommends using melanin-inhibiting ingredients like niacinamide (also known as vitamin B3) and hydroquinone. “Topical niacinamide has been shown to suppress the distribution of pigment from the cells where it is made,” she says. “It’s an extremely effective and gentle long-term maintenance therapy for pigmentation.” Melasma is more stubborn and unpredictable than other types of pigmentation, which Tracy says is because melanocytes have become sensitised and produce extra pigment when exposed to even the slightest hint of sun. Tracy stresses the importance of applying sunscreen each day. “The most effective sunscreens for preventing pigmentation contain zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Layering different kinds of sunscreens provides maximum protection from UV light. This can be in your skincare and makeup combined.”
This type of pigmentation typically arises in response to inflammation or trauma to the skin and can affect both the face and body. “This can be anything from acne scarring, post-IPL [if you went into the sun after treatment], burn-on-burn, a chemical reaction or eczema,” says About Face founder Marianna Glucina. Flat spots of discolouration, known as macules, can range from pink and red to brown, depending on skin tone and the depth of the pigmentation. They can look like small, discoloured freckles or larger patches of darker skin and may be shiny or look like ‘new’ skin. “The discolouration is down to the skin’s melanocytes [pigment-producing cells] going into overproduction when trying to heal trauma,” says Marianna. Luckily, this can be successfully treated. “Our gold standard for post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation reduction would be laser treatments such as Fraxel or Clear + Brilliant,” she says. “We also use Omnilux Light Therapy if the pigment is recent and if there’s a need to reduce inflammation.” As with all treatments, good at-home aftercare is required to achieve the best results and Marianna recommends using skincare containing tyrosinase inhibitors and high-strength vitamin A, C and E. “Over time, pigment will be reduced – as long as you’re also using proper sun protection with a broad-spectrum SPF 30+.” ‘Topical niacinamide has been shown to suppress the distribution of pigment from the cells where it is made’
The main culprit of pigmentation is overexposure to the sun’s damaging ultraviolet rays, which induce free radicals in the skin’s cells that damage their structure and function. “These free radicals also trigger the production of melanin pigment as a measure to protect the skin from further sun exposure,” says Dr Heber. “Over time, as the melanocytes themselves become damaged from sun exposure, their pigment production becomes patchy, resulting in generally mottled pigmentation.” He adds that both UVA and UVB rays contribute to skin pigmentation to an equal degree. So can this type of sun-induced pigmentation – known as photo ageing – be treated? Yes, but treatment is only effective if you stay out of the sun. “You have to use SPF protection or the pigmentation will return,” says Dr Heber. “The skin will gradually return to its original state due to DNA damage, unless ongoing measures are taken to protect it.” In addition to applying broad-spectrum sunscreen daily, Dr Heber recommends using a combination of exfoliating ingredients, such as retinol and alpha-hydroxy acids, in your skincare regime or when having a professional facial. Arm yourself with products that are specifically designed to dial back the darkness.