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Everything About Hyperpigmentation on Melanin-Rich Skin

African American woman rubbing her face with cotton pads

Hyperpigmentation. Dark spots. Melasma. Liver spots. Sunspots. There are so many names for the unwanted darker areas that may creep up on your skin. But, no matter what you call them, chances are you want them gone and to prevent any more from forming. Below, we’ll break down what hyperpigmentation is, how to fade the look of it and most of all, how it differs on melanin-rich skin.

Hyperpigmentation Explained

Simply put, hyperpigmentation is the darkening of an area of skin due to a localized increase in melanin. Many things can cause these darker areas, ranging from hormonal changes to those resulting from an injury to the skin.

Types of hyperpigmentation include:

  • Hormonal melasma, often called “The Pregnancy Mask.”
  • Lentigo, or “liver spots.”
  • Post-Inflammatory Hyperpigmentation (AKA PIH), like the darkness that can happen with a scar or bug bite.
  • Perioral Hyperpigmentation (darkening around the mouth).
  • Periorbital Hyperpigmentation (darkening around the eyes).

Some signs of hyperpigmentation include uneven skin tone, skin irritation, dark spots and uneven skin texture. If you have one or more skin disorders or are dealing with breakouts, it's best to get those taken care of first before addressing hyperpigmentation.

Hyperpigmentation is one of the most common skin-related complaints, especially in people with darker skin tones, and it is never completely unavoidable. Essentially, patches of skin can become darker than normal skin. We can’t beat our genetics, we can’t completely hide from the sun and we will inevitably get a skin injury at some point.

Our best defense against hyperpigmentation is knowing what causes it, how to treat it when it does pop up and how best to prevent it as much as possible. This is especially important for people with dark skin tones. Keep reading for answers to questions you may have.

How Does It Affect Melanin-Rich Skin?

First off, what is melanin? No matter race, all people have melanin in their skin which determines how light or dark their skin will be. Where skin color starts to differ is how large and how numerous the cells containing melanin are. The larger and more dense the melanin-containing cells are, the darker the skin will be.

Melanin's main job is to absorb the sun's rays during sun exposure. Having more melanin in your skin is great for being more protective against sun damage, which results in premature aging and skin cancer, than in lighter skin tones. (Notice we said “more protective,” not “totally protective.” This is not a free pass for not wearing sunscreen.) However, it also leaves darker skin more prone to hyperpigmentation.

Excess melanin production is stimulated by the sun's rays, leading to the forms of hyperpigmentation that are environmentally triggered. The more the melanin is working to absorb the rays, the darker it becomes. So obviously, people with more melanin and darker skin will be more apt to have hyperpigmentation issues.

The type of hyperpigmentation that tends to be worse for those with darker skin is post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. This type of discoloration results from some skin trauma, like a burn, acne, bug bite, dermatitis or psoriasis. Once the area begins to heal or scar, the skin begins to darken. The darker the mark on melanin-rich skin, unfortunately, the longer they will last.

How To Reduce the Appearance

Luckily, there are numerous ways to try to brighten the appearance of hyperpigmentation. It often takes quite a bit of time for the difference in color to fade, no matter the method you choose. Just know going into the treatment of hyperpigmentation, results will not happen overnight and that it’s a slow process that requires consistency in application.

Exfoliation is a great place to start trying to fade the look of darker patches on the skin. There are two types of exfoliation: physical and chemical. Physical exfoliation consists of using an exfoliating facial scrub or cleanser (our favorite is LacticGlow Micropolish Resurface & Brighten Cleanser), a washcloth or professional microdermabrasion to buff away the dead skin cells on the surface of your skin.

Though this method will leave your skin feeling smooth and looking bright, it doesn’t work very deep into the skin. Chemical exfoliation will most likely work better for reducing hyperpigmentation.

Chemical exfoliation uses acids to break down the “glue” that holds the layers of skin together. When the top layer of glue has been dissolved, the dead skin on the surface can shed away naturally without physically buffing it off. Because these acids can penetrate the skin, this is a far better choice for getting to the root of the dark mark problem.

There are a few different chemical exfoliants, but the best for improving the look of hyperpigmentation is in a class called Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs). AHAs are water-soluble and generally well tolerated by most people. This type of acid can include:

  • Lactic Acid: Derived from milk and one of the most gentle.
  • Glycolic Acid: Derived from sugar cane.
  • Citric Acids: Derived from citrus fruits.
  • Malic Acid: Derived from apples.

All of these acids can be bought easily in lower concentrations for at-home use. If using them at home, be sure to research the different types for your specific hyperpigmentation issue and which concentration is most recommended. It’s easy to overdo these products and cause more damage to your skin.

Some other ingredients to be on the lookout for in your skincare products that may help with hyperpigmentation include Vitamin C, Niacinamide, Bearberry Extract, Arbutin and Kojic Acid.

To avoid any triggers or allergic reactions, be sure to read the active ingredients of any broad-spectrum sun protection products, brightening creams, serums and polishes.

If you’d rather not take the chance and would like more potent results, visit your dermatologist or a licensed esthetician for a professional chemical peel or over-the-counter/prescription options. Find one that is experienced in treating skin of color so that they will be able to recommend the best source of treatment based on your specific skin type and needs. And because these chemical peels are professionally applied, the concentrations of the acids will be higher, which can mean more noticeable results.

Products containing Retinol are also often used to treat different types of hyperpigmentation. There are many different forms of Retinoids that help brighten the appearance of the skin for a more even skin tone. Although they can be effective, Retinoids also increase the risk of post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, so use them with caution.

There’s also a product called Cyspera® Intensive Pigment Corrector that’s been shown to be highly effective in reducing hyperpigmentation. Cyspera contains Cysteamine which breaks down and metabolizes melanin, thus eliminating darker areas on the skin. With daily use of this product, results can be seen relatively quickly and improve over six months.

Depending on the type and severity of your hyperpigmentation, you may want to try battling it with more than one kind of treatment. Combining the different effects of the different treatments can lead to greater results. But again, we highly recommend finding a dermatologist or licensed esthetician that has dedicated time to learning the unique needs of darker skin tones to ensure you get the precise treatment your skin demands.

How To Reduce It

Reducing hyperpigmentation in melanin-rich skin varies based on the type you are dealing with. Doctors recommend determining the source of your dark spots and trying to take preventative measures from there.

If you have post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) from acne, eczema or psoriasis, treating those conditions should be the first priority to prevent new dark areas from forming. And whatever you do, don’t pick at these areas and make any scarring worse. Over time, the areas will begin to heal and fade on their own, but once the problem is sorted out, you can begin applying the products we mentioned above.

If you haven’t gathered, we’re very concerned about harmful rays from the sun. The most important preventative measure to take against hyperpigmentation is always wearing sunscreen. Though darker skin is less prone to sun damage than lighter skin, there’s no getting around the issue of sunlight making melanin work harder and get even darker. It’s essential to cover any areas of PIH with sunscreen, as well.

No matter the type of sun coverage you prefer, Urban Skin Rx® has a sunscreen that will help keep any hyperpigmentation at bay. SheerGlow™ Even Tone Daily Defense Mineral Moisturizer SPF 30 is a favorite because it’s a powerful mineral sunscreen that leaves zero white cast, no matter your skin tone. We also love Complexion Protection Moisturizer SPF 30™ because it does exactly what its name suggests. It’s formulated not to clog pores and is great at protecting against dark spots and the sun's UV rays.

Again, whatever you do… sunscreen is your best defense against hyperpigmentation. Read that again. And put on some more sunscreen. It'll help protect you against UVB rays.

For people with melanin-rich skin, hyperpigmentation is an issue that they can’t get around. The very nature of these skin tones creates the perfect environment for dark spots to form. Luckily, there are preventative measures that can be taken and treatment options for existing darker areas. Give them a try, and keep those dark spots away!