What do to about hyperpigmentation


It was on a trip to the Mayan Riviera about six years ago when it first appeared. No, not banana with spotsMontezuma’s Revenge, but something about as welcome: hyperpigmentation on my face.

Looking in the mirror near the end of the trip I noticed a brown patch on my lower right cheek that I swear hadn’t been there the day before. Several years later, I wish I could say the spots have permanently faded from my life. But through trial and error I now have a better idea of what to do about hyperpigmentation.

What causes spots

Age spots, liver spots, hyperpigmentation, sun spots. They are all names for the brownish spots or patches that can appear starting from the mid thirties on.

Many forms are caused by the production of too much melanin in the skin from sun exposure. But hormones, inflammation (caused by acne, eczema or other skin issues), pregnancy- or oral contraceptive-related melasma, as well as certain medications and illnesses can also cause you to see spots.

While these are the main causes, an aesthetician once told me she believed heat also made hyperpigmentation worse. This makes sense to me because the first appearance of my hyperpigmentation occurred during a trip in which I wore sunscreen religiously but also spent time in a Temazcal (a Mayan version of a sweat lodge).

Effect on appearance

The good news about hyperpigmentation is that it’s not a sign of skin disease. Of course, if you’re unsure if a skin mark is hyperpigmentation, have it checked by a dermatologist.

The dark side of dark spots is that they can age you. I’ve always been determined to battle lines and wrinkles, but hyperpigmentation wasn’t on my radar until it showed up on my face.  I’ve subsequently seen reports, including this landmark study from 2006, that uneven skin tone can increase people’s perception of your age by 10 to 20 years.

Hyperpigmentation also doesn’t discriminate. I’ve commiserated about them with Caucasian, East Indian and Asian friends, as well as with men.

What to do about hyperpigmentation

It seems in the last decade, the North American beauty industry woke up to hyperpigmentation, and we saw the launch of a slew of products to target it. I do remember as a kid seeing a jar of Porcelana in my mom’s bathroom and knowing she was using it for the pesky liver spots on her hands, but don’t recall seeing much else about the issue until the mid 2000s. (In Asia, it’s a different story, as keeping skin pale and free of spots has long been an obsession, and the cosmetic industry has catered to that concern with skin-lightening products specifically for that region.)

When skin-brightening products like Olay Definity (now part of the brand’s Total Effects line) and Clinique Even Better Clinical Dark Spot Corrector hit the market, I tried them. I also used a hyperpigmentation-treatment product from DDF that’s no longer carried and, most recently, Murad Rapid Age Spot and Pigment Lightening Serum, all with limited success. However, although I finished each container, perhaps I didn’t stick long enough with any of them.

Both the DDF and Murad products contained hydroquinone. This ingredient is considered the most effective lightening ingredient. But prolonged use can cause skin irritation and even darkening, and in some lab tests with animals it appears to have a carcinogenic role. As a result, it’s now banned in the European Union and available as a topical only by prescription in Canada.

What worked best for my hyperpigmentation

The approach that worked for me was lengthy and costly. I did a series of seven treatments consisting of five IPL (Intense Pulsed Light) sessions, as well as a couple of peels and microdermabrasion facials over several months in 2010.

The sessions were done with an aesthetician who works at my family physician’s wellness clinic, so I felt I was in safe hands. The IPL is gentler than a standard laser and there was no downtime afterward or unsightly irritation.

This strategy made a huge difference in the hyperpigmentation, but also improved my overall complexion, bringing back the pink undertones I hadn’t seen since my teens.

Note: If you have a darker complexion, consult with a dermatologist or qualified aesthetician first, as the IPL seems to work best on lighter skin tones.

Where are the spots now?

I maintained the results successfully for almost two years with a daily broad-spectrum SPF 60 sunscreen regimen and regular exfoliation (Murad Essential-C Daily Renewal Complex every day, and every week or so REN Glycol Lactic Radiance Renewal Mask, which I’ve posted about before).

Alas, at the end of this very hot summer, I noticed a return of some discolouration on my cheek, albeit much lighter than when it first appeared. I applied sunscreen at least twice a day all summer, so, considering the hotter than normal season, I’m again buying the theory that heat exacerbates hyperpigmentation.

I’m hopeful that the cooler weather and my sunscreen and exfoliation regimen will fade the hyperpigmentation. But, if not, before going to more drastic routes, I think I’ll be in the market for a good concealer.

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Posted in Skin care

2 Responses to What do to about hyperpigmentation

  1. Ruth Maude says:

    I recently looked at my hands and was shocked to see my Mom’s hands looking back at me! I hadn’t paid attention to the spots that were appearing.

    I bought “Revelage” from Arbonne a month ago. It is a Intensive Nighttime Brightening Serum. At night I apply a drop on the back of each of my hands and then rub it into the skin on my face using the backs of my hands. I’m not sure if the few spots on my face have faded at all but my hands are amazing. The spots are almost all gone!

    • TracyHoward says:

      Hi Ruth:

      Thanks so much for your feedback on Arbonne Revelage Intensive Pro Brightening Night Serum. I wasn’t aware of this product, which I see is sold in a consultant model rather than in retail. I do like the fact that it’s formulated without petroleum ingredients or hydroquinone, and isn’t tested on animals. Those factors are incentives to check it!

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