Hyperpigmentation Decoded: What Causes Those Dark Spots on My Face?

How to get rid of dark spots on your face and skin

Zits—honestly, they’re whatever. After many years of fighting, my pimples and I have come to an agreement: They show up to remind me when I’m about to get my period, and I take the hint and then leave them alone. We’re not exactly on friendly terms, but I only have to put up with them for a few days and can otherwise go about my business.

The problem is when they leave a mess behind. I’m talking scabs, scars, and the dreaded hyperpigmentation. I don’t need a seemingly permanent reminder of every zit I’ve ever had. Forgive and forget, right? If only it were that easy.

How Hyperpigmentation Happens

Hyperpigmentation and dark spots can happen as a result of a variety of factors, including acne, hormone fluctuations and sun damage. 

Acne Scars and Post-Inflammatory Hyperpigmentation

So the zit’s gone, but it left behind a dark purple or brown mark. What is that? 

In the case of acne, it’s post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH). It happens when injury or inflammation causes increased pigment production. Beyond acne, PIH can be caused by psoriasis, eczema, dermatitis, burns, allergic reactions, and even bug bites—anything that irritates your skin enough to provoke melanocytes to produce melanin. It especially occurs in dark skin. (1) (2)

What is Melasma? 

Like other forms of hyperpigmentation, PIH can be long-lasting and difficult to resolve. Though it’s all relative, perhaps the most pesky form of hyperpigmentation is melasma because the causes are often unavoidable: hormonal changes and stress. Melasma presents as brown or gray patches that are larger and more irregularly shaped than PIH marks, which typically resemble the injury that left them behind.

Sun Damage and Sun Spots 

Sun exposure can worsen both PIH and melasma, making the spots or patches darker, and sun damage itself can present as hyperpigmentation—like sun spots and age spots that result from increased melanin production. Do you need another reminder to wear SPF?

Let The Past Be the Past

In an ideal world, hyperpigmentation could be avoided by avoiding its causes. Just never develop another zit again, definitely don’t ever get pregnant, and become a vampire. While you can take steps to manage acne and be diligent about sunscreen, realistically, hyperpigmentation is going to happen.

The pigment can be trapped in either the epidermis or dermis, making it hard to reach. That doesn’t mean treatment is impossible though.

Best Ingredients to Fade Dark Spots 

Topical depigmenting agents are actually likely to be present in skincare products you’re already using or they’re easy to find. One of the most common effective ingredients is niacinamide. The vitamin B3 derivative decreases melanosome transfer to keratinocytes, aka it blocks pigment granules from arriving to the skin cells that make up 90% of the epidermis. (3) (4)

A few other ingredients you’ve maybe heard of work against hyperpigmentation by inhibiting or interfering with tyrosinase, the enzyme that catalyzes the production of melanin: azelaic acid, ascorbic acid (vitamin C), and licorice root extract. Seek out products with these ingredients, and use them consistently over time.

All Hail the Holy Exfoliation

Exfoliating, whether chemical or physical, can help too because it sheds old layers of skin and make room for fresh new cells. You won’t literally buff away the pigment in one go, but it’s always good to boost cell turnover and, like the topical treatments above, regular exfoliation works well over time. You can also up the ante with chemical peels—in high percentages, administered by an esthetician or a doctor—to full-on peel away a few layers of skin.

Just like acne, dealing with hyperpigmentation is a long game. Zits are going to come to visit and leave some evidence behind. Hormones, stress, life—they’re going to leave their marks. Sunscreen needs to be an everyday thing. But treatments are as available as hyperpigmentation is inevitable. Pack your skincare routine with brightening and exfoliating ingredients so that you can be a welcoming—or at least tolerating—host and keep your skin as clear as you can.

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