Updated: Mar 17, 2021
When I was a kid, my mum never thought to put SPF on my brother or I; not unless we were ‘abroad’. She wasn’t alone and she’s not to blame. She, like the rest of the world, was unaware of the potential damage or the risks, and only now years later am I seeing the consequences of this persistent damage on my skin.
So, what exactly is Hyper-Pigmentation?
In a nutshell, it’s an over-production of melanin by the melanocytes in the basal layer.
Irrespective of skin colour, melanin is naturally produced to protect your skin from UV radiation. Skin of colour may naturally contain more melanin, but it’s still susceptible to hyper-pigmentation. This melanin transfers from the melanocytes to the keratinocytes; effectively travelling up to the surface and presenting as darkened patches of pigment. This colouration or tanning of the skin is a natural line of defence. However, if your skin is constantly exposed to UV light, or other potential triggers, the melanocytes can become predisposed to overproduction.
There are differing ways hyper-pigmentation can manifest on the surface of the skin and these are solar lentigo (age/liver spots), post-inflammatory hyper-pigmentation and Melasma/Chloasma.
We’ve already mentioned that UV light can trigger this process, but other factors such as hormonal imbalances (caused by pregnancy or oral contraceptives), medications, trauma, some medical conditions and genetics can trigger it too.
In our youth, freckles are often perceived to be endearing. Indeed, there is even a make-up craze to add your own cheeky flecks. However, when large pigmented patches begin to appear, we are a lot less sentimental.
So, how should we tackle Hyper-Pigmentation?
In line with expert opinion and experience, I’ve adopted a three-pronged clinical approach.
Firstly, prevention is the most pro-active form of action! Damage starts from the day we are born, it just doesn’t always manifest until later in life. Many of us believe we are only susceptible in hot temperatures, but the truth is we are exposed to the damaging rays of the sun every single day. Therefore, avoiding over-exposure and protecting ourselves should be fundamental to our daily routine. Moisturisers or make-up that contains a sun protection factor (SPF) is a great starting point, but it’s worth considering a product that is ‘broad spectrum’, meaning it protects you from both UVA & UVB rays. In that way, you are protected not only from the potential pigmentation that sunburn can bring, but premature ageing and the risk of skin cancer too.
Secondly, it’s imperative to hinder the over-production of melanin by the melanocytes. This can be achieved with the use of Tyrosinase Inhibitors, found in clinical grade or cosmeceutical skincare.
Tyrosinase is the catalyst to melanin production, so if we suppress the source of the problem, we can reduce the amount of pigment formed.
Ingredients to look out for are Transexamic Acid, Azaelic Acid, Arbutin, Kojic Acid, L’Ascorbic Acid or Liquorice Root.
Hydroquinone is a prescription only ingredient. It delivers results fast, but can compromise the skin barrier, causing potential long-term sensitivity. It is suggested in studies, that Synovea HR is as, if not more effective; great news when it doesn’t carry the negative effects of hydroquinone.
Thirdly, the dark patches on the epidermis need to be addressed through exfoliation, preferably clinical techniques such as chemical exfoliation or micro-needling.
If clinical treatments are contra-indicated or beyond the budget, there are active ingredients that can be considered for home use. Ingredients such as Retinol, Niacinamide, Alpha hydroxy acids and Bakuchiol could all assist.
In conclusion, combining all three of these actions, will minimise the cause and effect of hyper-pigmentation. But one without the other is futile. There is no quick fix in this treatment process as it can take up to twelve months to re-educate the melanocytes, so both a commitment and investment in the process is necessary and even then ongoing maintenance will be required. It's also important to remember that things may look worse before they improve as the pigment is drawn up to the surface,
Active ingredients and treatment plans should be determined with an experienced skin professional. Skin barrier health is paramount when using potent ingredients and deeply intensive clinic treatments. Please don’t go it alone…. for best results seek expert advice.