Pigmentation is present in everybody’s skin. Referring to the colouring, or pigment of our skin, pigmentation is produced in cells called melanocytes, which can be found in the stratum basale layer of the epidermis. These cells produce different pigments, one of which is melanin. Melanin’s basic function is to protect the skin against UV damage, but when the melanocytes become damaged or unhealthy, it accelerates the production of melanin, causing various forms of dark spots and hyperpigmentation—a broad term for disorders which show up on the skin in varying degrees of severity. While it can be a difficult issue to treat, there are plenty of options available, and rules to stick to…
Know your dark spots and pigmentation
Several factors can cause pigmentation issues, whether it’s UV exposure, heat, prescription medications, irritation from skincare products or hormonal changes. “’Abnormal’ skin pigmentation can occur for a number of reasons, but the top three conditions seen by dermatologists are melasma, post acne marks (also known as post inflammatory hyperpigmentation), and solar lentigines,” says consultant dermatologist for La Roche Posay, Dr Hiva Fassihi. Dark spots and pigmentation can occur in any skin type, although those with darker skins that contain more natural pigment are more prone to it—especially after irritation or inflammation such as acne.
Melasma, sometimes known poetically as the butterfly mask of pregnancy, is usually genetically predisposed, and while it is often triggered by sun exposure, as Dr Fassihi points out, it’s easily exacerbated by other factors too. “Female hormones have been implicated in melasma, as the condition is often seen in women on the oral contraceptive pill and during pregnancy.” Perhaps unsurprisingly then, hyperpigmentation is an issue that affects many people. “Dark spots and pigmentation are our most searched for skin concern on site,” attests Jini Sanassy, of Space NK. “We’ve seen website searches for dark spots and pigmentation increase by more than 90 per cent in the last year. In response to this, we created our Dark Spot and Pigmentation Guide towards the end of last year, where we display an edited range of products designed to tackle pigmentation. Since then, the page has had roughly 400 views per week.”
Tackle your stress
It probably won’t surprise you to hear that stress can play a big part in pigmentation issues. “We wear our stress on our skin,” says Kat Bryce, co-founder of LOUM Beauty, a skincare brand whose mission is to stop stress getting under your skin. “Stress [causes] everything from dryness and hyperpigmentation to acne, clogged pores, breakouts and signs of accelerated ageing.” The way stress itself affects pigmentation directly is down to inflammation (no surprises there). When the body’s stress response is triggered, it induces the melanocytes to produce more pigment, which is then taken up by other skin cells and results in darker colouration.
“Stress-driven inflammation also results in the excessive pigment being released and engulfed deeper in the skin by immune cells,” explains Dr Francisco Tausk, a pyscho-dermatologist and consultant for LOUM. “They remain there for a long period of time, and this so-called post inflammatory hyperpigmentation is much more difficult to treat because it is located in the dermis, the deeper part of the skin.”
Dealing with stress-induced pigmentation calls for a two-pronged emotional and physical approach, with stress-reducing activities as important as topical products. Try the new Aromatherapy Associates Atomiser, which with its Deep Relax blend instantly calms the mood. For the skin, LOUM’s TriSerene Complex, which is found in the brand’s Pure Serenity Golden C Serum, uses powerful natural actives that are clinically tested to dampen down and reverse the effects of stress hormones across pathways in the skin.
Step away from the light
While it won’t surprise you to know that most major changes in the skin—including hyperpigmentation—are caused by UV damage, it may surprise you to learn the impact of blue light or HEV light on the problem. Although it’s usually associated with screens and devices, HEV is also emitted by the sun, accounting for around 50 per cent of the sun’s radiation and contributing heavily to skin stress. Blue light can also penetrate skin more deeply than both UVA and UVB rays, reaching beyond the epidermis and deep into the dermal tissue layer, resulting in significant damage.
To ensure seamless protection from both sources, use an SPF that contains ingredients suited to deal with the issue. That means filters like titanium dioxide and iron oxide, which help scatter the light from HEV sources, and plenty of antioxidants. ”We know that free radicals generated in our skin following exposure to UVA and pollution can also trigger the pigmentation pathway,” says Dr Fassihi. “The best way to neutralise that effect is by incorporating ingredients that have an antioxidant function into our daily skincare routine.” Dr Dennis Gross’ latest breakthrough, All Physical Lightweight Wrinkle Defense SPF30, contains filters for UV and blue light and is crammed with antioxidants, including his signature ferulic acid.
Maximise your routine
While hyperpigmentation can be difficult to eliminate completely, there are products that will help fade existing dark spots and pigmentation, and prevent new ones occurring. Vitamin C tops that list (it was the most googled skincare search of 2020). As well as combatting dark spots and brightening, it has excellent anti-inflammatory benefits, to boot. The way it does that is by inhibiting tyrosinase, an enzyme which helps to prevent melanin production, making hyperpigmentation harder to form. Medik8’s White Balance Brightening Serum, features Oxy-R, or oxyresveratrol, a molecule derived from Chinese white mulberries which is excellent at blocking tyrosinase. Grown Alchemist’s Brightening Serum, is another highly effective solution based on tyrosinase blockers, this time in the form of rumex plant extract wrapped up in a silky, lightweight, hydrating formula.
If you prefer your vitamin C in mask form (they can be a great intensive add-on to a daily usage), then try Murad’s new and much-lauded Vita-C Triple Exfoliating Facial. Dubbed an at-home microderm facial, it uses a complex of gold stabilised pure L-ascorbic acid to ensure potency and a 55 per cent higher antioxidant defence compared to traditional vitamin C; vitamin C derivative THD to enable good absorption; and gluthathione, an antioxidant which recycles vitamin C to extend its benefits.
“Sunlight is the most important trigger for pigmentation, particularly in solar lentigines and melasma,” says Dr Fassihi, “so daily use of a broad-spectrum SPF50 sunscreen is essential. A single day of excess sun exposure can frustratingly undo months of treatment.” The virtues of regular SPF usage in protecting against sun-induced hyperpigmentation are well documented, but new formulas promise to do more than just defend. La Roche Posay’s newest addition to its stellar suncare line-up is Anthelios Age Correct SPF50, which prevents damage from occurring and corrects existing damage too, thanks to a combination of lipohydroxy acid, an exfoliating derivative of salicylic acid; niacinamide to control melanin transfer into skin cells, and melanin inhibitor PHE-resorcinol.
Call in the professionals
If you decide to seek professional help for stubborn pigmentation issues, note that any treatment you have should go hand-in-hand with topical skincare. “Irregular pigmentation is considered a chronic skin condition,” warns Dr Stefanie Williams, Medical Director at Eudelo, “So even if you opt for in-clinic treatment, you must always have a long-term maintenance treatment. To just have one treatment in clinic (or a course) and expect the irregular pigmentation to remain clear without maintenance is unrealistic.”
IPL (intense pulsed light) is a good option for treating mottled pigmentation, but only on certain skin types. “The best candidates for IPL are paler skin tones with typical sun damage type pigmentation spots, aka liver spots, sunspots, age spots or solar lentigines,” says Debbie Thomas, of the D.Thomas Clinic in London. The light, which gets absorbed by melanin cells but ignored by other cells, heats the pigment cells up until they’re destroyed and expelled by the body. Pigmentation on darker skins can be treated but needs a specific plan of attack, says Thomas. “In general lasers and IPL are always somewhat attracted to colour, the more colour a skin has, the more difficult it is to safely get enough energy into the target area to be effective without damaging the surrounding skin tissue. Often with darker skin tones I work with peels, LED light therapy, and the correct home care products.”
One such peel is the Eudelo Total MelaOut Peel, which is safe for all skin tones from very light to very dark. The clinical strength treatment contains a cocktail of evidence-proven, highly effective ingredients such as azelaic acid, kojic acid, phytic acid, citric acid, ascorbic acid, arbutine, salicylic acid, vitamin A and niacinamide, and can result in as much as an 80 per cent reduction in hyperpigmentation 12 weeks after one treatment and the additional home care plan.
When it comes to treating trickier melasma, veer away from anything that causes short-term inflammation, which can worsen the issue, and always seek out the advice of an experienced practitioner. “The [best] lasers for melasma are the ones that don’t create too much thermal damage in the skin,” says Debbie Thomas. “In general, most practitioners would opt for melasma specific peels, like the Dermaceutic Mela Peel, and using the right home care is essential whether using lasers or peels.”