Patchy Skin Pigment: A Lingering Souvenir of Biological Stress

Worried about the dark uneven patches that your skin has been collecting over the years? Tired of your skin looking dull and haggard? If your answer to either or both questions is yes, then you are probably dealing with hyperpigmentation.

Although it may not provide any relief, at least know you're not alone. Pigmentation concerns are so prevalent that the market value for their treatments is expected to hit nearly $8.5 Billion $8,489 million by 2024. However, when it comes to keeping skin looking even and radiant, avoiding the underlying causes of hyperpigmentation can go a long way towards experiencing it in the first place.

A Brief Biology Lesson

Melanin is the predominant pigment that gives skin its color. It is also nature’s way of protecting skin from the ultraviolet radiation of the sun. That’s why people with ancestry from Scandinavian countries may have exceptionally light skin whereas those with ancestry from more tropical geographies generally have darker skin tones. Melanin is produced by a type of skin cell called a melanocyte.

So, what does this have to do with the uneven patches on your skin? For virtually all skin tones (with the exception of genetically deficient albino skin), normal melanin production is relatively even and consistent. However, when skin is exposed to certain types of stress or biological triggers, it responds with the production of additional melanin. It’s this extra melanin … the “hyper” part of “hyperpigmentation” … that tends to be uneven and ultimately leaves remnant patchy spots on skin. People who naturally produce higher levels of melanin (referred to by dermatologists as melanocompetent) are at greater risk of developing more and more noticeable uneven patches.

Some of the triggers of excess melanin production include:

  • Sun exposure
  • Hormonal changes, especially during pregnancy
  • Inflammaging Aging (acceleration of aging associated with physiological stress)
  • Skin inflammation and injuries
  • Diseases and medication

Types of Pigmentation

The most common types of pigmentation include:

1. Melasma

Also referred to as chloasma, melasma is also a pretty common type of pigmentation. It is characterized by light to medium brown patches that commonly occur on the cheeks, the forehead, the sides of the face, the upper lip or the chin. This type of pigmentation is often triggered by hormonal fluctuations, which is why it is common among women. It is particularly rampant among pregnant women and has even been nicknamed the "pregnancy mask." It is also prevalent among women on contraceptive pills.

But this doesn't mean melasma is limited to women as it also affects some men. Other than hormonal changes, this type of pigmentation may also be triggered by prolonged sunlight exposure.

2. Sunspots

Also known as solar lentigo, photo-aging, age spots, or liver spots, sunspots are the most prevalent type of hyperpigmentation. They are due to prolonged exposure to sunlight and occur on exposed areas such as the face, the chest, and the hands. They are characterized by light to dark brown flat spots and are more prevalent among individuals in their late thirties and early forties.

3. Post Inflammatory Hyperpigmentation

Ever noticed that after a pimple or an insect bite heals, depending on your skin tone, you may either get a black, pink, or brown spot? This usually occurs because your melanocytes naturally produce more melanin in response to inflammation.

Skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, dermatitis, and fungal infections may also cause PIH. It affects both men and women and, as previously noted, it tends to be more prevalent among individuals with a darker skin tone.

How to Treat HyperPigmentation

Although hyperpigmentation is generally harmless, it can have an impact on self-esteem. According to PubMed, approximately 47.3% of individuals diagnosed with hyperpigmentation feel self-conscious, while about 32% admit to feeling less attractive. The good news is that while pigmentation is prevalent and oftentimes difficult to reverse, there are many things you can do to diminish its appearance and, most importantly, prevent it. Some tips to get you started:

1. Limit Sunlight Exposure

Exposure to the sun's ultraviolet radiation is the key culprit behind hyperpigmentation. That’s why many dermatologists consider sunscreen your most important anti-aging treatment. However, it’s critical that your sunscreen is rated as broad-spectrum because if it’s high in SPF without sufficient protection of the sun’s longer ultraviolet rays, you may actually expose yourself to greater risk of hyperpigmentation. Avoiding exposure during peak sun hours and applying a sufficient dose of sunscreen, even if it is cloudy and gloomy, are beneficial habits for protecting your precious birthday suit.

2. Skin Creams and Serum

Although the Food & Drug Administration restricts cosmetic products from making claims about pigmentation for products other than those containing the drug, hydroquinone, many skin creams and serums have been specially formulated to help to brighten skin and promote a more even appearance and tone. For instance, skin serums with ingredients such as vitamin C, and licorice extract have been promoted to help restore a more even skin tone while those that help keep skin resilient to stress may help brighten skin in the short run and keep tone even over time. Lymphatic drainage tool can further help to flush toxins from the skin and enhance blood circulation, ensuring that protective nutrients from your diet are drawn to your skin.

3. Chemical Peels

If you already have hyperpigmentation, the above steps will help, but getting rid of the uneven patches that have already settled on your skin might prove to be tough and professional intervention may be warranted. One of the more effective skin-evening treatments is a professional chemical peel. However, be aware that some of these treatments may be very aggressive and require a week or more of recovery time before you’re ready to show your newly rejuvenated skin to the world.

4. Laser Therapy

Laser treatments also help in getting rid of pigmentation. They work to aggressively stimulate the development of new skin cells. Laser therapies involve zapping the dark uneven patches on your skin using a high energy laser beam. However, there is a risk that, for some people, certain laser treatments might not work and may actually worsen pigmentation challenges.

The Ultimately Secret: TLC

Though the reasons behind different types of hyperpigmentation may vary, there are a few universal practices that can help keep it at bay. Protecting your skin from all things pro-inflammatory is key. Today, with virtually everybody wearing protective facial masks, the skin is especially vulnerable to the effects of aggressive cosmeceuticals; a kinder, gentler approach is warranted. Most importantly, don’t hold your breath awaiting skin restoration. Mindful breathing and discovering the beauty in your presence go a long way to recovering your glow!

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