Doctor-Approved Ways to Get Rid of Hyperpigmentation for Good

Freckles can be cute, but if you have dark spots on your skin that you don't want there are ways to remove them.

If you’re bothered by darks spots due to hyperpigmentation on your skin, one thing is clear: Today there are more options for erasing that harmless but irksome discoloration than ever before.

What exactly is hyperpigmentation? It’s any patch of skin that looks darker than your natural skin tone due to overproduction of the brown pigment melanin. According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), the most common causes of hyperpigmentation — which can affect people of all skin tones in varying degrees — are:

  • Inflammation Skin trauma — such as acne, eczema, bug bites, cuts, scrapes, even scratching or friction from, say, vigorous rubbing — can set off inflammation. Inflammation, in turn, can send pigment-producing cells into high gear, leaving behind a dark spot after the injury has healed.
  • Sun Exposure The sun’s UV rays hitting your skin triggers extra melanin production as a way to defend your skin from damage. That extra melanin is what gives you a tan. However, when sun exposure is frequent or excessive it can make dark “sun” spots appear. Although sun spots are not cancerous, according to the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery, sun-exposed skin may develop other precancerous blemishes that look similar. For this reason, it’s important to have your skin checked yearly by a dermatologist.
  • Melasma Often referred to as the “mask of pregnancy,” melasma is characterized by brown patches that can commonly form in women during pregnancy. This type of hyperpigmentation most often occurs in women, but can also occur in men. It is thought to be triggered by a combination of sun exposure, genetics, and hormonal changes, since it’s also been linked to the use of oral contraceptives, say experts from the American College of Osteopathic Dermatology. Airborne pollutants that bind to the skin, making it weaker and more easily damaged by the sun, may also be a factor in melasma and other hyperpigmentation, according to Harvard Health.
  • Medical Conditions or Medication Hyperpigmentation can also be due to Addison’s disease, an adrenal gland disorder that can increase melanin production. Certain drugs, including antibiotics and, according to the University of New Mexico Comprehensive Cancer Center, some chemotherapy drugs, can cause hyperpigmentation.

The Best Ways to Treat and Prevent Future Hyperpigmentation

Today, there are plenty of dark-spots correctors to choose from — but it’s just as essential to tackle them preventively. The scientifically proven keys:

Hands Off Bug Bites, Blackheads, and Other Injuries

As tempting as it might be to scratch a mosquito bite or squeeze a stubborn blackhead, think back to your mother's warning — "Don't pick!" — and pay attention. "Scratching and picking at a spot will only increase the inflammation that's responsible for skin discoloration," says Jeanine Downie, MD, a dermatologist and the director of Image Dermatology in Montclair, New Jersey. "The more you mess with it now, the worse it'll look later." That said, the sooner you treat hyperpigmentation, the easier it will be to erase. “The pigment in brown spots can move deeper into the skin over time,” she explains.

Start with topical OTC whitening creams. “Treatments containing ingredients like vitamin C, licorice root, and kojic acid help reduce hyperpigmentation by inhibiting tyrosinase, an enzyme responsible for the formation of skin-darkening melanin," says Ni'Kita Wilson, a cosmetic chemist. Other spot-eradicating ingredients to look for in OTC treatments include hydroquinone, soy, arbutin, vitamin E, niacinamide, and n-acetyl glucosamine, according to the Journal of Cutaneous and Aesthetic Surgery. It’s important to read package instructions carefully, as applying too much of these products can be irritating to the skin. In addition, be patient: It can take weeks, even months, for OTC skin lightening agents to work.

Consider an Rx for Stubborn Skin Discoloration

If OTC remedies aren't helping, it's time to call in the pros. Dermatologists consider prescription-strength hydroquinone, alone or combined with other lighteners, to be the gold standard for fading dark spots because it slows the production of pigment. “It's our go-to,” says Dr. Downie, “because unlike many of the ingredients in OTC products, it almost always works at eliminating hyperpigmentation.” However, she adds, hydroquinone treatment should be closely monitored by your dermatologist because in high concentrations hydroquinone can cause sun sensitivity and may bleach the skin.

Ask a Dermatologist About High-Tech Options

If topical solutions aren't fixing the problem, you may want to talk to your dermatologist about more aggressive ways to banish discoloration, such as chemical peels, microdermabrasion, or dermabrasion, or, according to the International Association for Physicians in Aesthetic Medicine, a laser or a light-based procedure. (One exception: If you have melasma, lasers and chemical peels could make your hyperpigmentation worse.)

Take Steps to Prevent or Minimize Future Damage

The most effective way to prevent sun-induced discoloration is to diligently apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or greater, every day, even on cloudy or cool days. "UV rays just send the pigment into overdrive, turning dark spots darker," says Dr. Day. "You must wear sunblock daily on exposed areas."

Note: SPF only refers to protection from UVB short-wave rays. To also protect against UVA long-wave rays, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises choosing a product that contains Mexoryl, Parsol 1789, titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, or avobenzone.

Also important: Stick to gentle skin-care products that don’t sting or burn, as irritation can worsen hyperpigmentation, especially melasma, according to the AAD. You should also protect yourself against other common skin-darkening triggers by using acne medication to fight off pimples and bug spray to prevent bites.

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