April 21st 2014
Patching up: the causes and cures of hyperpigmentation
April 29th 2015 / 2 comments
How do you get rid of hyperpigmentation? Judy Johnson talks to the experts to find out what causes dark spots and how to treat them
We have a lot to put up with as we age. Wrinkles. Sagging skin. Bingo wings. Creaking joints. Young people. But one ageing ailment that's sure to affect us on a daily basis is hyperpigmentation; the discolouring of the skin, usually in small patches, that causes your complexion to look a little like a patchwork quilt instead of the silky smooth blanket glow of your dreams.
Instead of spending a fortune on face creams and fillers in the hope of banishing those telltale lines, the experts think that we should actually be looking after our skin to reduce excess pigmentation if we want to look younger.
Dermatologist Dr Sam Bunting explains: "Our brains are programmed to register light and shade when we first look at an object or a face before we register fine details. We perceive an even skin-tone as more pleasing to look at – and studies show we think an uneven skin-tone is as ageing as lines or wrinkles."
So how can we battle the blotches? One thing's for sure; prevention is better than cure, but both can work. Find out how to look after your skin and get it back to its beautiful best…
Sun spots, liver spots, age spots; they're one and the same and annoyingly, any number of things could cause those dark spots that we're so keen to cover up. "Sun exposure is one of the commonest causes, leading to solar lentigines (the technical term)," Dr Sam Bunting tells us. "Sun exposure can also trigger melasma, which frequently occurs on a background of hormonal change (like the Pill or pregnancy)."
If you've suffered with spots or acne, you'll no doubt have noticed that they too leave a lasting impression on the skin; the dark spots are therefore most common on the face, neck and chest, though Dr Bunting admits more and more people notice it under their arms from shaving irritation. Any kind of inflammation (blemishes included) can cause it - this is known as post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. Dr Bunting explains that the colour will vary depending on your own complexion: "In very fair skin, this tends to be more red-toned whereas in darker skin-types this tends to be brown."
Skin colour is key, too; the darker your skin, the higher the melanin content, which means you're more likely to find yourself with post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation - and you should be careful with treatments too, as Dr Bunting explains it's for this reason that laser treatments and peels are so much more risky for darker skin types.
As always, the more you look after your skin, the more it will thank you in the form of a clearer complexion and even skin tone. With better skincare you can try to avoid inflammation in the form of spots, acne and irritations, and reduce the chances of unwanted marks appearing once they're gone. Though we won't suggest you avoid daylight altogether, the sun does play a big part; as Dr Bunting explains, it's extrinsic ageing that causes the darkened skin, rather than ageing in general. "Good sun behaviour will go a long way to preventing hyperpigmentation, provided it’s started early enough."
SPF is always a good bet and should be worn year-round if you want to ward off those patches, and with the emergence of BB creams and foundations containing sun protection there's really no reason to avoid it. Dermatologist Dr Nick Lowe points out it’s the UVA you need to be wary of: “You are wasting your money if you don’t use creams with proven UVA protection,” he explained to us. We love Garnier's latest BB cream in High Alta, £9; with an SPF30 or 50 and a lovely creamy tinted formula, it's ideal for year-round protection and glow. Or for a separate sun cream, Ultrasun, from £16, is fuss-free thanks to its once-a-day application (and sensitive-skin friendly qualifications).
Thankfully, the beauty industry has answered the problem with plenty of treatments and products designed to lighten the dark patches back to your original skin tone. It takes time and will need careful consideration of your products for best results. Dr Bunting prefers this over any drastic action: "I’m a great fan of sorting out patients’ daily skincare routines, which I find delivers more meaningful and potentially long-lasting results in a way that’s very practical. Slow and steady wins the race when it comes to skin."
Our firm favourites in the product department include Clinique's Dark Spot Corrector, £42. Use with their Super City Block, £18, for daily protection and those marks will begin to fade - it's a cult classic.
We also believe in Avene's D-Pigment, £35, a dark spot lightener which Dr Bunting herself recommends and Skinceuticals Pigment Regulator, £89, which is well-loved by editors in the business. A good budget investment, however, would be Indeed Labs' Pepta-Bright, £29.99, which is raved about for its skin-brightening talents.
If however you need a real overhaul of your skin that daily products just can’t do, a professional treatment could help. Laser treatments are effective, though they’re not very enjoyable; you’ll need an anaesthetic during and will look very sore after while the skin heals itself by producing more collagen. Dr Nick Lowe suggests the Ruby Laser for targeted dark spot treatment; sending out pure red light, it can treat specific spots and make them lighter. However, for larger areas, Intense Pulsed Light or a Fraxel dual laser - which leaves healthy skin untouched - is used.
But the laser isn’t all you need; it takes commitment to skincare, as Dr Lowe explains “If you have the dark spots treated by laser and are religious about SPF and a nightly skin lightening cream, you can maintain your pigmentation-free skin for up to several years - but sun worshippers will find it simply comes back.” Dr Lowe also has a skincare range to help keep your skin on the right track, including the Dr Nick Lowe Super Light Skin Tone Perfector, £16.80.
Microdermabrasion is also used to treat dark spots and pigmentation, which can give great results when used alongside daily protection and lightening products. Dr Lowe offers the Dermasweep, which combines resurfacing with topical solutions for skin problems.
For a full facial makeover, Dr Bunting recommends Obagi Nuderm (which our columnist Christa D'Souza tried with dramatic results). A prescription-grade skincare system, it suppresses hyperpigmentation to leave your skin with a new lease of life - well worth the investment, but involves some down-time and your skin looking worse before it gets better, so it needs serious consideration before jumping straight in.
The best news is that with a good base, it's easy to cover up those dark areas that give away your age or bad habits. A dense BB cream can be a great multitasker - see our pick of the best BB and CC creams here.
For a strong foundation that won't let you down, it has to be Estee Lauder's Double Wear Maximum Cover, £29.50, which gives flawless coverage. If your pigmentation is in high contrast to your natural skin tone, camouflage make-up brand Keromask is your best bet outside of treatment - and at just £14.99 it won't break the bank.
For more information, see our SOS section on brown spots and pigmentation and let us know what works for you in the comments.