April 26th 2019
Pigmentation: how to treat dark patches on your skin for a brighter post-summer complexion
September 29th 2021 / 2 comments
Image: Getty Images
How do you get rid of hyperpigmentation? We consulted the experts to find out what causes dark spots and how to treat them
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Whether caused by sun damage, hormones or inflammation, pigmentation is a skin bugbear that many of us can relate to. Pigmentation is the discolouring of the skin, usually in small dark patches, created by excessive melanin production. It can affect any skin tone and skin type and author and TV personality Kate Ferdinance recently took to Instagram to share her experience, writing: "I always feel so insecure about it and it really does get me down, I try to cover it at all costs." Her followers were quick to share their experiences, writing: "I’m so going through this right now" and "I have this and I really worry what people will think."
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While it can be covered with makeup, dermatologist Dr Sam Bunting explains that pigmentation can make us look older than we are. "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."
What causes pigmentation?
There are three main causes of pigmentation.
1. Sun damage
"Sun exposure is one of the most common causes of pigmentation," Dr Sam Bunting tells us.
2. Hormonal changes
Hormonal pigmentation is known as melasma and is commonly seen during times of hormonal upheaval such as menopause, puberty, when you start the pill and even during pregnancy.
Any kind of injury to the skin such as breakouts, bites, ingrown hairs or eczema can leave a dark mark behind. This is known as post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH). 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."
The darker your skin, the higher the melanin content, which means you're more likely to find yourself with post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.
Cures for pigmentation
1. Skincare for pigmentation
There's a wealth of skincare out there to help with mild to moderate pigmentation. Aesthetic doctor Dr Amiee Vyas, who works with online skin consultation service GetHarley, recommends looking for products with tyrosinase inhibitors. These inhibitors put the brakes on melanin production and stop discolouration from happening in the first place. Kojic acid, azelaic acid, vitamin A derivatives and liquorice root extract are all examples of tyrosinase inhibitors, according to Dr Amiee.
Dr Amiee also recommends niacinamide and hydroxy acids. While these don't stop melanin production, they can still lessen pigmentation. Niacinamide does this by blocking the transfer of pigment onto the skin's surface to limit darkening while hydroxys create even skin tone and refine the skin’s surface to make it more radiant.
Beauty director and skincare oracle Inge Von Lotringen recommends vitamin C as an ingredient for breaking up existing pigmentation in her book Great Skin - Secrets the Beauty Industry Doesn't Tell You.
2. In-clinic treatments for pigmentation
If you have severe pigmentation, professional treatment could help, says Dr Amiee. You can be prescribed topical hydroquinone to treat pigmentation, but doctors advise not to use it for too long. It can result in dry skin and works by blocking the process in the skin that leads to discolouration and is the ingredient Judy Murray used alongside Morpheus8 for her skin overhaul earlier this year. GTG's editorial director Victoria was also prescribed a weaker formula of the ingredient earlier this year, to help with her mild pigmentation.
Medical peels can also work to ease pigmentation, as Dr Kaywaan Khan, medical doctor and aesthetician at Hannah London explains: "A chemical peel works by removing the top layers of skin, allowing new, healthy skin to form in its place. This can reduce the appearance of dark spots by removing the overproduced melanin from the skin. When the new skin forms it should be more evenly pigmented."
Dr Kaywaan recommends a peel with mandelic acid because it is made of larger molecules making it good for brightening darker skin types and glycolic acid for its small molecule size to speed the healing of post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation because it's the smallest and lightest of the AHAs and is best at quickly penetrating the skin.
Laser treatments, such as Lumecca InMode are effective. In this treatment, a laser delivers wavelengths of light into the affected areas of skin where it interacts with the brown and red pigment. The dark patches absorb the light and are destroyed (commonly in one session). Reduced levels of sun damage and a clearer complexion will be apparent just a few days after your first session and results will continue to improve over time.
Microdermabrasion is also used to treat dark spots and pigmentation, which can give great results when used alongside daily protection and lightening products.
The bottom line
Dr Amiee Vyas stresses that SPF forever is essential to keep pigmentation at bay. If you don't wear SPF every day, pigmentation will always return no matter how much dark spot-busting products you use. Dr Amiee calls this 'bounceback pigmentation'. Inge reinforces the point in her book, writing: "if you don’t cover your skin at the same time with an SPF30 to 50 every single day, you might as well flush your money down the toilet."
The best skincare for hyperpigmentation
The everyday toner: Ole Henriksen Glow2OH Dark Spot Toner, £19.55
This citrus-scented toner contains AHAs glycolic and lactic acid to target dark spots, while witch hazel in the mix makes it gentle enough for daily use. It gives an ever-so-slight 'it's working!' tingle and our tester's dad (who is well into his sixties) was impressed by how well it faded his sun damage dark spots.
The budget serum: Garden of Wisdom Alpha Arbutin 2% and Kojic Acid 1% Serum, £12
This purse-friendly serum is loved by esthetician and Get The Gloss Beauty and Wellness Awards judge Alicia Lartey, who is an oracle when it comes to pigmentations. It's designed to be a natural alternative to hydroquinone-based products and treats melasma and hyperpigmentation. It inhibits the production of tyrosinase and has niacinamide in too, as recommended by Dr Amiee for pigmentation.
The high-powered serum: Medik8 Oxy-R Peptides, £55
This silky serum was created to target all three types of pigmentation with a three-pronged attack. One per cent Oxyresveratrol blocks tyrosinase and is apparently 33 times more effective than kojic acid, but is notoriously unstable. Medik8 has stabilised the tricky ingredient by storing it in a preservation system in the lid, until it's clicked into the formula on first use. As well as the little-known ingredient, this serum also contains two peptides to interrupt the melanin pathways.
The just-launched serum: Paula's Choice Clinical Discoloration Repair Serum, £46
Launched in August 2021, this is one of the newest products from Paula's Choice. It contains three per cent tranexamic acid to fade melanoma, five per cent niacinamide to improve texture and tone and to strengthen the skin's barrier to stop discolouration taking hold in the first place as well as 0.5 per cent bakuchiol, the natural retinol alternative, taking the place of vitamin A derivatives, as recommended by Dr Amiee.
The sun-protection moisturiser: Nivea Cellular Luminous 630 Anti-Dark Spot Day Cream Face Moisturiser SPF50, £26.99
We've all had a Nivea hero in our skincare regime at some point and this age-spot treating cream is one that's easy to slot in. It both treats dark spots and provides sun protection, to stop them from cropping up again. Nivea spent ten years researching this, so that explains the higher price point than you'd expect from the brand. It can be used on all skin tones and says that in four weeks you'll see a 33 per cent reduction in dark spots and 20 per cent more even skin.
The super-luxe serum: Sisleya L'Integral Radiance Anti-Dark Spot Serum, £365
If money is no object, this dark-spot busting serum is well worth the extra pounds. It tackles both dark spots and shadows that dull the complexion, working on the surface of the skin and at deeper layers too. It has a fresh, lightweight texture that glides on the skin and feels as expensive as it is for skin that reflects the light, making you look youthful and glowing as well as diminishing dark spots in the long run.
The instant-brightener: Dermalogica Powerbright Dark Spot Serum, £89
Another pigmentation buster on the pricier end of the spectrum, this brightens the look of pigmentation immediately thanks to light-reflecting particles, plus it gets to work long term with tyrosinase inhibitor hexylresorcinol to stop pigmentation forming. Niacinamide is in there too, to even out your skin tone. It has a silky, creamy texture that sinks in quickly and delivers on instant luminosity, creating a healthy sheen.
The fast-acting serum: Murad Rapid Dark Spot Correcting Serum, £75
This combines glycolic and tranexamic acid to even skin tone, improve hyperpigmentation and brighten your complexion and claims to work in just 14 days. Our tester has only been using this for a few days so can't comment on that, but Murad's clinical trials can, with 84 per cent of participants seeing a reduction in the look of dark spots in 14 days, while 91 per cent reported brighter skin and 94 per cent seeing smoother skin. The glycolic acid helps with cell turnover for brightening powers while tranexamic acid works on the dark spots. The serum itself is see-through and light and absorbs in a matter of seconds. It has a fairly sharp scent when you first apply it, but it disappears quickly and moments after applying you wouldn't know you'd used it. Follow with SPF to protect your skin from future pigmentation woes.
The clinic-worthy skincare: Dr David Jack Anti-Pigmentation Duo, £182
Aesthetic doctor Dr Jack, who works out of his Harley Street clinic, has created this double-pronged attack on pigmentation, combining a face peel to fade dark spots and an SPF to stop them from reappearing. The brush-on peel combines a blend of ascorbic, kojic and mandelic acid with retinol to break down dark patches. Dr Jack warns that skin will initially darken because pigmentation will be brought to the surface, but it will shed shortly afterwards. As for the SPF, it's one of the most wearable we've tried; it smells like cucumber, is ever-so-slightly tinted and sinks in as a great canvas for makeup.
The anti-pigmentation cleanser: Bioderma Pigmentbio Brightening Face and Body Cleanser, £11.25
Bioderma’s Pigmentbio collection comprises of a range of products to tackle pigmentation including serums, night cream and toner, all designed to ease dark spots no matter what they're caused by. This creamy cleanser is our pick from the collection. It can be used as your daily cleanse or left on for longer as a mask. It contains AHAs and microbeads to gently exfoliate the face, for an extra hit to pigmentation.
The eye-brightener: NeoStrata Enlighten Brightening Eye Cream, £35
If you suffer from dark circles around the eyes, this is the eye cream for you. It comes with Dr Amiee's seal of approval and is gentle enough to use on the delicate eye area. It uses vitamins A, C and E to lessen dark circles.
The lesser-known acid: Face Theory Lumizela Azelaic Acid Serum A15, £21.90
Another of Alicia's picks, she says "This is great for texture and pigmentation as well as acne. Azelaic acid is truly one of the most slept on acids simply because it’s not an AHA." Azelaic is a dicarboxylic acid, which means it helps brighten, balance and support even skin tone.