If you notice your skin tone is inconsistent or your texture appears blotchy, you're likely dealing with hyperpigmentation. But don't worry; you're far from alone. Hyperpigmentation is a common occurrence and comes in many forms, including age spots, melasma, and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.
According to the National Cancer Institute, hyperpigmentation has many causes but typically isn't harmful. So, once you determine what causes age spots or an uneven skin tone, you can target those concerns and work toward stopping hyperpigmentation in its tracks.
What Is Hyperpigmentation?
"Hyper" means more and "pigment" refers to color, so hyperpigmentation quite literally means your skin has more color. Specifically, hyperpigmentation occurs when there is excess melanin, which is the pigment that gives your skin a brown or black hue, though it can sometimes appear gray, pink, or red.
Hyperpigmentation is a very common occurrence and can affect people of any race or ethnicity, including those with darker skin tones. It's true that deeper skin tones naturally have more melanin, but that is not the same as hyperpigmentation. Rather, hyperpigmentation occurs when there is too much melanin clumped together in one area as a result of damaged skin cells, according to the Cleveland Clinic. This gives the appearance of patches or spots of discoloration that have a darker color than the rest of your skin, so they appear more prominent.
Hyperpigmentation most often appears on your face and stomach but can occur anywhere on your body, like your arms and the back of your hands. But what causes these spots, exactly? There are multiple factors. Skin darkness from too much melanin can be brought on by pregnancy, excess sun exposure, and Addison's disease, according to the National Library of Medicine.
Types of Hyperpigmentation
There are three main types of hyperpigmentation: age spots, melasma, and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. Here is how they appear and what causes them.
Age spots are one of the most common forms of hyperpigmentation. They're also sometimes referred to as liver spots, dark spots—or more accurately, sunspots. So, what causes age spots? The answer is simple: The sun. Too much sun exposure can result in age spots, which is why doctors often call them solar lentigines, according to the American Osteopathic College of Dermatology.
Areas of your body that are the most exposed to the sun, like your face and hands, are more likely to get age spots. They look like small patches that are visibly darkened, though they're not as small as freckles. While both age spots and freckles are caused by excess melanin, freckles fade but age spots do not, according to the Mayo Clinic. Age spots are also flat, can vary in size, and tend to be grouped together. They're most common in older adults aged 50 and above, hence the term "age spots." Still, they can occur in younger groups, too.
Melasma is another type of hyperpigmentation characterized by areas of your skin that appear darker than the rest; it's often described as freckle-like and blotchy. Melasma is most common in women due to hormonal changes caused by pregnancy or birth control pills, and it often occurs in women with darker skin tones.
Like age spots, melasma can occur anywhere on your body—although it's most common on the face, especially the cheeks. The appearance of melasma patches can fade or even go away when hormonal changes are corrected, and certain treatments from a Dermatologist can help.
Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, also referred to as post-inflammatory trauma, occurs when skin inflammation triggers melanin overproduction or abnormal disposition, per the National Library of Medicine. It causes patches or spots of skin to appear tan, brown, or even blue-gray.
Like melasma, post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation is common and more severe in those with darker skin tones. Ultimately, it can occur in anyone, regardless of age or sex. Causes of post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation include inflammatory skin conditions, like acne, atopic dermatitis, and impetigo. It usually occurs after irritation or injury.
Figuring out how to get rid of post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation can be tricky, as treatments do exist, but they're often a long process, and results aren't guaranteed.
How to Treat Hyperpigmentation
The first step in treating hyperpigmentation is identifying the type. They all have very similar appearances, so you should see a board-certified Dermatologist for an accurate diagnosis and a comprehensive treatment plan. In many cases, a combination of treatment options is recommended.
Fading hyperpigmentation can be done with various skin care products and ingredients as well as professional procedures. Common treatments for hyperpigmentation include topical products made with active ingredients, like Hydroquinone, Retinoids, antioxidants like vitamin C, and ultraviolet filters.
Your doctor may prescribe prescription medications or recommend procedures like chemical peels and laser therapies. Seeing as sun exposure is a common cause of age spots, sun protection plays an important role in preventing hyperpigmentation and allowing it to fade. Further sun exposure and tanning can emphasize the appearance of dark spots and patches.
Effective treatment for dark spots begins with sunscreen, says the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). Specifically, the AAD recommends a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher that is made with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. The EltaMD UV Clear Broad-Spectrum SPF 46 sunscreen, for instance, meets all of these requirements while offering moisturizing benefits to calm sensitive skin.
Although hyperpigmentation may not ever fully go away, the right treatment and consistent sun protection will help your symptoms fade and prevent any discoloration from worsening, so you can face the day feeling confident in your skin.