Hyperpigmentation is an impressive term for a very common skin problem: discolored or dark patches of skin, most often on the face, chest, and hands. Hyperpigmentation happens when the body overproduces melanin, and it affects people of all races and skin tones.

Melanin Explained

Simply put, melanin is the substance that gives color to your skin. It’s produced in the lowest layer of skin, called the basal layer. Melanin is your natural protection against the UV rays of the sun. Your body’s usual production of melanin can be disrupted by a number of different factors, including overexposure to sunlight, some medications, and changes in hormone levels.

These disruptive factors cause your body to produce melanin in larger amounts than usual, or to produce it unevenly. Either way, the result is dark spots or extreme freckling on your skin ‒ in other words, hyperpigmentation.

Types of Hyperpigmentation

Lentigines are among the most common forms of hyperpigmentation. Many people call these age spots, or liver spots. They are a direct result of exposure to UV radiation, and usually show up on the face and hands, which are exposed to the most sunlight over time. Lentigines begin to appear as your body matures and its ability to regenerate sun-damaged skin cells decreases.

Another common type of hyperpigmentation is melasma. This is most often associated with pregnancy ‒ some people call it the pregnancy mask, although it can also appear on the stomach or other areas of the body as well as the face. Melasma is usually the result of dramatic changes in hormones, most commonly from pregnancy or hormone stimulating medications like thyroid treatments or birth control pills.

Hyperpigmentation can also happen as acne lesions heal. It is your body’s natural reaction to the inflammation that acne causes on your skin. The inflammation triggers an overproduction of melanin to protect the lesion as it recovers, leaving behind a dark, discolored, or shiny spot.

Treating Hyperpigmentation

Most professionals recommend a combination of topical skin treatments and non-surgical procedures to successfully treat hyperpigmentation. In the past, hydroquinone was a commonly used topical remedy, but recent studies indicate some very real dangers associated with the use of this product.

Safe and effective topical treatments for hyperpigmentation include glycolic acid, which acts as an exfoliant to help shed the discolored layer of skin while providing nourishing moisture to the skin. Another option is alpha arbutin, a natural melanin-inhibiting alternative to hydroquinone which helps to fade discolored spots safely.

There are a variety of proven non-surgical procedures to reduce or eliminate hyperpigmentation. Probably the most well-known of these is laser treatment. The nature of highly focused laser light allows targeting of dark spots while avoiding the surrounding skin. Dermarolling and dermaplaning are also effective ways to deal with hyperpigmentation. Both of these involve the use of tiny acupuncture-sized needles to stimulate the body’s production of melanin, re-adjusting it and restoring it to more even, natural levels.

Other treatment options include microdermabrasion and chemical peels. Both of these procedures involve exfoliation of the skin’s outer layer, promoting the growth of new, healthy skin cells.

If you’re concerned about hyperpigmentation, it’s important to know that you can guard against it with one simple habit ‒ always use a broad spectrum sunscreen when you’re outdoors. And if your skin is already showing some signs of hyperpigmentation, it’s time to consult a dermatologist or qualified skin care professional. It’s never too early or too late to start caring for your skin.