My skin has always been problematic. I’ve had acne since the fifth grade, battled with eczema for a month, and now I have hyperpigmentation. This condition causes areas of the skin to become abnormally dark, especially if you’re a person of color. Compared to Caucasians, the melanocytes (pigment producing cells) that people of color have are more reactive and as a result, a pesky dark mark is most likely to develop as an inflammatory response.
But, don’t worry.
To ensure that your melanin doesn’t pop out of control, we consulted board certified dermatologists Carlos A. Charles, the founder of Derma di Colore and Kenneth Howe of Wexler Dermatology. Together, they’ll help you learn more about what hyperpigmentation is, the treatment options that are available and what you can do at home to achieve an even-complexion.
The Science Behind Hyperpigmentation
Melanin is a complex polymer that’s not only responsible for giving color to our hair, skin and eyes, but it also “protects our bodies from the ultraviolet rays of the sun by absorbing incoming UV light, allowing its energy to be dissipated harmlessly,” says Dr. Howe. It’s produced through a multi-step process that involves an important enzyme called tyrosinase, which helps catalyze the production of melanin and other pigments. Tyrosinase is found within specialized cells called melanocytes, which are responsible for the synthesis, storage and transport of melanin due to a tiny organelle called melanosomes. However, “when more melanin is produced than what our body is programmed for, the result is hyperpigmentation,” says Dr. Howe.
Whether you’ve popped a zit or basked in the sun for too long, there are many factors that contribute to the production of hyperpigmentation. When the skin becomes irritated due to eczema, increased sun exposure, acne or physical trauma (ahem, picking zits), for example, a person will develop local inflammation. Although this is the most common type of hyperpigmentation, it’s very hard to treat because the extra pigment produced is created deep within the skin.
Who’s More At Risk?
“People of color are also more prone to developing hyperpigmentation [because] compared to Caucasians, people of color produce more melanin, and distribute it more efficiently,” Dr. Howe admits.
In the world of beauty, achieving an even complexion is what everyone is chasing after. Need proof? Travel to any cosmetics store (ahem, Sephora), and you’ll see an array of products enriched with properties that supposedly brightens and lifts dull looking skin. But, here’s the catch! If you don’t address the underlying issue that’s causing the hyperpigmentation, you’ll become a VIB member before you find the right product that works for you.
Instead of going through a series of trial-and-error, Dr. Carlos recommends using “topical retinoid medications to gently exfoliate areas of hyperpigmentation and to minimize the activity of the melanocytes.”
“I will also perform in office procedures such as chemical peels and gentle lasers to help diminish hyperpigmentation,” he adds. “Lastly, it is crucial for those with hyperpigmentation to apply a broad spectrum sunscreen daily to prevent further darkening of the lesions from ultraviolet light exposure.”
We swear by EltaMD UV Clear Broad-Spectrum SPF 46.)
Get ‘Lit’ At Home
Let’s face it! Not everyone can afford an in office treatment and that’s okay. According to Dr. Carlos, “there are several over the counter retinols that can assist with hyperpigmentation.” “Also, gentle at home peels can be used, although these must be performed with caution as they can also lead to burns and irritation if not performed correctly,” he adds.
In a desperate attempt to achieve perfect skin, I’ve made many mistakes that still make me cringe when I think about it. However, before you decide to take matters into your own hands, remember to always ask a physician or a skin expert for advice. If we were left to use our own devices, Lord only knows how our skin would look like today.
In an effort to bypass any skincare hiccups, Dr. Carlos mentioned two common mistakes that many people make: 1. Overzealous exfoliating and 2. Forgetting to apply sunscreen.
”People are under the misconception that they can aggressively exfoliate away areas of hyperpigmentation,” states Dr. Carlos. “This in fact will often times lead to irritation and worsening of lesions.”
“Another common mistake is forgoing sunscreen use,” he adds. “Sunscreen application is critical to prevent further darkening of hyperpigmented lesions.”