What causes dark spots and how do I treat them?
Skin discoloration is a very vague term that encompasses any area of skin that doesn't match your natural skin tone. (FYI: The natural tone of your skin is what you see on the underside of your foream!)
An area of skin discoloration can range from brown to red, pink, purple or even white. We're going to primarily focus on brown skin discoloration in this post.
The appearance of dark spots on the skin is known as hyperpigmentation – a blanket term to describe skin that appears darker. Hyperpigmentation is caused by an excess production of melanin (the pigment that gives skin its color). It's generally not harmful, but it's not desirable to deal with.
When you see a dark spot pop up, did you know it could be from sun damage from ten years ago? Pigment is kind of like an iceberg– you only see a small part of it from the surface, but underneath, there's a whole lot just waiting to come to the top.
There is no end-all cure for dark spots, but they are treatable! Here's a quick, 3-step guide on what you'll want to do to tackle dark spots:
- Stimulate cellular turnover. Use a retinoid like RetinAL Skin Therapy to promote the shedding of dead skin cells and new, healthy cell growth.
- Suppress melanin production.
- Reduce the pigment you already have. Brightening Duo is our favorite combo because Liquid Gold prevents + protects while Brightening Serum corrects + treats dark spots on the skin.
Types of Hyperpigmentation
While sun damage plays a main role in dark spot formation, there are a few other types of discoloration that you may encounter: age spots/sunspots, post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation and melasma–which can be caused by different risk factors.
Depending on how much melanin you have in your skin (lighter or darker skin tones), your hyperpigmentation will likely present differently. Lighter skin tones may notice more brown or purple/red marks whereas darker skin tones may notice more brown, blue/gray or black marks. But no matter which type you’re trying to treat, keep main thing the main thing—SPF!
Age Spots or "Sunspots"
Age spots are also known as sunspots, caused by an overproduction of melanin caused by UV damage from the sun. When the skin is overexposed to the sun, the skin responds by increasing melanin production. This is why sun protection is crucial in the prevention of dark spots! Age spots vary in size and are often found grouped together
Treatment: Start by incorporating retinoids and glycolic acid. (i.e. RetinAL Skin Therapy and Glow Peel Pads). These products aid in the exfoliation/removal of pigmented cells and increase the regeneration of new, pigment-free cells.
Products with lightening ingredients should also be your go-to. They work by inhibiting the production of melanin which is the main contributor of dark spots and discoloration. When the melanin producers are inhibited, dark spots begin to lighten. Vitamin C serums are fantastic for lightening the skin.
Within the Barefaced line, we recommend pairing Liquid Gold (our version of Vitamin C) with Brightening Serum. This is the most effective way to inhibit melanin production. Liquid Gold allows Brightening Serum work smarter, not harder! Without Liquid Gold, Brightening Serum would be working overtime trying to decrease pigment produced while constantly being triggered by free radicals and environmental factors.
Also worth noting, this Brightening Duo has the trifecta of skin lightening ingredients—Bearberry, Kojic Acid, Arbutin— which, when combined, are the strongest natural lighteners in the game!
Post-Inflammatory Hyperpigmentation (PIH)
Post-Inflammatory Hyperpigmentation is dark discoloration that occurs on the skin after injury or inflammation of the skin–from things like acne, skin burn, eczema and psoriasis. The severity of the inflammation can determine the color, depth and duration of the discoloration. Dark spots appear after inflammation has occurred and are more common in darker skin tones. To minimize the potential for PIH, try to avoid scabbing post injury and popping pimples!
Treatment: When it comes to post-acne hyperpigmentation, it is important to treat the acne before targeting the color/pigment. Sometimes there is still active acne underneath the pigmentation, and treating the acne before the pigmentation can lessen the duration of the acne and the pigmentation.
This is the redness that occurs post acne.
Treatment: Again, it is important to treat the acne first and then the discoloration. Then it is important to use Overachiever to help calm and diminish redness, along with Hydrating Lotion which contains Niacinamide that helps with anti-inflammation/redness and brightens the skin. Finish each AM routine with a zinc SPF to protect these inflamed areas from additional sun damage.
Melasma causes large patches or spots of darkened areas, most commonly brown or dark gray color that typically appear on the forehead, bridge of nose, upper cheeks, upper lip and chin. It always presents itself as symmetric blotchiness, usually in the center face region.
Melasma typically occurs due to hormones. It's most common in women, especially pregnant women, which is how it obtained the nickname "pregnancy mask." You know, just another thing to thank hormones for...
This type of pigmentation is typically most noticeable in warmer months since heat is the main trigger for melanin production. However, it's crucial to maintain treatment year-round–even in cooler months when pigmentation seems visibly less. For most people, melasma never completely goes away and needs continued treatment–consistent treatment is key!
Treatment: Brightening Duo once again, for the same reasons as noted previously. Also, daily SPF, but not just any SPF! One with iron oxides...
Iron oxides provide additional benefits to your SPF because they:
- have a cosmetic appeal by adding a tint that is categorized as Universal Pigment technology. This means the SPF warms to the body's temperature once applied, providing a healthy tint that blends with most skin tones.
- provide protection against possible harmful frequencies of radiation. Iron oxides absorb UV light and UVA rays. They help to reduce the visible signs of melasma/hyperpigmentation by protecting the skin against the heat from the outside environment, which we know is one of the key triggering factors of melasma.
How do I prevent melasma from worsening?
Lifestyle changes can also help reduce melasma pigmentation. Since flare-ups can be triggered by heat, you can impact your pigmentation by avoiding long sun + extreme heat exposure–think hot yoga (or any hot room-style workout), hot showers, saunas, steam rooms (yep, even facial steamers), sitting in a hot car, or even hot air from the oven.
Wearing a hat also aids in keeping heat/UV rays from reaching your face. #NoSunClub™ isn't just a trend, it's a way of life for long-term skincare! (Or a shield if you’re extra like us!)
Other things to avoid to prevent melasma from worsening are hormonal birth control, IPL or light treatments and over exfoliation. It is best to start treating melasma as soon as you notice it. Many people with melasma have found that it’s helpful to avoid soy in their diet as well.
How is melasma different than hyperpigmentation?
Hyperpigmentation is also when some areas of your skin appear darker than others, but it’s not exactly the same as melasma. While melasma causes patches of discoloration, hyperpigmentation can present as freckles, sun damage, red/dark spots after acne has healed, etc. (like we mentioned earlier)–it is more random dispersion than melasma and usually not as intense.
Are there prescription strength treatments for melasma? What about laser treatments or chemical peels?
There are quite a few prescription and office treatments out there for melasma. If your melasma is moderate to severe, it's highly likely you will require a topical prescription to treat. A prescription-strength topical like hydroquinone paired with a retinoid like Tretinoin may be an option.
Laser treatments and chemical peels can also be very effective, but we highly recommend “prepping the skin” with a medical grade skincare routine (minimizing melanin production) for at least 6 weeks for best results and going to a provider who knows which lasers are safe.
Treating Dark Spots
Because we are constantly exposed to environmental factors that trigger melanin production, there's no treatment that works right away or lasts forever. No matter where your skin color falls on the Fitzpatrick scale, treatment is usually the same (sometimes with the exception of prescription topicals and in-office treatments). Luckily, there are a few brightening ingredients that can be found in skincare products that help treat dark spots, though.
- Vitamin C
- Azelaic Acid
- Kojic Acid
How long does hyperpigmentation take to treat?
Preventing and treating hyperpigmentation + melasma is not something that can be "done" in six weeks, or even six months. It is something you have to consistently treat and manage. Skincare and lifestyle (sun protection) go hand in hand. This timeline is to be used simply as a guide of when the ingredients in your skincare really hit their stride.
Just remember, a six-week skincare routine can't repair years of sun damage. One day in the sun can set back your skin's progress by a month. It's important to have realistic expectations when correcting and preventing dark spots, especially in the summer.
This is why a full routine, lifestyle changes, and realistic expectations go hand in hand. Treatment takes time, consistency, a routine, and sometimes prescription or office treatments depending on the severity of the pigmentation. Be patient!
Sample Skincare Routine for Treating Dark Spots:
- Cleanse: Use Brightening Facial Wash — It exfoliates dead surface cells for softer, smoother skin while brightening skin complexion.
- Tone: Toning Pads — Formulated with some of our favorite acids, antioxidants and soothing ingredients, every swipe reveals clearer, brighter skin while tackling clogged pores and increasing penetration of your other skincare products, making them more effective.
- Our Must: Liquid Gold — A multitasking antioxidant powerhouse micro-emulsion designed to penetrate deep into the skin, providing mega antioxidant protection from UV damage, defending against premature aging of skin, while encouraging collagen production and boosting effectiveness of SPF.
- Booster: Brightening Serum — Formulated with the all star lineup of brightening ingredients that are clinically proven to minimize discoloration of the skin with continued use.
- Daily SPF: Barefaced SPF — Soft, lightweight and calming formula is perfect for daily use in a weightless, residue-free formula. Available in tinted with max protection from the sun at 50+.
- Retinoid: RetinAL Skin Therapy — Improves skin complexion and texture, and the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles while reducing visible signs of photo-aging. Key for melasma treatment!
- Moisturize: Hydrating Lotion — Increases the efficacy of retinoids. If your skin is extra dry, you can also incorporate Hydrating Serum.
Don’t forget, correcting and preventing dark spots is a full-time commitment. Consistently follow a routine, wait patiently for results, and if you don’t see any, sometimes a prescription-strength treatment or in-office treatment may be needed IN ADDITION to your at-home efforts.
Anais Brasileiros de Dermatologia, September-October 2014, pages 771-782
Indian Journal of Dermatology, October-December 2009, pages 303-309