What causes dark spots and how do I treat them?
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.
Age spots are also known as sunspots. These occur 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
Post-Inflammatory Hyperpigmentation (PIH)
Post-Inflammatory Hyperpigmentation occurs from injury or inflammation of the skin (think acne, eczema, etc.). 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!
What is Melasma?
Melasma causes large patches of darkened areas, most commonly 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 sometimes referred to as the dreaded "mask of pregnancy" because of hormonal changes during pregnancy. Many women battle with melasma, though, even if they're not pregnant! Don't worry - with the right treatments, melasma can be managed. For most people, however, melasma never completely goes away and needs continued treatment–consistent treatment is key.
How do I prevent melasma from worsening?
Some of the most important things for people struggling with melasma to do are to stay out of the sun and use SPF everyday. Avoid long sun + extreme heat exposure–think hot yoga, saunas, steam rooms (yep, even facial steamers), sitting in a hot car, or even hot air from the oven. 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. We highly recommend applying SPF and wearing hats religiously (or a shield if you’re extra like us)!
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.
Anais Brasileiros de Dermatologia, September-October 2014, pages 771-782
Indian Journal of Dermatology, October-December 2009, pages 303-309