Hyperpigmentation: What It Is and How to Treat It

Hyperpigmentation is one of the most common skin complaints-- these pesky, dark-colored patches can pop up seemingly out of nowhere and take months or even years to treat. Let's learn more about the different types of this all-too-common skin condition, how to treat them, and what you can do to prevent them from surfacing in the first place. 


Think of hyperpigmentation as a fancy way of saying "too much pigment." The color of our skin is determined by melanocytes, pigment-making cells in the skin. When the skin produces too much melanin in some spots, it causes patches of discoloration. Hyperpigmentation is either localized or diffuse, which means it can either appear in small patches or affect larger areas of the skin. 

WHAT CAUSES HYPERPIGMENTATION? While localized hyperpigmentation is totally normal, diffuse hyperpigmentation over very large areas of the body can be a result of serious medical conditions like Addison's disease, hyperthyroidism, or hemochromatosis so be sure to talk to your doctor if you notice large changes in your skin pigment. 

Localized hyperpigmentation is usually caused by an inflammatory response that signals the skin to produce excess melanin. This can be triggered by hormonal fluctuations, stress, sun exposure, trauma to the skin or genetic factors. People with darker skin tones who naturally produce more melanin are more susceptible to developing hyperpigmentation than people with lighter skin. 

SUN-INDUCED HYPERPIGMENTATION (UV): Sun exposure is the most common cause of hyperpigmentation. UV rays damage the skin, signaling to the cells that they should produce more pigment to protect themselves. The resulting hyperpigmentation--often called sun spots, liver spots, or age spots--sometimes appears right away, but more often than not surfaces years after the initial sun damage occurred. While UV hyperpigmentation generally appears on areas most often exposed to the sun like the cheekbones, neck and hands, UV rays can also exacerbate other forms of hyperpigmentation like PIH or melasma. 

POST- INFLAMMATORY HYPERPIGMENTATION (PIH): This type of hyperpigmentation occurs after a skin injury or trauma, like a breakout or an eczema flare-up. This happens when the body overcompensates during the healing process and produces too much pigment to replace the affected cells. Unlike UV hyperpigmentation and melasma which can be very deep, this type of hyperpigmentation is generally easier to treat. While PIH often fades with time, treatments like at-home peels, dermaplaning and microneedling can help it brighten more quickly. 

MELASMA: Unlike other forms of hyperpigmentation, melasma is often triggered by hormonal changes and has been nicknamed "pregnancy mask" because it appears on the cheekbones and forehead during or after pregnancy. Although most commonly attributed to pregnancy and hormonal birth control, melasma can affect anyone at any time, making it difficult for dermatologists to point to hormones as the only underlying cause. People with a genetic predisposition and those who have naturally darker skin are more likely to develop melasma. 


Because hyperpigmentation is often triggered by multiple factors, it's important to take a similar approach to treatment. Although there isn't one cure for hyperpigmentation, trying a combination of preventative, at-home, and professional procedures can all achieve visible results. With any treatment, patience is key-- hyperpigmentation does fade, but it can take time. In the case of melasma, it’s especially important to avoid further inflaming the skin during treatment. Start slow to ensure that you aren’t causing irritation that can make melasma worse. 

PREVENT: The best way to treat any skin condition is to prevent it from occurring in the first place. Since almost all forms of hyperpigmentation are exacerbated by sun exposure, it's important to limit your time in the sun and embrace SPF. Reach for a broad-spectrum sunscreen with UVA/UVB protection of 30 or higher, and re-apply every two hours if you are going to be in the sun. Choose a physical SPF over a chemical one if you can: chemical sun protectants convert UV rays into heat, which can exacerbate melasma in particular. 

EXFOLIATE: Exfoliation can treat most forms of hyperpigmentation, including melasma. Reach for a peel rich in AHAs and  trichloroacetic acid like our TCA LACTIC & GLYCOLIC FACE FEEL to evenly exfoliate the outermost layer of the skin and visibly brighten. Once weekly before you peel, use our DERMAPLANING EXFOLIATION TOOL to physically remove the top layer of dead skin and help your peel work more effectively. Using a peel and dermaplaning together helps enhance and speed your results. 

BRIGHTEN: Speeding up cellular turnover can bring pigmented cells to the surface faster, revealing brighter, newer skin underneath. Our EGF ACTIVATING SERUM contains vegan growth factors that help stimulate the skin's regeneration response and brighten hyperpigmentation over time. Pair your serum with our MICRONEEDLING SKIN REFINING TOOL, which micro-exfoliates the skin and helps the active ingredients in the serum work harder. 

SEE A PRO: Professional exfoliating treatments like microneedling, microdermabrasion, and chemical peels can all help in targeting and lifting pigmented cells. Laser treatments have also been shown to effectively target hyperpigmentation, but not all lasers work for all skin tones or types of hyperpigmentation. Consult a licensed dermatologist for help creating a treatment plan tailored to your unique skin needs.