What's Up With Hyperpigmentation?

Skin Condition 101

What's Up With Hyperpigmentation?

By Janell Hickman

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Getting rid of hyperpigmentation (commonly referred to as post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, PIH) is a long-term game. Dark spots, particularly acne scars, can be stubborn to get rid of, and can actually get worse if you don’t use SPF (more on that below). Thankfully, there are multiple ingredients beyond just vitamin C that can help treat (and reverse) the look of unevenness across skin tones.

Why You Get Hyperpigmentation

By definition, hyper, meaning “more” and pigmentation (the melanin and color that presents itself across various skin tones) happens due to the overproduction of melanin in the skin by melanocytes. This “overactivity” if you will, can be triggered by different things like hormonal changes (pregnancy), sun exposure, acne, or harsh products and/or chemicals.

Hyperpigmentation is also an umbrella term that covers both post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) and post-inflammatory erythema (PIE), a medical term for swelling. If you refer to the Fitzpatrick Scale, typically those who are skin type 1 to 3 experience PIE first and if not treated properly (aka you don't bring the swelling down) it's most likely going to turn into a dark spot or PIH.

Darker skin tones (think Fitzpatrick skin types 4 to 6) often deal with PIH right off the bat due to the increased number of melanocytes present. Why? Once disrupted, your pigment-making cells start to make a surplus of pigment, resulting in darkened areas both large and small.

No matter where you land on the Fitzpatrick scale, anti-inflammatory ingredients are important because the less inflammation or trauma your skin experiences in the beginning, the less likely it is to transform into a dark spot. By default, skin issues like acne, trigger post-blemish scarring. And, the deeper the pigment, the tougher it is to treat.

Sun Protection Is A Non-Negotiable

You know the saying… “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure?” In this instance, adding a few ounces of sunscreen into your routine daily can make all the difference. The sun is the main culprit of age spots and burns, your current dark spots (and unevenness) can actually get worse with sun exposure.

“You can't talk about hyperpigmentation without talking about sun protection,” explains Heyday Skincare Educator, Alexandra Serron. “Sunburns cause inflammation in the body. Inflammation is the breakdown of every function in your body, which causes diseases and pigmentation issues down the road.”

Sunscreens, particularly those that fall into the physical sunblock family, can help block out those harmful rays. Make sure to reach for a broad-spectrum sunscreen of at least SPF 30 formulated with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. No matter your age, now is the time to start incorporating SPF into your daily routine. Your skin will thank you for it.

Ingredients To Believe In

When searching for products that will really make a difference consider these three buckets first: brightening, soothing, and exfoliating. By choosing what you want to target, you can find effective ingredients designed to do the job.

For brightening benefits, look at actives that focus on evening skin tone and restore the skin’s natural luminosity. This is where must-have ingredients like niacinamide, licorice, kojic acid, mulberry, and turmeric come in. Vitamin C is another powerful topical antioxidant that helps block free radicals from causing oxidative damage to the skin (which can lead to wrinkles and a dull complexion, among other things).

For soothing benefits, opt for anti-inflammatory agents that assist with bringing down redness, soothing irritation, and minimize itching and swelling of the skin. “Sensitivity, redness and irritation can occur when the skin’s barrier function is impaired due to internal or external factors,” explains Serron. “No matter what else is happening on the skin (breakouts, congestion, pigmentation, signs of aging), inflammation must be treated first so the skin will tolerate other activities and treatment techniques.” Options like avena sativa, lavender, chamomile, arnica, and calendula are great to consider.

Finally, when it comes to exfoliating benefits, the goal is to stimulate cell renewal for a more refreshed looking complexion (buh-bye dead skin cells). Lean into ingredients like lactic acid, retinol, salicylic acid, glycolic acid, and enzymes—but don't go overboard.

Serron adds, “The use of hydroxy acids and enzymes will help to lift pigmented cells and stimulate turnover for a more even, luminous appearance. If exfoliation is combined with products that reduce hyperpigmentation, the results will be even more rapid.”

Remember, when you exfoliate, you bring new, fresh skin to the surface. If you are constantly removing old skin cells, your skin doesn’t have time to protect and heal itself—and, you guessed it, can lead to pigmentation. Be sure to strike a delicate balance that’s effective, but not overtly aggressive. And, of course, don’t slack on your SPF application.

Go-To Products For Treating Hyperpigmentation

This Soothing Day Cream

Perfect for sensitive skin, Serron dubs this as one of her trust-building products for new clients. Soothing calendula, trehalose, and borage seed oil help calm inflamed skin and accelerate cell repair.

This Gentle Brightening Mask

Gentle enough for all skin types, this preventative and corrective mask helps tackle hyperpigmentation by dissolving compacted cells to clear blackheads (or congested pores). Bonus points for also being incredibly hydrating, so skin doesn’t feel dry or tight.

These Resurfacing Peel Pads

Help increase your skin’s natural cell turnover rate with these peptide-packed single-use pads. Glycolic acid helps exfoliate while glycerin adds much-needed moisture.

This Multi-Corrective Treatment

Formulated specifically to stop hyperpigmentation in its tracks, this intensive cream/serum helps reduce the appearance of current dark spots and discoloration. Expert tip: Apply before using moisturizer to reap the benefits of alpha arbutin, seaweed extract, and hyaluronic acid.

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