So what even is hyperpigmentation? For those not in the know, hyperpigmentation is basically a broad term used to describe instances when you get spots on your skin that are darker or a different color than the rest of your body. This can range from post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) to post inflammatory erythema (PIE), sunspots, freckles, melasma, lentigo, solar lentigines, cherry angiomas, and moles. What causes this, you might ask? Recurring, unprotected sun exposure, age, acne, ingrown hairs, trauma to the skin, hormones, and genetics are the usual culprits.
Most pigmentation is harmless unless it starts changing in size or color, in which case you should try to see a dermatologist or other skincare professional if at all possible.
Before we go any further, I’d just like to emphasize that having an uneven skin tone for whatever reason is totally normal and doesn’t make you any less awesome. It’s just a part of being human and having skin.
When your skin experiences any form of inflammation or trauma, it overproduces melanin to protect you from UV rays. Hyperpigmentation is a lifelong thing that doesn’t have a permanent cure. You’re never not going to get PIH because it’s caused by other things that are often beyond your control. All you can do is manage it. It is what it is.
That being said, my personal experience developing PIH from acne when I was growing up really messed with my confidence, especially because I knew nothing about managing it. The thing with hyperpigmentation is that it just drops in on you unexpectedly and can overstay its welcome, like that fruit fly that snuck in through the window and is just there. Sometimes for years at a time.
It can happen from friction, inflammation, or chaffing of the skin. Maybe you shaved wrong and now you have all these ingrowns that left a mark once they healed. You’ll get a random breakout, and all of a sudden you have these uneven dark spots on your face or body. Like RUDE.
What I’m mostly going to be talking about here is PIH from acne or ingrown hairs, as that’s mostly been my experience. I will not be talking about active ingredients (actives) that treat PIH until part 2. My suggestions are all at-home skincare and some basic preventive care. I am NOT a doctor. Other things like moles, sun spots or lentigines, might require medical treatments or intensive cosmetic procedures (such as lasers or chemical peels) from estheticians, esthetic nurses/physicians, and dermatologists to really tackle—not much can be done about it at home. Depending on the severity and depth of your PIH, you may want to have a professional help you out anyways. You can only do so much on your own.
Anyways, here are some pointers:
- sunscreen, Sunscreen, SUNSCREEN
If you’re trying to get rid of PIH or incorporate actives into your routine, you MUST use sunscreen (note: at least spf 30-50). I reiterate: any results you get have to be maintained by using sun protection. If you don’t, you simply have no business using any actives to treat PIH. Otherwise, you’re wasting your time/money and probably causing more harm than good.
Bottom line is that sunscreen is a must for PIH and acne-prone skin in any case. If you still don’t know why or how often you should be using sunscreen, I write about the many benefits in depth here. So, yeah.
- antioxidants are your friends
As an additional line of defense, you should look into adding antioxidants into your skincare since they also protect you from photoaging (aka premature aging from sun exposure), increase the protection factor of your sunscreen, and prevent more hyperpigmentation. Some antioxidants like vitamin c (aka ascorbic acid or its many lengthy derivatives, such as sodium ascorbyl phosphate, ascorbyl palmitate, retinyl ascorbate, tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate, and magnesium ascorbyl phosphate) can also be pretty helpful for lightening pre-existing sunspots.
My personal favorite vitamin c product? To date it’s the Rohto Mentholatum – Rohto Melano CC Concentration Measures Essence. It lasts months because of the unique packaging, and you only need a few drops of it in the morning. You can use it as a spot treatment on existing dark spots or, as I like to do, mix 4-5 drops in with your moisturizer in the morning. I especially love the melano essence because it doesn’t make me break out like other vitamin c serums.
Another cool antioxidant to look out for is superoxide dismutase because it doesn’t easily degrade over time and can continue fighting oxidative damage all day. A lot of the products that contain it are on the expensive side, but Paula’s Choice – Moisture Boost Essential Hydrating Toner is a more affordable option. I love it because it doubles as a moisturizing toner (and has more ounces than their other toners). I buy these products when there’s a 20%-30% sale of course, and the nice thing about it is that it also lasts a long time. I pair it with my moisturizer so my skin is extra hydrated, which goes a long way in preventing breakouts.
For a more budget-friendly option, The Ordinary’s EUK 134 0.1% mimics the actions of superoxide dismutase and has similar benefits. However, the downside of this product is that it can’t be used alongside vitamin c because it will be chemically altered and made ineffective.
COQ10 is another honorable mention. I could go on, truly — the list of antioxidants is endless. I know most of us don’t have the time or money to be testing different products all the time. As it turns out, a lot of things are actually antioxidants, so you really don’t need more than one.
Those of you that use sunscreens containing zinc may be pleased to hear that zinc is an antioxidant, astringent, and an occlusive with anti-bacterial properties (a winner for anyone who’s acne prone). Some sunscreens are also already formulated with other antioxidants, so don’t feel pressured to buy a bunch of products. Do what works best for you.
- be patient, be gentle, and address the root cause of your PIH
Here’s the thing. If you’re serious about managing hyperpigmentation, you need to have lots of patience with it. Like lots. It’s going to take TIME, even if you decide to see a professional. You cannot fix this overnight, and you will need to be consistent. Everyone always wants to rush the healing process for their skin, along with many other areas of their lives.
Don’t just jump into it, though.
Secondly, BE GENTLE and use actual products. I understand that when you have a zit or an ingrown hair, it can be very tempting to go all out with the harshest ingredients, but it’s so important that you slow down. Don’t pick at it. Don’t pop it. Don’t just put any random DIY gunk from tiktok on your face.
Put down the abrasive apricot scrubs, cucumbers, and toothpaste, my friends.
Remember: PREVENTION IS KEY. Take a look at your skin. Ask yourself some basic questions about what it needs. Investigate how or why this is happening to you. Not sure where to start?
Consider the following:
- Is your skin dry?
- Have you been over-exfoliating?
- Is your skin congested?
- Are you purging from some new product?
- Are you washing your face every night? Are you sleeping with makeup on? (fyi, you definitely shouldn’t.)
- Are you using makeup removal wipes? (hello, unnecessary friction. A good cleanser or cleansing balm can do the job.)
- Are you washing your hair and your sheets regularly? (Once a month is not enough, btw)
- Are you wearing tight clothes that are causing too much friction and potentially contributing to ingrowns?
- Is your hair removal method just not working for you?
- Are you using old and blunt razors?
- Are you stressed and picking at your skin as a coping mechanism?
- Is it potentially a hormonal or medical thing and maybe you need to seek out a dermatologist?
LISTEN TO YOUR SKIN. Everyone’s is different.
I don’t live with your skin, so you’re your own detective here. You have to figure out your own patterns, habits, and skin tendencies to reduce your chances of getting PIH in the first place. I could give you a list of products to treat pre-existing PIH, and you’d be successful at getting rid of some of it…while still getting new PIH. You have to look at this holistically and realistically because it’s not a one-and-done deal. There’s a life-long commitment to have some kind of routine maintenance. Things have to change if you want change. Catch my drift?
- To prevent PIH, you’ll want to:
- minimize any kind of friction or inflammation in the skin
Friction/inflammation/swelling of any kind is typically what’s going to trigger your melanocytes to overproduce melanin. You want to reduce it as much as possible. Ice inflamed acne for less than a minute. Use soothing, anti-inflammatory products on your skin (especially those containing propolis, centella asiatica, zinc, colloidal oatmeal, etc.).
A helpful tip from esthetician and cosmetic chemist @_starsabreep is to use zinc oxide ointment from your local CVS over your moisturizer in your nighttime routine. All that swelling’s going to go down, while the ointment itself serves as an occlusive that prevents water loss.
- refrain from picking
Like the popular phrase goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Chances are some comedones (clogged pores/follicles) and texture on your face are best left alone. Put some distance between you and your magnified mirror. Can other people really see it, or are you just fixated?
All skin is imperfect, so standing there, searching for more things to pick at, isn’t proactive for anyone. We all have pores and texture. Your bacteria-laden fingernails are just creating an open wound (which will become PIH) and introducing more pathogens. Only a professional with sterilized equipment should be doing extractions on your face. You and your fingernails have no business popping anything but a balloon or bubbles.
- avoid over–exfoliating & doing too much all at once
You don’t need to follow every skincare trend or use every active under the sun. Exfoliating too much or using overly drying products all of the time will make your skin sensitive and dry. (I’ll get more into this topic in part two, but I know some of you are running around with one of these and using it every day for some reason.) I get you; I’ve been there myself. Those were trying times in my early adolescence. I know better now. You will too.
Growing up, no one tells us to ease up on our skin.
You hear about chemical exfoliants, and you decide that it’s wise to go with the strongest concentration. Listen, more of something isn’t necessarily better for you. You can try exfoliating your acne and PIH away with a 30% AHA solution every day, but will you have functioning, healthy skin left? Some of you like to play dangerous games with your skin. Where has that gotten you, eh?
I mean, I guess over exfoliating works if this is the look you’re going for.
- Wash your face every day
Washing your face with a decent cleanser every day, even if you didn’t wear makeup, will keep out all that sebum build up, dirt, sunscreen, bacteria or whatever residue is left on your face. A clean face and body is ideal to treat acne and PIH. I stick to the basics with cleansing. While you can double cleanse with a cleansing balm or oil, it’s not always necessary.
I use Cerave – Cream to Foam Facial Cleanser since it also removes makeup without stripping my skin. Pro tip: wash your face for only a minute or less because the movements may aggravate any inflamed acne.
Hydrated skin that’s not stripped of all moisture will be a lot better at diminishing PIH and resolving pimples faster than dehydrated skin. I would go as far as to say that unmoisturized skin is counterproductive to fading PIH. You can stick to a basic, non-comedogenic drug store moisturizer. Try to look for one with skin barrier-supporting ingredients, like lipids, ceramides, and humectants.
What you should take away from this article is that it’s important to have the basic fundamentals (aka sunscreen, moisturizer, and cleansing) down. Learn to recognize the triggers that create discoloration in your skin and then do what you can to prevent it. Remember: Be gentle, always.
You need to take care of your skin barrier and make sure that it’s healthy first. Otherwise, your overall goal of fading PIH will only be harder to achieve.
Work with your skin, not against it.
Next time, I’ll go into what types of products I use to fade hyperpigmentation head on. Stay tuned for part 2.