Sailing through life with flawless skin sounds ideal, right? If only there was a way to dodge those occasional bouts of adult acne or enjoy a day in the sun without it wreaking havoc on your skin. Now, if you’re a melanin-rich beauty, these common complexion woes are more than just a nuisance, as they can leave behind dark spots, also known as hyperpigmentation, that persist long after a pesky pimple or sun exposure. But luckily, it’s possible for lingering blemishes to fade over time with the right treatment.
Melanin’s role in hyperpigmentation
Melanin, a natural pigment that determines skin color, is produced by skin cells called melanocytes, explains Yolanda Lenzy, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and owner of Lenzy Dermatology & Hair Loss Center in Massachusetts.
These melanocytes store melanin in organelles called melanosomes (i.e., small pigment packets), which can leak with inflammation and trauma, according to Michelle Henry, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist at Skin & Aesthetic Surgery of Manhattan in New York City. Since individuals with dark skin have more melanosomes, they’re more prone to hyperpigmentation. There are two main types of hyperpigmentation seen in deeper hues:
Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation vs. melasma
When the skin undergoes trauma or inflammation like acne, scarring or eczema, melanin production goes into overdrive, resulting in brown or gray patches on the skin called post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH). “In these areas where the skin rash was located, especially when there’s been scratching, or picking and squeezing of [acne] lesions, hyperpigmentation can develop,” says Lenzy.
Melasma is more commonly seen in women, and is usually induced by hormonal fluctuations related to pregnancy or menopause. “We [also] see it when individuals are on birth control pills or IUDs,” says Lenzy. Melasma shows up as brown or gray patches that are usually symmetrical on both sides of the face. It typically appears on the cheeks, forehead and upper lip and can worsen with excessive sun exposure, making it more difficult to treat.
Here are some solutions to consider:
1. Identify the underlying condition
Work with a dermatologist to find out the root cause of your dark spots, then determine the best treatment plan for you. “[If you] can get the acne, the eczema [or] the skin rash under control, then you will often deal with less hyperpigmentation,” says Lenzy.
2. Slather on sunscreen
Too much exposure to UV rays can exacerbate dark spots, so limit your time in the sun as much as possible and get in the habit of wearing a broad-spectrum sunscreen daily. “One trip in the sun can reverse all of the treatments you’re doing,” warns Lenzy.
Two sunscreens to try: EltaMD UV Clear Broad-Spectrum SPF 46 ($37, eltamd.com) and ISDIN Eryfotona Ageless ($70, isdin.com)
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3. Scope out a good serum
Serums infused with powerful antioxidants, such as vitamin C, can tackle stubborn dark spots and promote radiant skin. “Vitamin C can directly inhibit tyrosinase [production], which is the enzyme that’s critical to making melanin,” says Henry. Other ingredients to look for? Tranexamic acid, azelaic acid, kojic acid, glycolic acid and niacinamide are commonly used in serums, helping to reduce hyperpigmentation and brighten your complexion.
Two serums to try: BeautyStat Universal C Skin Refiner ($80, dermstore.com) and Topicals Faded Serum for Dark Spots & Discoloration ($38, sephora.com)
4. Reap the benefits of retinol
Retinol is known for its antiaging abilities, but it’s also used as an effective treatment for hyperpigmentation. “Retinol is a holy grail that I think is underutilized, especially in skin of color,” says Lenzy. Similar to vitamin C, retinol can hinder tyrosinase production, but it also acts as an exfoliant by removing dead skin cells, revealing a more even skin tone.
Two retinols to try: Differin Adapalene Gel 0.1% Acne Treatment ($15, target.com) and SkinCeuticals Retinol 0.5 ($76, skinceuticals.com)
5. Look into in-office treatments
Laser procedures are among the most popular in-office solutions for dark spots, but Henry says they’re usually reserved for more severe cases. And while some laser treatments can be done safely on dark skin, not all are created equal, so proceed with caution. “Laser surgery in Black and brown skin is more of an advanced treatment,” says Henry. “Anything that is not done in a measured and safe way in [dark] skin can cause hyperpigmentation, which is what you’re trying to treat.”
Considering chemical peels? Lenzy suggests starting with superficial peels, which are less abrasive. “In [patients with] skin of color, I use deeper chemical peels [sparingly] ... because they can get a great amount of irritation [and] develop more hyperpigmentation,” she says. “Slow and steady is the approach I recommend, especially when you’re dealing with skin of color.”
Anissa Gabbara writes about beauty, health, lifestyle and pop culture. Her work has appeared in Sisters From AARP, Sesi magazine and Maple City Our Town magazine.