Clear, flawless skin is the stuff of dreams. An even skin tone makes you look more youthful, gives you instant confidence, and avoids the need to reach for heavy foundations before you even step out of the house. But let’s get one thing straight. When we say flawless skin is the stuff of dreams, we mean just that. Because, frankly, who even has such perfect skin? Supermodels? Nope. Red carpet A-listers? Not really. Even facialists and aestheticians have their own personal skin woes to contend with.
But there’s a lot you can do to achieve a much more improved skin tone.
When it comes to skin concerns, we rate patchy skin up there with acne and wrinkles: not life-threatening but never likely to be at the top of anyone’s holiday wish list. The good news is that while most pigmentation problems are a major hassle, they’re completely innocent to your health. That being said, if you’re ever worried about a funny-looking mole, for example, you should get it checked out immediately.
“Most dark spots don’t require medical care, but have your doctor look at any that are black or have changed in appearance,” advise experts at The Mayo Clinic, a non-profit academic medical center committed to clinical practice, education, and research.
Anything that has changed color, has grown, is bleeding, or has an irregular border should always be evaluated by an expert.
What Causes Dark Spots?
Discolorations are all caused by one thing: melanin. Melanin is a dark pigment that is naturally produced by melanocytes in the skin and hair plus pigment cells in the eyes. Every human being produces melanin, and your own personal levels are what determine the color of your hair, skin, and eyes. People with darker skin tones have more melanin while fair-skinned redheads, for example, have less.
The problem is you can have too much of a good thing, and certain triggers like the sun, free radicals, and hormonal fluctuations can cause your melanocytes to overproduce melanin, making it unevenly distributed in the skin and resulting in unwanted, irregular dark spots. (by the way, an increase in melanin is also what tans your skin in the sun).
What Are the Main Types of Hyperpigmentation?
Like Netflix movies and margaritas, not all dark spots are created equal. They can be any shape, size, and level of darkness, and they are caused by a number of things, including the sun, acne, certain types of medications, and your hormones.
If you’re looking to diagnose a certain skin condition, you should always seek advice from your dermatologist or skin expert, but to give you a little bit of information, here’s the lowdown on the three most common types of discoloration.
Solar lentigines are commonly known as age, liver, or sun spots, and it doesn’t take a rocket science to work out that they’re caused by repeated exposure to the sun. The clue is in the name after all.
Sun spots can vary in size, are medium-to-dark brown in color, and usually appear on areas of the skin that have been exposed to the sun, such as the chest, shoulders, back of the hands, arms, and face. They’re more common in older adults with fair skin but can affect people of all skin types.
The good news is that unlike moles, which can also be triggered by UV damage, solar lentigines don’t have the potential to turn cancerous. For this reason, while they are super-annoying, they don’t threaten your health.
Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH for short) appears like a flat spot that is brown, red, or pink depending on your skin tone and the depth of the discoloration.
It can appear anywhere on the face and body and is caused by trauma to the skin following issues like acne, eczema, a burn, insect bite, or the improper use of an at-home laser device (basically anything that causes inflammation to your skin). The worse the inflammation is, the more likely it is to scar and leave you with unwanted post-inflammatory pigmentation.
PIH can happen to anyone but is most commonly seen on darker skin types. In fact, studies show that it affects over 65 percent of African Americans.
Also known as chloasma, melasma is usually light brown and patchy-looking. It most often occurs on the cheeks, temples, forehead, nose, or above the lips and is caused by hormone imbalances. This is why expectant mothers and women on birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy typically notice brown or tan patches on their faces.
Melasma can fade on its own after a baby has been delivered or medication is stopped, but this is not always the case. In fact, if it is left untreated, some people may put up with melasma for their entire lifetime.
The Five Best Treatments for Uneven Skin
Thankfully, there’s hope for unwanted dark spots. You just have to know where to start…
Sunscreen, Sunscreen, SUNSCREEN
The main cause of unwanted pigmentation is overexposure to UV radiation, so never allow your skin to get scorched in the sun. In addition, always wear a moisturizer or foundation that contains a broad-spectrum protection of at least SPF 30. Even if your dark spots are caused by other issues such as acne scarring or hormones, the sun will do nothing but make them worse, so make good sun care choices. Fail to do this, and every other skin-brightening product, treatment, or trick you spend your hard-earned bucks on will be rendered completely pointless.
Chemical exfoliants are an excellent treatment for correcting dark spots and work by harnessing the powers of alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), or both.
AHAs are naturally-occurring, water-soluble substances that are extracted from fruit or milk sugars to help exfoliate the top layer of your skin. They work by stimulating elastin and collagen production and encouraging new skin to grow, which means they’re great for dealing with mild to moderate discolorations. The most common AHAs found in skincare are glycolic acid (found in sugar cane) and our all-time favorite, lactic acid, which is extracted from soured milk or vegan sources, such as beets or fermented corn starch.
Lactic acid is just as effective as glycolic acid but much gentler for sensitive skin. Our Overnight Star Lactic Acid Treatment blends it with licorice, another hard-working skincare ingredient that’s known to help with pigmentation issues. Licorice not only contains substances known to obstruct melanin production, but it also helps break down and remove the excess melanin that’s already formed. Licorice and lactic acid together is a dream team to combat hyperpigmentation and dark spots.
On the other hand, BHAs such as salicylic acid (without doubt a major player in skincare) are oil-soluble, which allows them is to unclog pores. BHA-based products are primarily used to treat acne, but they can be combined with AHAs to offer an effective treatment for deep discolorations or sun-damaged skin.
Intense Pulsed Light (IPL) Rejuvenation
As well as being super-effective at removing unwanted hair, Intense Pulsed Light (IPL) treatments are a great treatment for those of you concerned with discolorations. IPL can be ideal for hormonal pigmentation problems and age spots, but it should never be used on melanoma (a very serious type of skin cancer), so make sure you get a proper diagnosis before jumping in head first with the treatment.
IPL works by sending a beam of light to seek out, absorb, and break up melanin, making it less visible to the naked eye as a consequence. A course of treatments is always needed to make a significant difference to your skin, however, so speak to your dermatologist about the right option and frequency for your concerns.
Hydroquinone is often prescribed by dermatologists to inhibit melanin production and help lighten skin discolorations, but it’s a highly controversial ingredient. For this reason, we prefer to stick with retinoids instead.
Retinoids – an umbrella term for both tretinoin (prescription-only) and retinols (over-the-counter) – are veritable superheroes when it comes to skincare ingredients. Offering benefits for every skin type and concern, they encourage the skin to turnover more efficiently by stimulating cell replication and collagen production. This means that when used regularly, retinoids can help improve and even reverse sun damage, making them the highly effective for lightening and brightening the skin.
A Professional Peel
If you’d rather pay the professionals to address your discoloration issues, ask your dermatologist about whether a chemical peel may be an option for you. For example, peels that contain salicylic, trichloroacetic, or glycolic acid are particularly effective for melasma.
A professional peel works by injuring the top layers of your skin, which forces it to heal itself, thereby shedding and expelling unwanted dark patches at the same time. It really is as simple as that. You’ll have to put up with your skin literally falling off over the course of three to five days, but the benefits are totally worth it.
Chemical peels can eliminate new pigmentations in one go, but if you have older, deeper, or darker concerns, a series of three or four treatments is recommended followed by maintenance sessions on a less regular basis. Not sure what you’ll need? Don’t worry, your dermatologist will sort it out for you. And if a peel isn’t for you, many other options are available, including microneedling and dermabrasion.