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It’s no fun to look in the mirror and discover blemishes on your skin, and it can be downright alarming when that blemish is actually a dark patch of skin that doesn’t look like it will ever go away. Fear not—those dark patches are actually a common condition called hyperpigmentation, and there are precautions you can take to both prevent and treat it.

What is Hyperpigmentation?

Hyperpigmentation is a common and harmless condition in which patches of skin become darker in color than the normal surrounding skin. The condition is caused by overactive skin cells called melanocytes, which stimulate the production of melanin (the brown pigment that produces normal skin color) to form deposits in the skin. Hyperpigmentation can affect people of any race.

What Causes Hyperpigmentation?

There are several different factors or conditions that can cause hyperpigmentation, including sun damage, hormones, illnesses, and medications. Pregnancy commonly causes hormones to fluctuate, which can result in hyperpigmentation. A condition called Addison’s disease refers to a decreased function of the adrenal gland and can result in increased production of melanin. Some antibiotics and anti-malaria drugs have been known to cause hyperpigmentation.

Types of Hyperpigmentation

Sun Spots: Sun spots—sometimes referred to as age or liver spots—are the most common type of hyperpigmentation. Sun spots are small patches of darkened skin that usually occur on the hands, neck, or face or other areas that are frequently exposed to the sun. They are the result of excessive sun exposure and inadequate sunscreen protection. The medical term for these dark patches is solar lentigines.

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Melasma: Melasma, sometimes referred to as chloasma or the “mask of pregnancy,” causes brown patches to appear on the cheeks, nose, and forehead. Melasma spots look just like sun spots, only they are usually larger. Melasma results from wildly fluctuating hormones caused by pregnancy, birth control pills, hormone therapy, or other medications. Melasma typically fades on its own after hormonal fluctuations stabilize (due to childbirth or discontinuation of hormonal medications). Many experts believe that melasma is a hereditary condition.

Acne or Injury: Sometimes acne or other skin blemishes and conditions can leave colored marks on the skin after healing. Cuts, burns, scrapes, and other injuries can also result in hyperpigmentation, sometimes referred to as post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.

Treating Hyperpigmentation

The best “treatment” for hyperpigmentation is preventing it from occurring in the first place; however, if you do experience hyperpigmentation, there are measures you can take to lighten the skin. The best treatment type will depend on the cause of your hyperpigmentation and your skin type. It’s important to consult with a professional to determine the best course of action. Below are some common treatment options:

  • Hydroquinone Creams: Hydroquinone creams contain bleaching agents that slow the production of melanin. They are typically used for hyperpigmentation that is not caused by hormonal changes. The creams are available over the counter or in stronger, prescription strengths.
  • Retin-A: Retin-A is a topical cream derived from vitamin A that reduces dark patches by exfoliating skin and speeding new cell growth. Retin-A is available via prescription and is often combined with hydroquinone creams.
  • Microdermabrasion:Microdermabrasion is a general term that refers to a non-invasive exfoliation technique involving the use of a machine that applies tiny, rough grains to buff away the surface layer of the skin, thereby removing the outermost layer of dead skin cells. The procedure disrupts the skin’s surface, which stimulates blood flow and circulation and leads to new skin cells that look smoother.
  • Chemical Peels: Alpha hydroxy acids (such as glycolic acids) and beta hydroxy acids (such as salicylic acids) can exfoliate the skin and remove hyperpigmentation.
  • Laser Resurfacing: Laser resurfacing is a procedure during which a laser is used to evaporate the first few layers of damaged skin, leaving behind clear, evenly toned skin. Laser resurfacing is typically used after some treatment with hydroquinone creams or chemical peels.
  • Intense Pulsed Light (IPL): Intense pulsed light is a type of laser that uses high-intensity pulses of light that penetrate the skin. The process leaves no scars or blisters and does not require a recovery period. It can be used to treat a wide range of conditions, including hyperpigmentation.

Preventing Hyperpigmentation

Your best defense against hyperpigmentation is a good offense. Limit your sun exposure. If you must spend time in the sun, wear protective clothing and use a broad spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with a minimum SPF rating of 30.