Patches, splotches or spots, uneven skin tone is caused by three things and is totally reversible
by Elvorne Palmer
A few weeks ago, we received a comment from a reader, Jenitha, who asked about dark patches on her face. Read the original comment and our response here. This is a very common occurrence in people of all skin colours and skin types, and it is called hyperpigmentation. So common, in fact, that we opted to devote this entire post to it.
Now, most of us will at the very least have seen, known or know of someone with freckles on their face (or you might have had them yourself). This is probably the best-known form of hyperpigmentation, and freckles are regarded as totally cool these days and even considered cute in kids and adolescents.
But, freckles are part of a much larger group of hyperpigmentation “conditions” in the skin (and perhaps even indicative of a natural predisposition to the other more serious types). But, basically, all of them cause patches of discolouration on skin. And, while the patches are not always harmful, they can affect how others see you and how you see yourself and therefore your self-esteem.
After all, we all want naturally beautiful and flawless skin, right?
What is hyperpigmentation?
It’s actually right there in the name: hyper (as in hyperactive) and pigment (as in colour). It’s when parts of your skin start over-producing pigment (skin colour). We all have natural skin pigment; it’s what gives you your skin colour. And it comes from a natural granule called melanin (produced by cells called melanocytes), which just so happen to be our skin’s natural built-in sunscreen.
Some have more than others, of course: dark skins produce much more melanin than lighter skins.
Hyperpigmentation is when something triggers the melanocytes in a certain area to over-produce melanin. And, boom, the patch of skin is now darker than the area around it.
3 things that cause hyperpigmentation
1. The sun
The first and easiest cause to grasp is overexposure to the sun. Remember we said melanin is also our natural sunscreen? Well, the body’s automatic response to sun exposure is to start producing more melanin (that’s how and why you tan, by the way). The problem is that the sun damages skin cells and DNA in the process. Your body can repair most of the damage naturally, but not all of it.
Damaged cells often tend to start over-producing melanin, and then continue to produce it. So you end up with dark spots or patches. Freckles fall into this category, as do sun spots and age spots etc. Thing is, these damaged cells become your skin’s biggest risks for photo-ageing and skin cancer later in life.
They’re actually not permanent: sun-induced dark spots will disappear naturally in about 4–8 weeks. But, if you go back into the sun during that time, new ones will just form in their place. You actually have to take a lot of sun protection measures for about two months before they start going away completely.
2. Hormone imbalances
One of the most famous types of hyperpigmentation is called melasma (or “the mask of pregnancy”), because up to 70% of women get dark spots on their face during and after pregnancy. It’s because of the change in hormones in the body, and it doesn’t just count for pregnancy: birth control, puberty and even the slightest change in oestrogen levels can trigger it. This could also be the case with procedures like hysterectomy or even a thyroid condition.
See, the melanocytes that produce melanin are – for some reason – very sensitive to oestrogen in your body. The slightest imbalance in hormones, and they start over-producing melanin.
Treating this type of hyperpigmentation often involves dietary changes and an oral treatment (usually antioxidants), to help keep hormones in balance. The spots themselves can be treated through a gentle exfoliation routine and also by staying out of the sun and wearing sunscreen.
3. Skin damage (PIH)
Post-Inflammatory Hyperpigmentation (PIH) is when the skin is damaged and becomes inflamed (red and swollen), which can cause those dark spots to form. Skin damage could be from acne and breakouts, burns, wounds that form scars, dry and irritated skin or even a skin disorder.
What happens is that the body naturally releases certain molecules when your skin inflames to help fight the damage. But melanocytes are very sensitive to these specific molecules, and the dark spots appear again.
PIH is most common in darker skin types, and treating it means treating the cause: the scarring or the acne first, and then just going through the natural regenerative process by exfoliating and, of course, staying out of the sun and wearing sunscreen.
You’ll notice we said to stay out of the sun under all three types. That’s because the sun will aggravate any kind of hyperpigmentation, hormonal or PIH. Even if the sun isn’t the original cause of the discolouration, it will make it worse.
How to treat hyperpigmentation
- Protect yourself from the sun (that’s always rule number 1)
- See a dermatologist to help find out what is causing it (which type it is)
- Follow the doctor’s orders to help sort out the root cause
- Have a good exfoliation routine to help get rid of existing dark spots
- Adopt a generally healthy lifestyle: exercise regularly, get enough sleep and take in more fresh fruit and veggies.
While it won’t get rid of hyperpigmentation on its own, we recommend you consider exfoliating with the Natural Beauty Facial Scrub. It’s completely safe for all skins (and all ages), even if you suspect an underlying skin condition, and it contains jojoba, which is believed to assist in treating hyperpigmentation, especially melasma.
Got a question about dark spots or a story about freckles to share? Let us know in the comments below.