Your guide to preventing hyperpigmentation
Whether we’re talking sun spots, acne marks, freckles or melasma, hyperpigmentation (often shortened to pigmentation) is a common complaint. Characterised by areas of darkened skin, it affects all skin types, ethnicities, and sexes. And, in a sun-drenched climate like Australia's, it's not so easy to avoid.
Contributing to a dull, uneven complexion, pigmentation can be as ageing as wrinkles and sagging. While harmless, it's often frustrating – which is why we created this article to help you navigate the road to brighter skin.
To discover how to remove pigmentation and keep it gone, read on. We’ve covered all the types and triggers of hyperpigmentation, plus the best skincare ingredients and treatments to fade dark marks for good.
What is hyperpigmentation – and why does it occur?
Hyperpigmentation simply refers to a darkening of the skin triggered by an increase in melanin production. Made by cells called melanocytes, melanin is the pigment that gives skin (and hair) its colour. In skin, it plays a vital role – helping to protect us from damage caused by the sun.
Several factors can cause a spike in melanin production and, as a result, hyperpigmentation. These include UV exposure, hormonal changes, inflammation and skin injury, and certain medications. While some pigmentation can occur with natural ageing, it’s much more visible in photo-aged (sun-damaged) skin1.
Darker skin tones are more susceptible to hyperpigmentation – but nobody is immune. There are three main types of pigmentation, which we'll discuss in detail below.
Age spots, liver spots, sun spots. These are different names for the non-cancerous brown spots that arise from cumulative sun exposure. Medically referred to as solar lentigos, sun spots are similar in appearance to large freckles, with a flatter surface than moles. Extremely common, particularly in those with fairer skins, they start appearing in the 30s or 40s.
As they’re a direct result of UV exposure, they most often appear on areas of skin that catch the sun. Such as the face, neck, shoulders, chest, and forearms. Existing marks tend to darken with increased sun exposure in summer and fade during winter.
Post-Inflammatory Hyperpigmentation (PIH)
Have you ever been left with a flat red, purple, or dark brown mark after a pimple has finally disappeared? What you’re dealing with here is post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH). This type of pigmentation occurs as a result of inflammation or injury.
It’s commonly caused by acne – particularly larger, deeper cysts and nodules – and skin trauma such as scrapes, burns or insect bites. While PIH isn’t directly linked to the sun, UV exposure is known to worsen it. And make post-acne marks more difficult to fade. Picking is also a big no-no, as it can spread infection and exacerbate inflammation.
While anyone can experience sunspots, freckles or PIH, there is one pigment pattern that’s predominantly found in women. Dubbed the mask of pregnancy, melasma or chloasma can appear as isolated brown or greyish blotches, or a broader, butterfly-like pattern across the cheeks, forehead, upper lip, and nose bridge.
Linked to hormonal changes, melasma is most common during pregnancy. However, it can also occur in those taking birth control pills. Hormone therapy, thyroid problems and stress can also be triggers. And, as with all types of pigmentation, sun exposure will only exacerbate the problem.
In melasma, darkened areas may naturally fade after childbirth or if you stop taking birth control2. However, this is a slow process that can be helped with topical skincare and/or professional treatments.
Can sunscreen help reduce pigmentation?
Pigmentation is notoriously tricky to resolve and, as with everything in life, prevention is better than cure. The number one thing you can do to prevent hyperpigmentation, without question, is applying a high-SPF broad-spectrum sunscreen daily. Whilst also protecting yourself with a broad-brimmed hat and by seeking shade.
If already have hyperpigmentation, sun protection will help prevent marks from darkening and taking twice as long to disappear. If they disappear at all. It’s also a non-negotiable if you’re using skin lightening actives or underdoing pigmentation treatments – which we’ll discuss in a moment.
What other skincare ingredients can help?
If you do have visible hyperpigmentation, don’t despair. Countless over-the-counter products contain brightening actives for a more even complexion. These actives include:
For a bright, smooth, glowing complexion, exfoliating at least once a week is crucial. Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) are a fabulous ingredient for this, increasing skin cell turnover and removing dull skin cells. Promoting a smoother skin texture, they can help diminish the appearance of dark marks3 and may assist with all types of hyperpigmentation.
AHAs commonly used in skincare include glycolic, lactic, and mandelic acid. Salicylic acid (a beta hydroxy acid or BHA) can also reduce post-acne pigmentation by exfoliating inside pores to reduce the severity and frequency of breakouts.
If you’re serious about fading dark patches, freckles, acne scars or age spots, hydroquinone is considered the gold-standard active. It is a tyrosinase inhibitor, meaning it reduces the overproduction of an enzyme called tyrosinase that is involved in the production of melanin.
A very potent depigmentation agent, hydroquinone can cause dryness, redness, and irritation. So, it should be used with care to avoid a reaction that’s just as problematic as the original concern. Categorised as a medicine in Australia, it can be purchased over the counter at a chemist at concentrations up to 2%. Stronger products are available by prescription only.
For something gentler, with countless other skincare benefits, look to Vitamin C. Universally adored for its brightening, radiance-boosting properties, Vitamin C is also a powerful antioxidant. Applied topically, it has been found to reduce signs of photo-ageing, including pigmentation4.
Vitamin C also promotes collagen synthesis for plump, smooth, youthful-looking skin (is it obvious this is one of our favourites?). You’ll find it in formulas under names including L-ascorbic acid (pure Vitamin C), sodium ascorbyl phosphate, and ascorbyl tetraisopalmitate.
Accelerating skin renewal and helping regulate cell function, retinol is a Vitamin A derivative with proven anti-ageing, anti-acne, and anti-dark mark properties. With tyrosinase inhibiting properties, it simultaneously helps refine and smooth skin.
And if your hyperpigmentation happens to coincide with wrinkles? There’s no better active to tackle your skin concerns at once.
One of the most gentle, well-tolerated actives going around, niacinamide (or Vitamin B3) helps to reduce skin discolouration and blotchiness. With soothing, sebum-controlling, pore-minimising properties, it can calm existing blemishes in acne-prone skin, while helping to prevent breakouts and prevent and fade post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. (To learn more about its amazing benefits, check out our article on how to use niacinamide serum.)
Other ingredients that can help reduce the overproduction of melanin include licorice and lemon peel extracts. Anti-inflammatory licorice is one of the gentler anti-pigmentation actives. Other natural ingredients that can help in the management of hyperpigmentation include antioxidant-rich green tea. These and more are found in the Dermaenergy range, alongside brightening peptides.
What professional treatments are there for hyperpigmentation?
For more stubborn hyperpigmentation or tough-to-treat melasma, professional treatments can be beneficial. These include peels, laser, intense pulsed light (IPL), Fraxel, micro-needling, and dermabrasion – sometimes used in combination.
Your dermatologist may also recommend a prescription-strength topical retinoid, such as tretinoin. Research also supports the use of oral tranexamic acid for the management of melasma.
When is the best time to tackle your pigmentation?
When treating pigmentation, you must minimise UV exposure – particularly after/while undergoing laser therapy or peels. Apart from the usual reasons to be sun smart, brightening actives and professional treatments make your skin more sun sensitive. And you may even experience rebound pigmentation if sufficient care is not taken.
It’s therefore often best to keep more intensive treatments to autumn or winter – when the UV index is lower and you’re spending more time indoors.
Treating pigmentation in darker skin tones
Tackling hyperpigmentation in darker skin with more natural melanin has added complexity. In the wrong hands or with the wrong device, treatments such as laser can worsen your uneven complexion and cause post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. (Over-use of AHAs should also be avoided.)
Peels such as the Cosmelan depigmentation peel, suitable for all skin photo-types, may be more suitable. Whatever you choose, make sure you speak to a trusted professional and do your research before committing.
Dermaenergy’s products for a brighter, more even complexionSerums
For Brighter Days – This is our hero product for pigmentation, packed full of brightening actives and antioxidants.
Solution From Pollution – Our super-charged Vitamin C + antioxidant serum, ideal for daily protection from free radicals.
Refine Over Time – Our refining, anti-ageing serum featuring a double dose of retinol.
Calm The Harm – A soothing Niacinamide serum to reduce redness and blotchiness and improve an uneven skin tone.
A Mean Clean – Our AHA and BHA cleanser that delivers a deep clean for acne-prone and ageing skin.
Shed The Dead – An essential liquid exfoliant that gently resurfaces skin for a brighter, smoother complexion. Formulated with three types of AHAs, including ultra-gentle mandelic acid.
Protect your skin daily with our moisturiser with mineral sunblock, Zinc It Over, or Serve And Protect SPF 50+.
LOOKING FOR SOMETHING MORE LUXURIOUS OR STRONGER?
For more mature skin, our prestige Black Label line includes similar products, with a higher concentration of actives. SHOP BLACK LABEL ONLINE.
1. Dermnet NZ, Skin Ageing.
2. Familydoctor.org, Melasma.
3. Dermnet NZ, Alpha hydroxy acid facial treatments.
4. Al-Niaimi F, Chiang NYZ. Topical vitamin C and the skin: mechanisms of action and clinical applications. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2017;10(7):14-17.
Lee HC, Thng TG, Goh CL. Oral tranexamic acid (TA) in the treatment of melasma: A retrospective analysis. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2016 Aug;75(2):385-92. doi: 10.1016/j.jaad.2016.03.001. Epub 2016 May 17. PMID: 27206758.
Zolghadri S, Bahrami A, Hassan Khan MT, et al. A comprehensive review on tyrosinase inhibitors. J Enzyme Inhib Med Chem. 2019;34(1):279-309. doi:10.1080/14756366.2018.1545767
Bissett DL, Miyamoto K, Sun P, Li J, Berge CA. Topical niacinamide reduces yellowing, wrinkling, red blotchiness, and hyperpigmented spots in aging facial skin. Int J Cosmet Sci. 2004 Oct;26(5):231-8. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-2494.2004.00228.x. PMID: 18492135.
Navarrete-Solís J, Castanedo-Cázares JP, Torres-Álvarez B, et al. A Double-Blind, Randomized Clinical Trial of Niacinamide 4% versus Hydroquinone 4% in the Treatment of Melasma. Dermatol Res Pract. 2011;2011:379173. doi:10.1155/2011/379173