The beauty aisle is stocked with brightening creams and dark spot correctors. In addition to generally evening out skin tone and reducing the appearance of imperfections, these products target hyperpigmentation. Our skin is especially vulnerable to hyperpigmentation during the summer, but to be able to combat hyperpigmentation, it's important to understand exactly what it is—what causes the discoloration, how to prevent it, and what steps we can take once the damage is done. Committed to keeping our skin safe from harmful sun rays this season, we reached out to a handful of skin experts to tackle all of the above so we can head into summer knowing exactly how to protect our skin and reduce the chances of hyperpigmentation. Here's what they had to say.
The 101 on Hyperpigmentation
"Hyperpigmentation appears as uneven darkened patches or spots on the skin, mainly caused by sun exposure," describes master facialist and esthetician Sarah Akram. "Generally, hyperpigmentation occurs when some sort of inflammatory process is present," notes Dr. Amanda Doyle, MF, FAAD. "This is discoloration on the skin that is darker than the normal surrounding skin in the area where the prior inflammation occurred," she explains. "It is not permanent but can last for quite some time, sometimes months or even years, especially in the presence of sun exposure."
And while often referred to as "age spots" or "sun spots," hyperpigmentation can be caused by a number of factors beyond sun damage. Another type of hyperpigmentation, called melasma, can arise due to "environmental stressors like lack of sleep, hormonal changes like pregnancy or menopause," explains Dr. Kan Cao, scientist, anti-aging authority, and founder of Bluelene. With post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, trauma to the skin due to things like cystic acne can also cause discoloration, notes Leila Aalam, esthetician and founder of Beuti Skincare. "The overproduction or excess melanin in the skin is what creates hyperpigmentation—or the darker shaded marks on your skin," she describes.
How to prevent it
"Avoiding irritation or inflammation in the first place is the best way to prevent hyperpigmentation from happening," notes Doyle. "So if you’re acne prone, making sure you’re on the appropriate treatment is best. If you tend to have sensitive skin and are eczema prone, being on a good regimen that often involves prescriptions is great for treatment and prevention." If you’re inflamed from an acne breakout, Doyle suggests incorporating the Eterno LED red light device into your skincare regimen. "The device, in combination with a solid acne regimen, is great for reducing inflammation and redness," she attests. "It helps the medication to penetrate more deeply, making the skin more clear and refreshed."
When it comes to avoiding hyperpigmentation exacerbated by sun exposure, prevention is key. As a preventive measure, Cao insists that "the best way is the most obvious—by making sure you apply sunscreen before you head outside, even if it's a cloudy day." She recommends SPF 15 or 30 every couple of hours to protect skin from damaging sun rays. "If it's a sunny day or you plan on being outdoors, wear a wide-brimmed hat and don't forget to apply SPF to your ears and neck which get exposed more easily than the face." Akram suggests, on top of applying sunscreen, "to wear protective clothing, such as hats and sunglasses, but also to be mindful of limiting the amount of time you spend in the sun." Aalam adds that in addition to avoiding the sun (even if it means walking to the other side of the street), never pick at scabs, pimples, or acne, which can aggravate the skin.
"Of course, even with good skin care and being conscientious, inflammation, trauma or damage to the skin can still happen," reminds Doyle.
How to treat the damage
Obviously, the most effective way to reduce hyperpigmentation is to protect skin in the first place. But if you already have hyperpigmentation, "the damage can be corrected after it's done," reassures Doyle. "If you’re left with residual hyperpigmentation, it’s best to give the skin a lot of TLC." She underscores that sun protection and sunscreen help to prevent further darkening of the pigmentation and avoidance of sun can lead to a faster resolution. "There are also lightening or bleaching creams that can be used in certain circumstances," notes Doyle, "but it’s best to check with a dermatologist before you start these."
"Embracing products loaded with antioxidants such as vitamin A, C, or E can help repair damaged skin cells and even out skin tone," advises Akram. "My recommendation is to select a product most suitable for your skin type and make sure it's been clinically proven to be effective," Aalam notes that while it is possible to reduce the appearance of hyperpigmentation, it can be challenging to eliminate the spots completely. "There are a few measures you can take at home to reduce the appearance, like using a topical vitamin C serum, which blocks free radicals that cause oxidative stress to the skin," she says. Cao's own skincare line Bluelene incorporates the antioxidant methylene blue, which has shown evidence to move along skin cell turnover at a faster rate.
"You can also go the professional route and seek laser treatments that are specifically designed to treat sun spots," suggests Aalam. Both she and Cao recommend the Clear + Brilliant treatment, which Aalam says is a great option if you are looking for a treatment that has less downtime. "The only negative is it may take several treatments to achieve desired results," she warns. Cao also suggests other professional laser treatments like IPL Photorejuvenation and Fraxel and following post-treatment with an effective at-home skincare routine. "It's always advised to consult a dermatologist when incorporating new and more invasive treatments, especially if you have sensitive skin due to inflammation like rosacea or acne," explains Cao.
Now, here are the 10 best brightening serums.