Take a walk down any beauty aisle and you'll be bombarded with creams and correctors that promise to even out your skin tone, reduce the appearance of imperfections, and target hyperpigmentation—which our skin is especially vulnerable to during the summer. But to be able to combat this discoloration, it's important to understand exactly what it is, what causes it, 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 (and frankly, year-round), 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.
Keep scrolling to learn how to prevent hyperpigmentation.
What is Hyperpigmentation?
Hyperpigmentation appears as uneven darkened patches or spots on the skin and is 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. "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 actually be caused by a number of factors beyond sun damage. Another type of hyperpigmentation, called melasma, can make an appearance due to "environmental stressors like lack of sleep or hormonal changes like pregnancy and 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.
Below, we've rounded up seven expert-backed tips for preventing, managing, and treating hyperpigmentation.
Consider Your Skin Type
"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."
Don't Skip SPF
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 applying SPF 15 or 30 every couple of hours to protect skin from damaging sun rays. And, SPF still comes in handy even if you already have hyperpigmentation, as Doyle notes that consistent application can help prevent further darkening of the pigmentation.
Don't forget to apply SPF to your ears and neck, which are areas that get exposed to the sun more easily than the face.
Wear Protective Clothing
On top of slathering on the SPF, wearing protecting clothing is key to avoiding sun-induced hyperpigmentation. Akram suggests wearing protective clothing such as hats and sunglasses, and also being mindful of limiting the amount of time you spend in the sun.
Avoid Skin Picking
Not only can picking at your scabs, pimples, and acne introduces new bacteria to these areas, this can aggravate the skin, cause trauma, and lead to issues like hyperpigmentation, scarring, and dark spots. To keep your mind (and fingers) off of your skin, try using an anti-skin picking tool like this one from Renée Rouleau.
Incorporate Antioxidant-Rich Skincare Products into Your Routine
We know it can feel like an uphill battle to eliminate dark spots completely, but Aalam notes that there are a few measures you can take at home to reduce the appearance, one of which involves using a topical vitamin C serum. These work by blocking free radicals that cause oxidative stress to the skin. Generally speaking, using products loaded with antioxidants such as vitamin A, C, or E can help repair damaged skin cells and even out skin tone, advises Akram.
If you're looking to make your dark spots fade, exfoliating is key. Opt for a chemical exfoliant, which works deep within the skin's layers to remove dead skin cells, increase cell turnover, lighten dark spots, and brighten up the skin's complexion. And if you're looking for yet another reason to shield your skin from the sun, know that exfoliating can make your skin more sensitive to the sun, so always remember to apply it to your skin before exposure.
Get a Professional Treatment
Looking to go the professional route? You can seek laser treatments that are specifically designed to treat sun spots. Both Aalam 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, as well as 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.
Fatima S, Braunberger T, Mohammad TF, Kohli I, Hamzavi IH. The role of sunscreen in melasma and postinflammatory hyperpigmentation. Indian J Dermatol. 2020;65(1):5-10.