You may not be familiar with the term ‘hyperpigmentation', but you'll know the condition: reddish-brown marks, patches, or dots on your skin that seem to have no cause and are really difficult to get rid of.
So what are these mysterious marks: are they freckles or moles? Scars, perhaps? Or something else entirely? Should we be concerned about them — and how can we get rid of them?
The good news is that excessive skin pigmentation is pretty common, and it is treatable. We found out everything you need to know about hyperpigmentation and assembled it in one go-to guide for your reference.
Read on to discover how hyperpigmentation occurs, why you have it, and how to get rid of it.
What is hyperpigmentation?
Hyperpigmentation refers to marks on the skin that are noticeably darker than the surrounding skin.
It might look like spots, patches, or streaks, and it can range in size from very small — like the size of a freckle or a pimple — to larger patches of pigmentation that cover a lot of skin.
Different types of hyperpigmentation
Excessive pigmentation displays itself in different ways.
It can be caused by inflammation of the skin, like acne, eczema, or allergic reactions; or by trauma to the skin, like cuts, burns, surgery, or incorrect usage of microdermabrasion or laser tools .
Some of the most common types of pigmentation disorders include:
Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH)
When hyperpigmentation happens as a result of skin inflammation, it can be called post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, or PIH.
PIH can occur among people with acne, who may notice it as their pimples and acne lesions begin to heal.
If you're someone who picks at or pops pimples, you might notice they turn into little red or brown spots as they heal because of this trauma to the skin. Or, if you're someone whose acne is particularly red and inflamed, you might also notice some hyperpigmentation after that inflammation has faded.
Melasma is a common form of hyperpigmentation, and although it can affect anyone, it's more common in women than in men. Melasma can look like dark blotches on the hands, face, or body, and can be caused by sun exposure, pregnancy, hormone changes, and some medications.
Usually symmetrical, it is more common in darker skin types and often there is a family history. This helps distinguish it from post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation due to acne.
Photoageing is also a common cause of hyperpigmentation. It refers to the ageing effect the sun can have on our skin, and it can be associated with pigmentation changes as well.
Solar lentigines, or ‘age spots', are flat, dark blotches or spots on the skin that occur after long-term sun exposure . Like most other forms of hyperpigmentation, solar lentigines are harmless but some people can find them unsightly and may want to get rid of them.
As always, any new or changing lesions on the skin that you are concerned about should be reviewed in person by a doctor who does skin checks.
Freckles are dark spots of pigment that are typically found on the face, neck and shoulders, or any other areas of the body that are frequently exposed to sun rays. Solar lentigines are actually 1 of 2 types of freckles. The other one is called ephelides, which are usually smaller spots that disappear on their own.
In most cases, freckles are harmless. However, if you notice them changing colour, shape or size, we recommend you speak to your doctor to make sure they aren't indicative of a more serious problem.
How does hyperpigmentation occur?
To know exactly why and how hyperpigmentation happens, we need to look at our skin on a cellular level.
Pigment cells called melanocytes are located at the base of the epidermis, which is essentially the top layer of skin. Trauma and inflammation of the skin can cause these cells to produce more pigment, and severe trauma or inflammation can actually disturb the bottom layer of the epidermis and cause the pigment to ‘leak' into the dermis (our second layer of skin) .
When this happens, the pigmentation of our skin changes and appears darker, and the result is hyperpigmentation.
Why do some people have it and others don't?
There's not always a clear reason why an individual can have hyperpigmentation and another won't, but there are a few factors that make it more common in some people than it is in others.
One of the big ones is your skin colour: people with darker skin are more likely to experience hyperpigmentation than people with lighter skin, due to the amount of melanin already in the skin .
Hyperpigmentation can also occur as a result of excess hormones, such as oestrogen during pregnancy , and it can be caused and exacerbated by certain medications, like antibiotics or chemotherapy .
Hormonal pigmentation will often gradually fade away as the body's hormones return to normal. In the case of pregnancy, this would happen after the baby is born.
Hyperpigmentation caused by medication may also fade after the course of medication is finished. If you're pregnant or taking medication and concerned about hyperpigmentation, the best thing to do is speak to your doctor about it and ask what steps they would recommend you take to reduce it.
Should I be worried about hyperpigmentation?
You don't need to worry about hyperpigmentation, but because some kinds of hyperpigmentation can be mistaken for moles, we do recommend having a yearly mole check with a GP. They can tell you definitively what any marks on your skin are, and whether or not they need further investigation.
Skin pigmentation of any kind — whether it's PIH, moles, scarring, or anything else — that changes rapidly, bleeds, swells, or hurts should also be mentioned to your doctor.
Especially within Australia, where skin cancer is so common and our levels of UV radiation are so high, we can't understate the importance of keeping on top of your skin health .
Sunscreen is important for all of us to wear, but especially for those who have excessive pigmentation that they'd like to clear up. Protecting your skin from the sun will help prevent more hyperpigmentation from occurring, and can help fade the marks that are already there .
Software's Daily Sun Defence SPF50+ is formulated with UVA and UVB filters, which help protect the skin from the sun and may reduce the risk of photoageing, sun spots and some skin cancers. Our formula is fragrance free, non-greasy and doesn't leave a white cast. It's also non-comedogenic, which means it won't clog your pores.
Does skin pigmentation go away?
Hyperpigmentation can disappear on its own, depending on the root cause behind it.
However, it can take a long time for dark spots to fade naturally and some never go away completely. That's why it's a good idea to invest in skin pigmentation treatments, which we'll dive into next.
How is pigmentation treated?
If you're looking to accelerate the fading of your dark spots, there are a few treatment options you should consider. The secret here is in starting with the simplest and less aggressive solution and, if that doesn't work, moving on to more advanced treatments.
Here are a few ways to treat pigmentation.
At-home topical treatments
Topical creams and skincare are commonly used to reduce hyperpigmentation.
Supercharged with ingredients that are scientifically proven to help fade hyperpigmentation, Software's personalised pigmentation treatment can be used to lighten dark spots and even out the skin tone.
Taking into account your type of pigmentation and its cause, our doctors develop a personalised formula that works best for your skin, and that evolves as your skincare goals and needs do as well.
So, what skin-brightening ingredients should you be looking for?
Retinoids are a gold-standard skincare ingredient: they can reduce the appearance of wrinkles, and combat acne, and yes, they can help clear hyperpigmentation as well.
In people with darker skin, retinoids were found to be particularly effective at treating hyperpigmentation. Those who used a retinoid to treat hyperpigmentation in a study from 1993 saw an improvement within the first 4 weeks of use, with a final result of 40% lightening of hyperpigmentation .
Another study from the same year measured how effectively a common retinoid works against melasma and found that after 40 weeks of daily application, 68% of people who used the retinoid noticed an improvement in their melasma, with some even reporting a decrease of 36% .
It's important to note that retinoids are potent, so they can cause minor irritation to the skin when you first begin using them: some mild flaking, redness, and a temporary increase in acne (which is called purging) is to be expected.
If you find retinoids too strong, you can apply a moisturiser before applying your retinoid serum to create a barrier against the skin.
Software's Ceramide Repair Balm is the perfect moisturiser to pair with your prescription Software treatment as it treats dull, damaged and dry skin with an injection of moisture-retaining and nourishing ingredients like ceramides, hyaluronic acid and squalane.
We are huge fans of niacinamide, and this ingredient works really well to clear hyperpigmentation and create smooth, glowing skin. Niacinamide is often found in serums, although it works really well with other active ingredients like retinol and azelaic acid, so it can be combined with them in one product for easy use.
In a study from 2010, a skincare regime containing niacinamide was found to be significantly more effective in reducing hyperpigmentation than a regime without niacinamide.
Azelaic acid is a naturally occurring acid that works wonders for the skin. We recommend it for people whose skin is recovering from acne lesions, as it can help fade and heal acne marks, reduce inflammation, and refine the skin's texture while also targeting hyperpigmentation.
A study from 2016 tested several products containing azelaic acid and found that all of them were effective in significantly reducing hyperpigmentation and melasma .
Another study from 1998 focused on patients with darker skin and found that azelaic acid decreased hyperpigmentation, smoothed skin, and was judged to be effective by patients .
Like niacinamide, azelaic acid works well with other ingredients and can be used alone or in a combination product. Those who find retinoids too strong for their skin may want to consider azelaic acid instead, as it is extremely mild and suitable for sensitive skin. Niacinamide and azelaic acid are also both safe to use during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
If you’re affected by some form of hyperpigmentation — age spots, sun spots, acne scarring or melasma — vitamin C can be particularly helpful as it helps block your body’s production of melanin .
Software's Vitamin C + Ferulic Serum is one of the most potent vitamin C serums on the market and is designed to brighten skin and fight dullness, darks spots and discolouration deep within the skin.
If you're not getting the results you were hoping for from your at-home treatments, it might be worth trying a chemical peel containing glycolic acid, alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and salicylic acid, which can help remove the top layer of your skin where the excess pigment is.
However, using a chemical peel will only lead to temporary results, as it clears out the skin, without actually altering the pigment-producing cells.
Finally, some people get laser therapy to destroy pigment cells and, in turn, brighten up dark spots.
Laser treatment is, once again, only a temporary solution. Plus, it is not suitable for everyone, particularly for those with darker skin tones, and it comes with a higher risk of adverse effects like redness, scarring, and itching.
How long will it take for me to see results?
The answer to this question depends on the treatment you choose.
Chemical peels can show results 2-3 weeks after the treatment, once the skin has healed, and results can last 1-3 months . Results from laser treatments become noticeable 1-3 weeks after your session and can last up to 24 weeks, particularly when used to treat melasma .
With Software's personalised formula, you can expect to see long-lasting results 8-12 weeks into the treatment (although it starts working from the very first application.)