Acne scars, age spots, pregnancy mask… Hyperpigmentation comes in many different forms but the overall outcome is basically the same: patches of skin become darker in color than the area surrounding them, due to an excess of melanin that accumulates on skin layers. Melanin is the pigment that gives skin its color, so when it kicks into overdrive or develops unevenly, you can end up with anything from irregular skin tone and a few pesky brown spots to dark blotchy patches that resemble a full-on face mask.
1/3 of women are at risk for hyperpigmentation
While hyperpigmentation is harmless, it can be unsightly and, in some cases, add years to your appearance. Genetics, age and hormones all play varying roles in bringing it on, but the number-one trigger for all forms of the condition is sun exposure. Sun radiation (UVA and UVB rays) and visible light (including blue light) are what cause excess melanin buildup in skin to turn into those dark spots and patches, so good sun protection is your best bet for keeping your complexion clear of pigment woes.
Read on for the lowdown on different forms of hyperpigmentation, what causes them to develop, and tips on preventing and treating this common condition.
SPOT THE DIFFERENCE
Many women develop pigmentation irregularities on their skin. These are usually brought on by a combination of sun, aging and genetics, which disrupt the mechanism that regulates melanin production. Excess melanin clusters on skin layers, resulting in uneven skin tone, discoloration and dark spots. Although they can look similar, these “sunspots”, as they are sometimes called, fall into different categories, depending on their underlying cause.
The red mark from that zit you popped last week is finally gone, but a dark spot has taken its place and it won’t go away. Chances are good this post-pimple reminder is post-inflammatory pigmentation, which occurs when trauma or inflammation—such as acne—causes the skin to produce excess melanin in a localized area; this “spot” then darkens when exposed to UV light.
Post-surgery scarring and other sources of skin inflammation can also develop hyperpigmentation if the affected areas are not properly protected from the sun.
Years of tanning on the beach and too many lunches on restaurant patios have finally caught up with you, leaving dark spots or uneven skin tone in their wake. These unwelcome souvenirs of summer holidays past, known as solar lentigos or age spots, typically develop after years of frequent and prolonged exposure to the sun. Their appearance is a warning sign that your sun capital has reached its limit, so your skin can no longer properly defend itself from the harmful effects of UV rays.
Think your ginger locks and alabaster skin, low in melanin, give you a Get Out of Jail Free card when it comes to pigment woes? Think again. Ephelides, or freckles, are a form of hyperpigmentation most often found in fair-skinned people, particularly those with red hair, although they can occur in other skin types as well. Usually genetic, they tend to be more noticeable in the summer and fade during the winter months, as well as with age.
UNMASKING THE PREGNANCY SUN
You may have heard of “baby brain” and “pregnancy glow” but did you know that hyperpigmentation also makes the list of changes to expect, when you’re expecting? Pregnancy mask or melasma is a phenomenon that occurs when the body ramps up its estrogen production in response to the fact that, well, you’re growing a human inside of you! Melasma typically appears in the fourth month of pregnancy, although it can also be brought on by medication that affects hormone levels, such as birth control pills.
Melasma typically appears in the fourth month of pregnancy, although it can also be brought on by medication that affects hormone levels, such as birth control pills.
This flood of hormones triggers a steep rise in melanin synthesis, which can cause brown or grey-brown patches to appear often on the forehead, cheeks or upper lip area. Because medium to dark-skinned people have naturally more pigmented skin, they’re at a higher risk of hyperpigmentation, but even people with light-colored hair and eyes can develop the condition. If there are enough of these patches, the end result can sometimes look like—you guessed it—a face mask.
Sun exposure significantly raises the risk of developing pregnancy mask. And just because the sun isn’t blazing overhead doesn’t mean you’re in the clear. Even when it’s overcast, there’s enough UV light to stimulate melanin production and trigger melasma, so it’s important to protect yourself with sunscreen every day.
TREATMENT AND PREVENTION
Go On The Defensive
Sun is ultimately the culprit that turns excess melanin buildup into pregnancy mask or dark spots, so make sunscreen a non-negotiable part of your daily skin routine. Apply it every morning, rain or shine, and choose a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a very high protection SPF50+ that protects you from both UVA and UVB rays, preferably with high covering pigments to protect also from visible light (including blue light). Don’t forget to reapply every two hours if you are still exposed to sun light.
If you’re pregnant or think your birth control has made you susceptible to melasma, go one step further by wearing a tightly woven hat and protective clothing to protect the arms, legs and upper chest.
Lighten and Brighten
Bolster the effects of your sunscreen routine with an anti-pigmentation treatment, like Pigmenclar, to help minimize existing dark spots and keep them from getting worse. Apply daily and stick with it—hyperpigmentation marks develop over time, so if you want to see results, you need to be consistent.
Talk to an Expert
When in doubt, a dermatologist can help you determine what kind of hyperpigmentation you have and the best way to treat it. In the case of sunspots, he or she may recommend alternative treatment options, such as lasers, peels or cryotherapy.
“I was determined to avoid pregnancy mask the second time around!”
Because she has blond hair and light-colored eyes, Marie assumed she wasn’t at risk for pregnancy mask. On a trip to Britanny during her fourth month, she realized she was wrong.
“I woke up one morning and noticed a brown line, like a coffee stain, above my lip, even though I’d been wearing sunscreen! I ended up with a major case of pregnancy mask, which lasted throughout my entire pregnancy and even after the baby was born.
Last year, when I got pregnant with my second child, I was determined to make sure it didn’t happen again!
I went to see a dermatologist, who explained that the symptoms were related to hormones, and that I had to be particularly careful early in pregnancy to avoid sun exposure. She recommended I wear a hat, SPF 50 sunscreen and sunglasses—in short, protect my skin from the sun as much as possible. I followed her advice and thank goodness, the pregnancy mask didn’t make a repeat appearance!