Hyperpigmentation is the medical term for skin or skin or nails that have been darkened, usually due to excess melanin. It may be caused by skin that suffers from sun damage, inflammatory conditions such as eczema or other skin injuries including acne. Individuals with light to medium brown skin tones – Asian, East Indian, Mediterranean and some African backgrounds – tend to be more prone to hyperpigmentation than others. This is especially true with excessive sun exposure, which can result in age or ‘liver spots’, often referred to as solar lentigines.

Hyperpigmentation can also be associated with certain diseases or conditions including:

  • Addison’s disease
  • Cushing’s syndrome
  • Melasma
  • Celiac disease
  • Fungal infections

It can also be induced by dermatological laser procedures and high concentration cosmetic peels in susceptible individuals.

What Causes Hyperpigmentation?

Although sun exposure is the primary cause of hyperpigmentation – the sun can stimulate production of melanin (skin pigment), other causes are possible as well. Melasma or chloasma are typically related to hormonal changes that occur with pregnancy or the birth control pill. These changes can trigger overproduction of melanin resulting in dark patches on the face and other areas of the body. Often the skin discoloration will resolve gradually once pregnancy is over or birth control pills are stopped.

Skin injuries, as the result of acne scarring may also leave dark spots even after the acne has cleared. Surgery and other wounds may also be responsible for hyperpigmentation. And, freckles, which are small brown spots that can appear anywhere on the body are considered as hyperpigmentation. Freckles tend to be an inherited characteristic

Treating Hyperpigmentation

Although hyperpigmentation isn’t medically serious, it can be emotionally upsetting for the individual. The first line of treatment is to minimize exposure to the sun since UV rays trigger the production of melanin. Most experts recommend the use of a broad spectrum UVA and UVB blocking sunscreen with a minimum of SPF 30 every day, year round. Choose from a range of effective products including Anthelios sunscreens or Keys Solar Rx.

Hydroquinone, a skin bleaching agent, is considered to be the gold standard for conditions involving hyperpigmentation. It works by lightening and fading darkened patches of skin and also by slowing the production of melanin. Even though treatment with hydroquinone is effective, it is a very gradual process that can take many months to resolve. Other ingredients including alpha hydroxy acids (as topical exfoliants or chemical peels), retinoids and botanical skin lighteners may be combined with hydroquinone to hasten the process.

Lastly, laser treatment may work for some individuals. However, it’s important to keep in mind that laser treatment can cause scarring and can sometimes worsen the hyperpigmentation; it’s not suitable for everyone. For this reason it’s very important to work with a highly qualified and experienced practitioner.