As if it wasn’t bad enough to develop a breakout, sometimes the worst part is what they leave behind once the pimple has healed — pesky dark spots, also known as hyperpigmentation. “Hyperpigmentation is any area of the skin that is darker than the surrounding skin that can result in uneven skin tone and darker patches of skin,” says Dr. Michelle Henry, board-certified dermatologist. Although frustrating, it’s important to note that these spots are extremely common, especially in people of color.
Deeper skin tones have a higher baseline of melanin, the pigment that causes skin pigmentation. “The melanocytes, or pigment producing cells, in darker complexions are more primed to respond to triggers by pumping out more melanin,” says Dr. Whitney Bowe, board-certified dermatologist. And if the body sends too much melanin to heal the trauma, it can create these aggravating dark spots.
Depending on the condition of skin and cause of the hyperpigmentation (more on that later), some fade over time, and others take weeks or months to dissolve if left unaddressed. The good news: there are many ways to treat it and prevent dark spots. Ahead, TZR reached out to top dermatologists to bring you the best expert tips on treating hyperpigmentation, how it affects darker complexions, and vetted products to help you get rid of it.
Main Types & Causes Of Hyperpigmentation On Darker Skin Tones
The most common cause of dark spots is post inflammatory hyperpigmentation — inflammation caused by the overproduction of melanin in the dermis — that occurs after any insult to the skin. According to Dr. Henry, an insult can include acne, eczema, or any inflammatory process — the immune systems defense mechanism in response to damaged cells or harmful stimuli. Post-acne marks are one of the most commonly cited causes of post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation for dermatology patients, as this type of trauma will prompt inflammation and damage the pigment cells, says Dr. Henry.
Sun spots, the catalyst of excess sun exposure, both by UV rays and blue light are large contributors to hyperpigmentation, says Dr. Bowe. Too much exposure to the sun and ultraviolet light can cause skin to overproduce melanin resulting in blotchy and uneven skin (if not an outright sunburn). The sun damage will cause lesions or DNA damage to the melanocytes (again, the skin cells responsible for the production of melanin). With increased sun exposure overtime, darker skin tones will develop patches of hyperpigmentation called lentigines, or liver spots, often seen on the face, arms, and neck.
How Do You Treat Hyperpigmentation On Darker Skin Tones?
Sunscreen should be your first line of defense for preventing hyperpigmentation, as well as a treatment to keep spots from darkening further. “A major misconception is that people with darker skin tones do not need sunscreen because the abundance of melanin in their skin gives them more natural protection,” Hillary Clark, esthetician and founder of Beauty HAC, tells TZR. Her top suggestion is to wear SPF inside and outside, even if you aren’t directly exposed to the UV rays. “Indirect exposure can activate easily triggered melanocytes, causing more hyperpigmentation,” she adds. Don’t forget to reapply your sunscreen throughout the day to maintain that crucial protection.
One of the most beloved skin care ingredients out there, the antioxidant powerhouse vitamin C works hard to fight against free radical-induced photo damage — helping to prevent dark spots from forming in the first place. By decreasing the activity of tyrosinase, the enzyme responsible for the development of dark spots, it will help prevent melanin production and lighten pigmentation without lightening the surrounding skin (a risk for any kind of skin lightening ingredient for people with darker skin tones).
A newly popular option for hyperpigmentation, tranexamic acid is a form of the amino acid lysine, a building block of proteins, and was traditionally used in medical practice to treat excessive blood loss from major trauma. Tranexamic acid works against the melanin production caused by UV light by blocking the interaction between skin cells and melanocytes. It’s safe for all skin types and use during pregnancy, making it less irritating than most dark spot-diminishing ingredients (think: hydroquinone, which is not safe for darker skin tones as it can lighten the skin surrounding the unwanted pigmentation). Plus, this buzzy acid works well with other ingredients like topical retinoids and vitamin C.
Known as a holy-grail ingredient for everything from anti-aging concerns, acne, and pigmentation issues, retinol reduces epidermal melanin by blocking the transcription of tyrosinase. It also stimulates collagen production and increases cell turnover, which help to fade dark spots. Plus with better collagen production, you’ll improve skin elasticity, luminosity, and texture.
Luckily, there are plenty of at-home chemical peel options, but a professional treatment will make the process of ridding your skin of unwanted hyperpigmentation faster — and for darker skin tones, it is often safer to see an esthetician or derm who understands your skin’s needs. Dr. Corey L. Hartman, board-certified dermatologist and founder of Skin Wellness Dermatology, recommends a peel a month, for three months. But if you want to stick to a quality routine at home, look for gentle exfoliating alpha hydroxy acids like mandelic acid, lactic acid, salicylic acid, and fruit enzymes, all of which will safely exfoliate your skin and remove unwanted pigmentation with regular use.
Ready to finally treat all your hyperpigmentation concerns? Ahead, the experts spill their favorite products to add into your routine.
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