Far from being something only those with fair skin struggle with, hyperpigmentation can affect all skin types and ages, making it one of the most widespread beauty issues that women will face in their lives. Luckily, Beauty Director Alessandra Steinherr knows a thing or two about keeping dark spots at bay. From the causes, to ways to prevent it and the innovative treatments and products to invest in, read on for our definitive guide to hyperpigmentation.
What is hyperpigmentation?
Hyperpigmentation is a skin condition that can affect all skin types and all ages. Also known as dark spots, sunspots, liver spots or age spots, it occurs when melanocyte cells produce too much melanin; this excess pigment then enters healthy skin cells, causing the natural pigment to darken.
The result is that skin becomes discoloured. For many, it shows up as dark brown marks and while some people get it over larger areas, it tends to appear as small, localised patches or spots, like large freckles, mainly on the face, neck, décolleté and hands.
The causes of hyperpigmentation
To know how to treat hyperpigmentation effectively, you need to figure out what’s causing it, ideally by seeking advice from a dermatologist. Overexposure to the sun and UV rays is a major factor, as are other free radicals such as blue light pollutants. Hyperpigmentation can also be brought on by medication side effects, inflammation of the skin from acne scars, using the wrong products or hormone fluctuations resulting in melasma.
Melasma is when broad brown or greyish patches of pigmentation appear on the cheeks or upper lips. It’s often due to increased oestrogen levels, which is why pregnant women or those on birth control are prone to it. Once you’ve ascertained the type and cause of hyperpigmentation, then you can figure out what to do – whether at home or seeking professional help.
Allies of Skin
Is hyperpigmentation preventable?
As with most skincare concerns, prevention is key. Sun exposure is the number one cause of hyperpigmentation, as sunlight activates the production of melanin, so it’s vital to wear sunscreen every day. Choose a broad-spectrum UVA/UVB – personally, I use SPF50 daily, but I’d suggest SPF30 or higher, even in overcast weather. It should always be the last step of your skincare before you apply your makeup. If you’re going to be exposed to the sun, you need to reapply at least every two hours.
Those prone to hyperpigmentation should avoid sun exposure entirely. And if you have a deeper skin tone, don’t be fooled into thinking you don’t need sun protection – you absolutely do. In fact, darker skins that contain more natural pigment are more prone to hyperpigmentation.
Switch up your skincare routine
First, try to get to the root of the problem. If your dark spots are hormonal, you need to work on your hormones; if they’re caused by sun exposure, stay in the shade and always wear a hat. That said, there are certain skincare ingredients which will help fade pigmentation and prevent new dark spots.
Niacinamide – also known as vitamin B3 – is a great multitasker. It reduces the transfer of melanin to the skin cells, as well as helping with inflammation. Vitamin C is also a good all-rounder. As an antioxidant, it works to protect the skin from free radicals that can trigger hyperpigmentation and acts as a preventative by inhibiting excessive melanin production. Plus, it’s great for brightening the skin.
AHAs or exfoliating acids can also help to slough off hyperpigmented skin cells, allowing new cells to the surface. Look for acids such as glycolic, lactic, mandelic or fruit enzymes like papaya, but make sure your skin can tolerate them by introducing them into your regime gradually. If you don’t like chemical exfoliants, try a physical one like microdermabrasion.
Tranexamic acid – though not an exfoliant – can also act as a brightening agent to reduce dark spots. Kojic acid is another powerhouse when it comes to hyperpigmentation as it inhibits the production of tyrosinase, which is responsible for the overproduction of melanin. It’s a little stronger than other ingredients, so you should talk to a dermatologist first.
Finally, retinoids can be helpful as they stimulate production of collagen and skin cell turnover. Retinol is a powerful ingredient so if you’re new to it, introduce it slowly. Though some brands suggest you can use it in the day, I would only recommend it at night to avoid inflammation and irritation.
“The skin’s response to UV damage may only become visible as you age, so even if you think you’ve gotten away with it now, pigmentation can show up on your skin later in life,” says cosmetic doctor and anti-ageing expert Dr Sebagh, whose flagship clinic is in Marylebone. “Increasing cellular turnover by using the right products is a very effective way to prevent and repair UV damage.”
Call in the professionals
Diligent sun protection and using the right skincare at home will help regulate pigment and reduce dark spots. Depending on your level of hyperpigmentation, you may also require professional help. When it comes to chemical peels, lasers and microneedling, I would always consult a dermatologist first to ascertain which is the right treatment for you. Is your pigmentation superficial or deep? If it’s not that visible, then it’s usually harder to treat than surface hyperpigmentation and requires a different course of action.
Facial therapist Keren Bartov is the expert when it comes to using lasers for hyperpigmentation at her Notting Hill clinic (from £250 for 90 minutes). “You need to assess the pigmentation properly, because different machines work for different types,” she tells me. “Melasma, for example, can be worsened by the wrong machines.” The other place I would recommend is the Ouronyx clinic on St James’s Street. It has hi-tech diagnostic tools which scan deep, giving you a proper assessment followed by a treatment plan, from microneedling to resurfacing (consultations are free of charge).
While these are professional treatments, if you’re looking for maintenance the Light Salon at Selfridges has an effective Skin Reset treatment (£105 for 45 minutes) which includes an exfoliating AHA peel, massage, mask and LED lights to fade pigmentation. Barbara Sturm also offers an Anti-Pigmentation Facial at its Mayfair Medi-Spa (£295 for 60 minutes) which reduces the appearance of hyperpigmentation, as well as calming the skin and minimising the appearance of pores.
The Hyperpigmentation Heroes
Beauty Director Alessandra Steinherr picks her favourite products to help diminish the appearance of dark spots and discoloration, leaving skin brighter and more radiant
The eye cream
Illuminating Eye Crème
Although you don’t tend to get much pigmentation around the eye area, you can get discoloration. This crème is infused with diamond dust, giving an immediate glow, as well as plumping ingredients including hyaluronic acid, olive oil and shea butter to work on fine lines, wrinkles and puffiness of the upper and lower lids. Use for an immediate boost of luminosity and brightness around the eyes.
Anthelios Pigment Correct SPF50+
Every sunscreen is designed to protect skin from the sun, and this offers daily broad-spectrum UV protection. But here – in addition to the SPF – are ingredients that target hyperpigmentation, like Procerad, a proprietary ceramide which helps prevent the excessive production of melanin, and niacinamide, which works on diminishing dark spots. It comes in a tinted or untinted version, depending on your preference.
Phyto-Blanc Targeted Dark Spot Corrector
This product offers a very precise way of targeting hard-to-budge dark spots, whether they’re due to ageing, the sun or are post-inflammatory imperfections. It is literally like a pen and has a precision tip so you can apply it to specific areas on the face, neck, décolleté or hands. The powerful brightening complex of natural-origin ingredients reduces the size and intensity of pigmentation after 15 days.
The daytime moisturiser
Digital Shield Day Cream
This is a lightweight, tinted day cream that is packed with antioxidants to protect skin from the effects of everyday pollution (blue light, airborne pollutants, electromagnetic radiation) which can lead to hyperpigmentation. As well as protection, the cream contains powerhouse ingredients such as PhytoSpherix to encourage cellular renewal and optical diffusers to neutralise dullness, bringing a real radiance to the skin throughout the day.
The exfoliating mask
Deep Exfoliating Mask
I honestly think this is the best product Dr Sebagh does. The mask is a blend of exfoliating acids – including lactic and azelaic – which are a powerful way of breaking up pigmented cells and removing old skin, but in no way irritating. Use once or twice a week; leave it on for three to five minutes before rinsing off to reveal polished skin that is beautifully luminous and soft. The award-winning formula is available in a sensitive skin version too.
The overnight treatment
Vinoperfect Dark Spot Correcting Glycolic Night Cream
Suitable for every skin type, this cream works overnight to correct dark spots. The hero ingredient is glycolic acid, which brightens and resurfaces the skin. It also contains Viniferine, a powerful alternative to vitamin C that also controls tyrosinase – the enzyme responsible for the overproduction of melanin – and papaya enzyme, which gently exfoliates, leaving skin smoother and more evenly toned in the morning.
The brightening serum
Allies of Skin
Tranexamic & Arbutin Advanced Brightening Serum
This lightweight, smooth serum, a fusion of brightening and skin-strengthening ingredients, works for all skin types. Again, it has the niacinamide to fade the appearance and reduce the size of age spots, while tranexamic and arbutin brighten, and a blend of reishi and shiitake mushrooms leaves skin looking rejuvenated. Use morning or night after cleansing for really luminous results.
Micro-Peeling Glow Essence
A lovely multi-tasking leave-on essence which you apply after cleansing and before your serum and/or moisturiser. As well as delivering a hit of hydration to lift and illuminate the complexion, it’s specifically developed for pigmentation with azelaic acid, tranexamic acid and microalgae working together to lessen the appearance of dark spots. Mandelic acid, meanwhile, sloughs away dead skin and gluconolactone resurfaces skin texture.
Retinol+HPR Ceramide Rapid Skin-Renewing Water Cream
This new next-gen retinol is an effective alternative to prescription retinoids. A blend of 2% retinol and HPR (Hydroxy Pinacolone Retinoate), it accelerates cell turnover to reduce the appearance of both fine lines and dark spots. It has a lightweight, fast-absorbing texture and, unlike other retinols, it is gentle enough for use during the day and night because the formula is stable and non-irritating, leaving skin radiantly revitalised.
Violet-C Radiance Mask
This is a beautiful brightening face mask. It contains two different types of vitamin C – which is a good all-round antioxidant that also helps inhibit excessive melanin production – as well as Japanese Beautyberry, which further helps reduce discoloration. Mild fruit AHAs gently exfoliate the skin, while Tatcha’s proprietary Hadasei-3 complex boosts cell turnover, restores radiance and hydrates. Use once a week for softer, smoother skin.
The brightening ampoules
Phytoactive Illuminating Ampoules
If you’re looking for a supercharged, highly concentrated treatment to brighten the skin, Royal Fern’s Illuminating Ampoules are fantastic. There are 15 ampoules in the course – use one a day before you apply your makeup. Each ampoule delivers a watery essence that contains a blend of ingredients to work on reducing excessive pigment, as well as stimulate collagen synthesis to leave skin more refined. The hyaluronic acid and niacinamide in each ampoule also boost overall firmness.