Everything You Need To Know About Pigmentation
Pigmentation, or hyperpigmentation, isn’t necessarily a skin ailment that needs to be treated. It pretty much refers to a part of the skin that is darker and can occur in small spots, larger patches, or in rare cases even the whole body. The pigment responsible for pigmentation is called melanin, and it is found in pigment-producing cells known as melanocytes. People with darker skin tones have a higher concentration of melanin while fairer-skinned people have lower concentrations of the pigment.
Pigmentation isn’t always harmful depending on the type of pigmentation. People experience varying degrees of pigmentation depending on their sun exposure, genes, hormones, and even injuries. Let’s first understand the types of pigmentation that can be found.
Types of Pigmentation
1. Melasma (chloasma)
This type of pigmentation is more often found on the face and occurs in patches of greyish or brown skin. The more common areas of the face that will be affected are the forehead, bridge of the nose, and the cheeks. Melasma occurs mostly in women, with over 90% of affected people being females. Melasma is also usually caused by changes in hormone levels and activity in the body. Women tend to see it occur during pregnancy, which is how it has earned its name as the “mask of pregnancy”, as changing hormones cause melanin to be produced more rapidly. It also might occur after taking hormonal contraceptive pills. It can affect women and girls of all ages, and women who develop it in their 20s and 30s might see a persistence for decades. Although it doesn’t pose health risks, melasma can be distressing for those who have it since it may not look “aesthetically pleasing”.
2. Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH)
Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, or its acronym PIH as it’s known, occurs after there has been damage done to the skin, such as an injury, severe acne, or overaggressive chemical treatments. The affected skin will turn brown, red, or purple after a period of inflammatory reactions. It affects people with deeper skin tones more, with 65% of people experiencing it being African Americans. It is a largely temporary form of pigmentation, and it occurs when the dermis or epidermis layers of the skin are damaged. Melanin deposits in the skin cells increase as inflammation of the epidermis triggers the melanocytes to increase the synthesizing of melanin, transferring the melanin to surrounding skin cells. More severe types of injuries can lead to permanent post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.
3. Liver spots (solar lentiginosis)
Solar lentiginosis, more commonly referred to by its other name liver spots or age spots, occurs as flat, dark spots on areas that are more exposed to the sun such as the hands, arms, face, and shoulders. This is the pigmentation type that we most commonly associate with aging and UV exposure. It is a result of sun damage and is also a sign that your skin is aging from too much sun exposure. They are pretty harmless but people don’t like the look of them because it is a common feature of elderly people.
4. Freckles (ephelides)
Freckles can either occur naturally or come about due to sun exposure. Freckles are an inherited gene among people with lighter skin and appear as a smattering of small brown dots across the face, commonly across the cheeks and bridge of the nose. If you spend a lot of time under the sun, you can also get freckles on your face, shoulders, arms, and any area that has been exposed to the sun. They are also harmless, but if you are not genetically predisposed to freckles and start seeing them crop up, it is a sign that you are probably spending too much time in the sun.
Are there risks to pigmentation?
There are generally very few risks associated with hyperpigmentation, it’s just that people might not like the look of darkened skin patches. There are a couple of more serious skin conditions associated with melanin or the lack of, but these are inherited genetic skin conditions that you are very unlikely to develop in your life.
Vitiligo is a skin condition in which the skin loses its melanocytes. This will result in patches of discolored skin on some areas of the body including the face and scalp. People might even have patches of white hair in the areas that are affected by a lack of melanocytes. It is usually more pronounced in people with darker skin as the contrast of skin color is more obvious.
Albinism is a genetically-inherited skin disorder in which people are born without melanin pigment. This results in them having extremely pale skin, hair, and eye colors. It is thankfully not a disease but rather just the result of a defective gene.
How can I prevent pigmentation?
The most effective preventive measure is to limit your sun exposure and wear SPF at all times. Dermatologists collectively agree and stress the importance of wearing sunscreen on a daily basis as the best preventive measure against pigmentation. Since we can’t completely avoid staying out of the sun the next best option is to be diligent with applying sunscreen every day before leaving the house. Dermatologists recommend a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF 50. You should also avoid being under direct sunlight between 12 pm and 2 pm as this is when UV rays are at their peak. Wear a cap or hat for some added coverage if you’re going to be under the sun during this time.
How can I reduce existing pigmentation?
1. Check if your medicine might be causing the pigmentation
If you recently went on a new medication and noticed pigmentation after, you might want to check with the doctor who prescribed the medication to see if there are alternatives. Especially if you are a woman who recently started taking hormonal contraceptives, it might be a case of melasma.
2. Take extra precaution with the sun
You should get even more serious with your sun protection so as to not aggravate the pigmentation even more. Wear a hat when you are under the sun and avoid being in the sun for prolonged periods of time. Make sure you wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 50 and reapply it if you are staying in the sun for a prolonged period of time.
3. Add some brightening serums, acids, and retinoids into your skincare regime
You won’t be able to get rid of the pigmentation entirely, but you can definitely try to lighten it with some skincare products. Look for products that have the following ingredients — vitamin A (such as retinoids), niacinamide, vitamin C, arbutin, azelaic acid, and alpha-hydroxy-acids (AHAs) such as glycolic acid. These antioxidants and exfoliants can help to improve your cell turnover which can lighten and reduce the darkness of the pigmentation spots.
Pigmentation isn’t harmful but if you don’t like the look of dark spots or patches, it is best to stay out of the sun. Preventing pigmentation is much easier than trying to get rid of it, which can be virtually impossible.