Lately there’s been a rash of new skin care products on the market claiming to reduce hyperpigmentation. Judging by their ads, hyperpigmentation seems mean less than flawless skin. So what is hyperpigmentation really? Do we all have it? Is it dangerous? And can we really expect to look airbrushed after 4-6 weeks of applying $75 cream?
Not all freckles are bad
Some pigmentation on the skin is perfectly natural and like it or not, unavoidable. Pigmentation actually has a beneficial function, protecting the deeper layers from skin damage (tanning still does you more harm than good, however). The term hyperpigmentation refers to an over-production of pigment resulting in blotches and dark spots more prominent than your average freckle. If a spot has you concerned about skin cancer, read up on the warning signs here. Many changes in skin tone are harmless and at worst cause some self-consciousness (fed by advertisements for miracle creams).
Causes of hyperpigmentation
Prevention is better than a cure, and some causes of hyperpigmentation can be avoided. Among them:
- Acne: Sometimes skin pigmentation occurs as the result of minor injury to the skin, including scarring caused by acne. Once an inflammation has subsided and the wound has healed, a mark might remain as long as several months. Treating acne to reduce its severity and avoiding irritation to the skin during an outbreak can lessen the aftereffects.
- Aging:“Age spots” or “liver spots,” are a well-known form of hyperpigmentation. Otherwise known as “solar lentigines,” they typically crop up on the hands or faces after long periods of repeated sun exposure.
- Fluctuating hormone levels: Another type of hyperpigmentation is called, “melasma” or “chloasma.” These spots look very much like age or liver spots but are larger and usually appear at the end of hormonal changes such as pregnancy or menopause. Pregnancy can cause the body to produce too much melanin. This can result in a darkening around the eyes and nose, sometimes also appearing on the abdomen and on other areas. Birth control pills can also result in the same type of hyperpigmentation because they cause the body to undergo hormonal changes that are similar to those experienced during pregnancy. This latter type usually goes away when the person stops taking the pills, however.
- Prescription drugs such as concentrated salicylic acid or benzyl peroxide can cause temporary skin discoloration.
Some of the most effective solutions for hyperpigmentation include laser treatments. These are very expensive, however, and can sometimes make the condition worse rather than better. Concentrated glycolic acid, azelaic acid and chemical peels are also used to treat hyperpigmentation, but these are all harsh treatments and each can be dangerous and cause more harm than good.
Most of the products commonly available in drugstores and at beauty counters to treat discoloration include a mild acid or bleaching ingredient. Unfortunately, many carry a high price tag and produce somewhat disappointing results (that’s been my experience anyway). Requiring consistent application, they can take up to 6 months to show any results at all, and can cause irritation, especially for sensitive types.
Safe for all skin types, gentle and moisturizing, Aloe Vera is an alternative treatment for hyperpigmentation that actually does your skin some good. Aloe Vera has been used for thousands of years to treat both skin conditions and other health issues. The pure gel from inside the stem can be applied directly on the skin. Just as Aloe speeds the healing of sunburned skin, it encouraging the skin to regenerate new cells when applied to discolored spots and scars. As new skin cells form, the old ones are sloughed off, gradually fading dark surface pigment.
Like your $75 creams, it takes regular application and patience to see results, and some spots you might just have to live with. Freckles are beautiful – learn to love them. Aloe doesn’t work any faster than the most effective cream. But it does work well for some spots, and has the added benefit of cleansing and moisturizing your skin. Whether you use store-bought Aloe gel or gel straight from the plant, mix it with a little sunscreen and apply to your trouble spots daily to protect and heal them.
Photo: Frederic Poirot