Treating Hyperpigmentation Naturally. Yes, it is Possible.
For most of my adult life, I have suffered from post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, which is an umbrella term for dark spots, liver spots, brown patches, or sun spots. Basically, it is dark skin discoloration caused by aging, sun damage, hormonal fluctuations and particular medications. Anyone who has suffered from it will appreciate when I say it’s been the bane of my existence. At age 47, after a decade of immersing myself in skin research, trial & error, one health degree and skincare company later, I have significantly improved my acne-born problematic skin, in particular my severe dark patches. When armed with the right skincare routine, one built for your skin, treating hyperpigmentation naturally is possible. Prevention is always key, but I’m here to tell you not to lose hope! It is never too late to effectively treat post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation and prevent further damage.
Sun Goddess… Not so Much
As long as I can remember, I was a sun worshipper. From a very young age, my parents took us south for holidays and we would beach every day, without any sun protection. This carried over into my teens and 20s. If the sun was out, so was I. Baking and frying. Flipping. Frying and baking.
As I moved into my late 30s and into my 40s, a few kids and hormonal fluctuations later, I was noticing major sun damage over large areas of my face. I had severe skin discoloration and patches across my forehead, my cheeks and above my upper lip. It covered over 60% of my face and I was very self-conscious. Trying to cover it was a nightmare, as it just made my face look dirty. I had never worn foundation and didn’t want to start! However, a dark pigment moustache was not the look I was going for. So my journey to treat my stubborn hyperpigmentation, naturally, began.
What is hyperpigmentation?
Hyperpigmentation is when there is an uneven, increased production of melanin, causing patches of skin to become darker than your natural skin tone in surrounding areas. Melanin is what produces the pigment in our skin.
“Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) happens when your skin makes extra melanin after it has been irritated or injured. Melanin is a natural pigment that is responsible for the color in our hair, skin, and eyes.” (1)
What causes hyperpigmentation?
Hyperpigmentation can affect all skin tones at varying degrees. Some causes are:
Skin does not appreciate sun exposure (go figure!) and responds with tans, hyperpigmentation and premature wrinkles. In order to protect itself from the sun’s rays, skin triggers the production of melanin, which can lead to an uneven overproduction, resulting in irregular dark patches.
Generally associated with female hormones and often called the “mask of pregnancy.” Common causes are pregnancy, birth control pills and hormonal therapy.
Skin inflammation, caused by acne, eczema, psoriasis, cuts, and scrapes. Even if scars fade and pimples resolve, sometimes overproduction of melanin can occur, leaving skin with permanent dark spots.
Medication or Medical Conditions
Photosensitizing medications, pigmentation and autoimmune thyroid disorders affect many people.
How to treat Hyperpigmentation
Although I am not able to turn back the clock to stop myself from frying my poor skin all of those hot summer days, I am able to prevent any further damage and continue to reduce and maintain my hyperpigmentation. I wish I had a ‘before picture’ of my skin from 15-20 years ago. My skin at 47 is much clearer and healthier than it was at 30.
Hyperpigmentation just doesn’t go away. Even when under control, it is an ongoing battle. Every summer, especially, it is easily triggered by sun and even heat.
There are a variety of professional procedures that have shown to reduce hyperpigmentation, including peels, lasers, resurfacing and light therapy. Make sure to speak to your dermatologist before deciding if and what treatment is right for your skin. Hyperpigmentation can be different for everyone: depending on the depth of the excess melanin, your skin type and tone, and history could all determine which treatment is required, if any at all. You can actually make dark pigment worse if you haven’t properly prepared for the right treatment for your skin. I, personally, try not to aggravate it and have done two laser treatments, with many years in between each.
Not so Natural…
Hydroquinone, a bleaching agent, was once the gold standard for treating stubborn hyperpigmentation. It is now banned in many countries, including Europe and Japan, due to its potential health risks. Classified as a drug in the US, it is available by prescription in dose of maximum 4% or over the counter at 2% concentration.
Hydroquinone, described by the LGA as “the biological equivalent of paint stripper”, can remove the top layer of skin, increasing the risk of skin cancer, and cause fatal liver and kidney damage. Mercury can cause similar life-threatening health problems. (4)
Kojic Acid is a chemical produced by certain molds and fungi; it inhibits the formation of the amino acids needed to product melanin. It can be harsh on skin and there are potential risks of irritation, allergy and dermatitis. There have been contraversial studies showing concern about possibly causing tumor growth in mice.
Natural Brightening Topical Treatments
There are many natural alternatives to hydroquinone that help brighten skin and lighten dark spots. Not exhaustive, here is a list of ingredients to help in treating hyperpigmentation naturally.
Nicknamed the “natural hydroquinone”, this plant-derived skin brightener slows down melanin production so it won’t surface to the top layer of skin. Derived from bearberry leaves, it is generally considered safe for all skin types.
Visibly brightens skin tone and evenness, this natural exfoliator effectively treats hyperpigmentation. It interferes with melanin production, preventing dark pigment from surfacing. Those with sensitive skin should start slowly.
One of my favourite ingredients, this anti-inflammatory and antioxidant-rich ingredient has effective lightening components. It inhibits melanin production by breaking it up and removing it from skin. It helps reduce hyperpigmentation and prevents from discolored areas from getting worse.
This well-studied brightening ingredient has amazing lightening and brightening properties due to its photo-protective properties. There are many different forms of Vitamin C, which is good news if you have sensitive skin. Antioxidant and anti-aging powerhouse for skin!
Retinoids, such as retinol, are Vitamin A analogues that encourage cell turnover and rejuvenation. Irritation is a common side effect. Using Retinyl Palmitate, the gentlest form, is suggested for those with sensitive skin.
This beta hydroxy acid (BHA) gently removes skin cells and encourages cell turnover. Rich in flavonoids, which protect skin from oxidative damage and address acne & acne scarring. Low risk and can be used by all skin types.
Alpha Hydroxy Acids
Regular AHA treatments, with acids like Glycolic or Lactic, can make a significant difference in skin. They gently exfoliate away dead skin cells and promote cell turnover. Those with sensitive skin should start slowly to see how well they are tolerated.
The Bad News
Unfortunately, no product can give you instant results… so don’t fall prey to extraordinary miracle claims. The only way to fade hyperpigmentation is to be diligent and consistent. It can take several months, yes months, of using topical treatments daily before you notice changes. Insert a big depressing sigh here.
Prevention is Best
Times have changed and we know now, more than ever, about the effects of sun exposure. Because of this, more young people are taking greater care of their skin earlier. Unfortunately, many of us in our 40s, 50s and 60s were not so diligent in our younger years.
If you don’t suffer from hyperpigmentation you should shout from the roof tops about how fortunate you are!
Best ways to prevent hyperpigmentation:
- Wear sunscreen ALL. YEAR. ROUND.
- Avoid peak sun (10 am – 2 pm)
- Find shade
- Cover your face with a hat
- Protective clothing and sunglasses
For more skincare that treats hyperpigmentation visit here.
- What is Post Inflammatory Hyperpigmentation? Wu, N. Medically Reviewed Sachdev, P. WebMd.
- Final report of the safety assessment of Kojic acid as used in cosmetics. National Library of Medicine. Pubmed.
- An evaluation of the effect of a topical product containing salicin on the visible signs of human skin aging. National Library of Medicine. Pubmed.
- Avoid skin-lightening creams ‘at all costs’. BBC.