The skin experiences a change in color or appearance of patches of dark skin. This is caused by the excessive production of melanin, a skin pigment that plays the role of giving the skin, hair, and eyes their color.
In this article, you will find out all about hyperpigmentation, its causes, treatments, and prevention.
What Is Hyperpigmentation?
Hyperpigmentation simply refers to areas of the skin with uneven pigmentation. Contrary to popular misconception, hyperpigmentation is not necessarily a skin condition. However, it can occur due to skin conditions such as melanoma.
It is commonly noticed in people with darker skin due to stronger skin pigmentation in them.
What Are the Types of Hyperpigmentation?
The most common types of hyperpigmentation include sunspots or age spots, melasma, and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.
These occur due to excess sun exposure and are commonly seen on spots frequently exposed to the sun such as the face, neck, shoulders, hands, and arms. They are also referred to as age spots as they are seen mostly in people that are aged over 40. However, they can also be seen in people of lesser ages.
Your skin produces melanin, serving as a natural sunscreen. This protects you from harmful Ultraviolet rays coming from the sun, tanning the skin in the process. However, when the body is exposed to too much sun, the skin increases the production of melanin which leads to sunspots.
Although sunspots are generally harmless, they can make you feel less confident of your skin. There are also some forms of pigment spots like melanoma that are life-threatening. If you notice changes in a spot’s color, size or it starts to itch and bleed, see your doctor.
This is another form of hyperpigmentation that occurs due to changes in hormones. Dark Patches of Pigmentation appear on the face (common on the cheeks, upper lip, forehead, and bridge of the nose) and other body parts such as forearms and stomach. Although also found in men, melasma is commonly seen in women, especially during pregnancy.
During pregnancy, melanin production is increased due to changes in hormonal levels. An increase in melanin production can also occur in women taking oral contraceptives.
Study shows that about 10 – 15 percent women experience melasma during pregnancy which is why it is sometimes called “mask of pregnancy”. Melasma also occurs in about 10 – 25 percent of women that take oral contraceptives.
This type of hyperpigmentation is not harmful and would disappear on its own. Other factors that contribute to melasma include the Sun, age, and family predisposition.
3. Post-Inflammatory Hyperpigmentation
This occurs after the skin has sustained an injury and healed from it, leaving behind a form of flat discoloration. It is common in people with acne, however, skin treatments such as chemical peels and dermabrasion can also lead to Post-Inflammatory Hyperpigmentation.
It can occur in both genders and on any skin type. However, darker skin tones tend to experience PIH more. Just like other forms of Hyperpigmentation, the PIH is caused by an increase in melanin production.
When an injury, rash, or blemish is present on the skin, it produces melanocytes which are cells responsible for the production of melanin. The melanosomes (pigment granules) produced darken the wounded area for a long while after the wound has healed.
The sun can worsen the symptoms of PIH and further darken the affected area of the skin. This is a harmless type of hyperpigmentation that would fade after some time. However, if you notice any changes in color, size, or shape of your pigment spots, or they start to itch and bleed, you should see your doctor.
What Causes Darkened Skin (Hyperpigmentation)?
Melanin is a skin pigment that gives the hair, skin, and eye their color. Excessive production of this pigment causes Hyperpigmentation.
In this section, you will see the factors that cause or triggers the skin to produce excess melanin than needed.
1. Sun Exposure
The sun naturally triggers melanin production. Melanin is a natural form of sunscreen that protects your skin from UV rays which can be harmful. Many people love to tan in the sun on sunny days. However, when the skin is exposed to too much sunlight, it produces melanin in excess which can tan the skin to a darker tone and eventually lead to hyperpigmentation.
Excess exposure to sunlight can also aggravate the effect of already present hyperpigmentation such as melasma, age spots, and PIH. This makes the darkened spot even darker.
2. Hormone Levels
Changes in hormone levels can also cause dark spots on the skin. The type of hyperpigmentation in which this occurs is known as Melasma. Pigmentations appear on the face and other body parts. Although found in both genders, this commonly occurs in pregnant women and in women taking oral contraceptives.
The female sex hormones aids in the excessive production of melanin, and when exposed to the sun, the skin produces even more melanin.
Age is also a contributing factor to the production of melanin. Although melanin-producing cells (melanocytes) decrease as you age, the ones that are left get larger and distribute melanin in a more focused way. Age spots can be observed in people above the age of 40, however, it can also occur in individuals of younger ages.
4. Skin Injuries and Inflammation
A type of Hyperpigmentation is Post-Inflammatory hyperpigmentation which occurs due to injuries sustained by the skin. When the skin is injured, it produces and sends melanin to the injured spot. However, it remains at the spot long after the wound has healed which makes the spot looks darker than other skin regions.
This occurs with injuries or inflammations like cuts, Atopic Dermatitis, burns, acne, chemical exposure, etc.
5. Disease and Medication
Hyperpigmentation can be caused by certain diseases such as Addison’s disease and Hemochromatosis.
Hemochromatosis is a genetic condition in which the affected has too much iron in their system which can make the skin look darker or tanned. Symptoms of this disease include; fatigue, stomach pain, weight loss, joint pain.
There are other diseases that can cause hyperpigmentation. They include diabetics, hidden cancer, high blood pressure, kidney disease, stroke, osteoporosis, etc.
If you notice hyperpigmentation, it might be a good idea to check with your doctor to ensure everything is okay with you.
Hyperpigmentation can also be a side effect or be triggered by certain medications. They include; antibiotics, antimalarials, some chemotherapy drugs, and seizure drugs.
6. Other Factors
Other factors that can influence or cause the skin to darken include:
Type of Food: Certain foods contain an element that aids in the production of melanin and makes it more effective. Consuming such foods in high quantities can make your skin darker. These foods include; liver, crabs, shrimps, raisins, and walnuts. Although they are all very beneficial to the body, a reduction in their intake can lessen the effect they have in darkening the skin.
Bathing Too Hard: Although it might seem far-fetched, bathing too hard can constitute your skin to get darker. A pigmentary disorder known as Friction melanosis is one that occurs due to brushing the skin too hard with a sponge, towels, or other utensils. The pressure applied on the skin leads to the release of melanosomes into the dermis leading to pigmentation. It is commonly observed in areas of the collarbone and joints.
Allergies: There are diseases caused by the allergic reaction of the skin to certain food including ginger, seafood, chili, etc. While the wounds/irritations from these reactions heal, they leave pigments in those skin areas which darkens the skin.
What Are Some Symptoms to Look Out for?
There are certain symptoms to look out for when you notice darkened skin. This will help you judge how serious your skin condition is. They include
- Flaky skin
- Itchy Skin
- Burning feeling
- Redness, swelling
Other symptoms that might indicate a more serious condition include:
- Joint pain
- Loss of appetite
- Excessive urination
- Irritability and mood changes.
How Can You Diagnose and Treat Hyperpigmentation?
When you notice skin discoloration or skin darkening, you might have to visit a dermatologist to diagnose what caused your hyperpigmentation. You will be asked to provide medical history and to undergo some physical tests. You will be asked for symptoms experienced and other questions like; when the discoloration started? What is your diet like? Etc.
Common treatment prescription includes creams, ointments. Your dermatologist might recommend surgery or phototherapy, this is highly dependent on your type of skin condition. Some of the recommended medications might contain hydroquinone. This helps to lighten the skin. However, its prolonged usage is not advised as it can cause further darkening of the skin.
You can also use over-the-counter medications. Sunscreen usage is also very important to limit the effect of the sun on the skin. Ensure you apply sunscreen whenever you are out in the sun.
How Can You Prevent Hyperpigmentation?
Prevention of hyperpigmentation is not certain; however, you can protect yourself against the sun. This is the most significant step in limiting hyperpigmentation. The sun plays a major role in skin discoloration and darkening. Protecting yourself from sun rays will go a long way in ensuring you experience lesser skin pigmentation or none at all.
- Ensure you apply sunscreen on both sunny and cloudy days
- Choose a sunscreen that works well with your skin and has an SPF of 30 to 50
- Wear protective clothing like long-sleeved shirts, hats, and sunglasses while in the sun.
Although hyperpigmentation does not pose threat to your skin in most cases. There is still the need to take care of and reduce it as much as possible. Protect yourself from sun rays, reduce intake of food that increases melanin production, and ensure you take a soft bath.
If you experience itchiness from a pigment spot, you need to seek medical help.