You may be familiar with the term hyperpigmentation without knowing exactly what it is. Think of it like an umbrella term for different forms of a very common skin issue: discoloration.
Most people will experience at least one type of hyperpigmentation over the course of their lifetime. Yet, as common as it is, it can be difficult to treat. I’ll get into what those options are and how you can go about preventing hyperpigmentation in the first place in my next post. But first, let’s take a deeper dive into what exactly hyperpigmentation is and how the different forms express themselves.
What causes it
Regardless of the cause—too much time in the sun, an eczema flare-up, or an especially bad breakout—every kind of hyperpigmentation is rooted in melanin, the pigment in our skin. Cells called melanocytes that live in the outermost layer of our skin produce melanin.
Hyperpigmentation results from an overproduction and irregular distribution of melanin. The skin can be triggered to overproduce pigment for a slew of reasons, but the most common, by far, is sun exposure. When our skin is unprotected and exposed to the sun, melanocytes naturally ramp up the production of melanin as a defense mechanism.
When the melanin is evenly distributed, it appears as a tan (which is still skin damage). But over time and with increasing sun exposure, uneven distribution is inevitable, and it can take the form of freckles, age spots, or even melasma, which is believed to also have a hormonal factor.
The sun, as I mentioned, isn’t the only culprit. Pimples and rashes can have the same effect. The discoloration that lingers after skin trauma or inflammation, including acne, is referred to as post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.
What it looks like
Here’s a closer look at what the different types of hyperpigmentation look like.
Freckles: They’re genetic, to an extent, but they can become darker and more prominent with UV exposure.
Age spots: One of the earliest signs of skin aging. The face, neck, forearms, and hands are the most prone to developing them because they typically receive the most exposure to the sun.
Melasma: It’s more common in women, and it’s often prompted by hormonal changes tied to pregnancy. It appears as patches of discoloration typically on the cheeks, the forehead, the chin, the bridge of the nose, and above the upper lip.
Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation: Refers to the skin discoloration that follows certain kinds of skin trauma, like acne, eczema, a rash, or a cut.
What’s important to remember about hyperpigmentation is that it can happen to just about anyone. If you’re already experiencing a severe case, or you believe that it’s hormonal, consult with a board-certified dermatologist. They’ll be able to tailor an effective treatment to your particular needs.