Acne is frustrating. You’ll do anything to get rid of it—out, damned spot!—ASAP. You’ll reach for salicylic acid to exfoliate, retinol to improve cell turnover, and benzoyl peroxide to nix any surface bacteria. But once the zit is gone, it likely leaves a dark mark in its wake—one that doesn’t disappear as quickly as the original zit did. Hyperpigmentation (or the darkening of certain areas of the face) occurs due to post-blemish scarring from a stubborn breakout, freckles, a cut or bug bite—or when you’re exposed to sunlight, in the case of melasma or sun spots.
Why does hyperpigmentation happen?
To understand how this happens—and more so to people of colour—it is key to understand how melanin works. The colour of your skin is derived from melanocytes, which produce melanosomes. These are small packets that contain melanin. Those with darker skin tones with a Fitzpatrick scale of III and above) have more melanosomes spread throughout the cells, which then secrete more melanin when exposed to sunlight.
UVA rays signal to the melanocytes to product more melanin in that area and dump it into lower layers of the skin in thick pockets (like a tattoo). This way it can protect itself from the potential damage. While you might just think it’s a problem— melanin is actually absorbing and scattering those rays to protect yourself from more serious risks of sun damage, like skin cancer. It has good intentions to start with—it is an potent antioxidant. So it works to break down all the UV rays in an attempt to prevent the DNA from being affected.
How can I get rid of it?
First, prevent it. The only way to really protect yourself from hyperpigmentation is to slather yourself with sunscreen and practice sun safety. You know what this means: stay out of the sun between 10am and 3pm, wear hats or protective clothing, keep your sunglasses close by, slather on a SPF 30+ sunscreen every two-three hours, and make sure you’re applying enough. The skin cells are responding to UV light by producing more melanin as a self-protective mechanism, and broad-spectrum SPF is the only thing that blocks this.
Didn’t grow up being forced to protect yourself even though the sun’s rays are strongest in the tropics? It is important to note that since people of colour are less prone to skin cancer, sunscreen application is not considered as important as it is in the West. Ironically, this couldn’t be further from the truth. SPF is the only thing that can protect you from dark spots, melasma and pigmentation! To know more about sunscreen—and why it has major main character energy— read what we have to sayhere
Moreover, it’s not just sunlight. Skin cells just see light as light. Blue HEV light from phone screens, computer screens and TV screens can worsen pigmentation too. New research shows that blue light activates a receptor in melanocytes to turn on a pigment-forming machinery in the cell.
How can I fix it now?
When you already have hyperpigmentation, doctors say that the first thing you should do is reach out to a dermatologist. Solutions range from in-office procedures—like lasers or peels—or combatting hyperpigmentation with a topical product that’ll nix damage (albeit slower). If you need the latter, look for a formula with lightening agents like licorice extract, kojic acid or mushroom extract. These can be used as a spot treatment on the specific area. Then, try using an exfoliating agent like glycolic acid, lactic acid or retinol, which’ll encourage these darkened skin cells to come up to the surface and let brighter, fresher, younger cells take its place. They also encourage products with antioxidants like Vitamin C, which help sunscreen do its job and prevent oxidative damage.
Most importantly, don’t over-do it! You don’t want to cause more damage to the area and risk the scar or spot getting darker or deeper. You don’t have to hide, change or erase these spots—they’re just a sign that your skin is protecting you from a fate way worse—a little concealer and some good skincare go a long way.
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