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Hyperpigmentation 101: Understanding and Fading Dark Spots and Melasma

What is Hyperpigmentation and How do you Fix it?

Most of us don’t come to skincare out of a sense that our skin is already exactly as we want it to be. Often, we begin our skincare journey because there’s something specific we’d like to improve about our skin. Very often (at least for my followers and the people I’ve come into contact with in my time in the skincare community), that something specific is hyperpigmentation.

Hyperpigmentation—specifically, the dark spots left behind by acne (also called Post Inflammatory Hyperpigmentation or PIH) or caused by sun exposure (often in the form of melasma, the blotchy “mask” often developed during pregnancy)—is a very common complaint. It was one of the main reasons I developed an interest in skincare. Spending a lot of time outside during pregnancy under the misguided belief that a little dab of SPF 15 lotion counted as sun protection left me with patches of melasma all across my cheekbones, and I wanted to fade that.

Fade that I did, and much of it within the first year or two after I got serious about skincare. Plenty of research exists on topical treatments for hyperpigmentation. We’ll look at three of the most proven (and most accessible) ones here today.

The Basics of Hyperpigmentation

In order for any of these treatments to work, however, we also need to shield our skin from the major cause of hyperpigmentation: the sun.

No brightening or spot-fading product or treatment, whether over-the-counter or prescription, will work, or will maintain its effects, if you continue to receive UV damage from unprotected sun exposure. That’s because hyperpigmentation is most commonly caused by the sun, which produces melanin in response to UV damage and to UV-induced inflammation. Even when hyperpigmentation is caused by non-UV inflammation, like acne, it darkens and worsens with UV exposure.

For that reason, daily sunscreen is an absolute must if you’re fighting melasma, PIH, or general skin darkening due to sun exposure. In particular, look for a sunscreen with high UVA protection, which will help defend against persistent pigment darkening (PPD).

The need to know how much UVA protection a product provides is why I don’t even mess with US-produced sunscreens. The US FDA only requires brands denote UVA protection with the “broad spectrum” designation, which tells us nothing besides the fact that the sunscreen has some UVA protection. Asian sunscreens, on the other hand, indicate UVA protection via the PA rating, with PA+ being the lowest (and something I’ve never actually seen in practice) and PA++++ the highest. I’m willing to go down to PA+++ for everyday wear, when I won’t be in the sun that much, but I always stick to PA++++ for beach or park days.

Before you even start working on fading hyperpigmentation, make sure you have a sunscreen you like enough to use in generous amounts every day. The little dabs and smears we often see in skincare videos won’t cut it. The SPF in makeup most definitely won’t cut it, unless you’re rocking a full clown aesthetic.

In order to receive the full protection advertised on the product label, any sunscreen product must be applied to skin at 2mg/cm2, which is more than many people are used to. It works out to a bit under a quarter of a teaspoon for face alone. And protection decreases dramatically the less you put on. I like to recommend my Three Fingers method for measuring and applying sunscreen—it will give you what you need.

Once your sunscreen game is in order, it’s time to look at some of the best researched and most effective topical treatments for hyperpigmentation!

Niacinamide for Hyperpigmentation

In any discussion about hyperpigmentation, I like to mention niacinamide first.

Niacinamide, also known as vitamin B3, has plenty of support to back up its ability to fade and prevent hyperpigmentation. In a double-blind, randomized 2011 clinical trial, a 4% niacinamide cream decreased pigmentation from melasma while also reducing inflammation with fewer side effects than hydroquinone. When combined with n-acetylglucosamine, another randomized, double-blind trial found that the combination was "significantly more effective than the vehicle control formulation regmen in reducing the detectable area of facial spots and the appearance of pigmentation."

I default to recommending niacinamide not only because of its effectiveness, but also because of its gentleness. Niacinamide is not known to be sensitizing or irritating, and it doesn’t exfoliate, so it won’t compromise the outer barrier of skin. Sensitivities to niacinamide do exist but seem fairly rare—in my years in skincare, I’ve only encountered a handful of people whose skin reacts to it. It isn’t as fussy to formulate as other brightening ingredients like vitamin C or AHAs. It also comes with other benefits, like a reduction in fine lines and wrinkles and an improvement in skin’s elasticity.

Holy Snails Shark Sauce - $9.00

I rarely mention niacinamide without mentioning Holy Snails Shark Sauce, because Shark Sauce was developed to satisfy my desire for a niacinamide serum formulated with an optimal concentration of the star ingredient. The original Shark Sauce and variants like Hanbang Shark contain 5% niacinamide boosted with 3% n-acetylglucosamine. Double Shark boasts a whopping 10% niacinamide with 3% n-acetylglucosamine. There’s almost always some form of Shark Sauce in my routine, because it works beautifully for me.

Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) for Hyperpigmentation

Alpha hydroxy acids, including glycolic, lactic, and mandelic acid, take a more direct route to fading hyperpigmentation. AHAs work by breaking down the bonds that hold dead skin cells together, accelerating the shedding process to more rapidly reveal fresher, newer skin. That’s why many AHA treatments are marketed as “resurfacing”: exfoliation literally resurfaces skin. For this reason, AHAs can be great for tackling dark spots. Over time, they’ll simply exfoliate the hyperpigmented skin away. AHAs may also be able to disperse pigment at deeper levels of skin, though I haven’t experienced that effect personally.

The stronger the AHA treatment, the more dead skin it can remove at a time. Generally, you’ll be able to tell the strength of an AHA product by the concentration of the acid ingredient. For most skin, I consider 5-10% AHAs appropriate for frequent use, several times a week up to daily if skin tolerates it well. Peel-strength AHAs tend to start at about 20%. I personally only use a peel-strength AHA once a month, if that, though others’ tolerance varies. I think of anything below 5% as ineffective for actual exfoliation, although AHAs do have humectant properties that may make those products nicely hydrating. Anything above 30% or so terrifies me, and I wouldn’t advise using them at home.

The effectiveness of an AHA also depends on the pH of the product. The lower the pH, the more free acids it contains, and free acids are what your skin needs in order to experience the exfoliating effect. Look for AHA products with a pH of about 3.5 for best results without too much risk of irritation.

When recommending AHAs for hyperpigmentation, I have two important caveats. The first is that AHAs are photosensitizing. The newer, brighter skin they surface is more susceptible to sun damage. For that reason, it’s absolutely critical that you don’t start using an AHA until you’re in the habit of applying sunscreen in generous amounts every day you leave the house.

COSRX’s AHA 7 Whitehead Power Liquid

If you’re new to AHAs, I suggest avoiding peels until you’re more familiar with how your skin responds to them. One of my first AHAs—and still one of my favorites—is COSRX’s AHA 7 Whitehead Power Liquid, which delivers 7% glycolic acid at a relatively mild pH, between 4 and 5. It’s enough to show effects with regular use (and regular sunscreen use). Start out by using it a couple of times a week and see how your skin feels. If you start experiencing signs of overexfoliation, discontinue use, let your skin recover, and consider using it less frequently. If your skin responds to it well, you can experiment with more frequent usage. Let your skin take the lead.

Vitamin C for Hyperpigmentation

Last but certainly not least in my list is the very well studied skincare powerhouse, vitamin C!

Vitamin C is a "potent antioxidant," helping to neutralize free radicals before they can damage skin. It also increases collagen production and reduces the breakdown of existing collagen. And, most importantly for the purposes of this article, it suppresses melanin production and decreases hyperpigmentation.

Sounds great, right?

The main drawback of vitamin C is that the best researched and arguably most potent form of it, ascorbic acid (often listed as L-ascorbic acid), is quite unstable and finicky to formulate. Ascorbic acid performs best at a low pH, which may irritate some people’s skin. It also oxidizes quickly and therefore loses its antioxidant effectiveness—you can tell when this has happened to a vitamin C product because the color of the product will darken from a pale champagne color to a deeper orange/red.

Personally, I find these drawbacks worth the potential results that ascorbic acid can deliver. I like dedicated vitamin C serums that contain at least 15% ascorbic acid at a pH of 3.5 or below, like the new COSRX Real Fit Vitamin C Serum C-23. The brand has thoughtfully packaged this serum in 20ml bottles rather than the more standard 30ml to help ensure that it gets used up before it oxidizes.

Ascorbic acid can be stabilized and its effectiveness boosted through the addition of ferulic acid and vitamin E (tocopherol). Products like Timeless C+E+Ferulic Acid Serum contain this combination. I can live without the E and ferulic, though. I’ve seen great results from other vitamin C serums that don’t have the ferulic acid or tocopherol, and I don’t like the hot dog water scent of ferulic acid or the often greasy feel of tocopherol enough to stick with most that do use them.

Holy Snails El Dorado Oil - $45

There are other vitamin C derivatives that don’t suffer the same limitations as ascorbic acid, thankfully. The oil-soluble THDA in Holy Snails El Dorado Oil helps bring the benefits of vitamin C to dry skin that responds well to oils. The shelf-stable MAP vitamin C in Holy Snails Great White Shark adds the benefits of vitamin C to Shark Sauce, combining its benefits with Shark Sauce’s niacinamide and n-acetylglucosamine formula. And Rohto Melano CC Intensive Anti-Spot Essence tackles dark spots with a combination of both ascorbic acid and the more stable ascorbyl tetraisopalmitate.

Best practices for fighting hyperpigmentation

The great thing about these extensively studied solutions for hyperpigmentation is that they can be stacked. You don’t have to choose between an AHA and niacinamide, or niacinamide and vitamin C (especially since, contrary to a commonly shared skincare myth, niacinamide and vitamin C are perfectly fine to use together).

Listen to your skin. Choose one new product at a time and don’t introduce any others until you’ve used it for at least a couple of weeks, so that you know how your skin responds to it. Be consistent and patient: significant changes will take time to appear, perhaps months or longer. Finally and most importantly, don’t forget your sunscreen! Don’t let fresh UV exposure wipe out the results of your hard work.

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