Pigmentation: the what, why, how and when

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First of all, you may ask, what is pigmentation or hyperpigmentation?

Essentially, they’re fancy words for skin that has become darker, and for lots of us, this is something that develops as we age. Our skin gets its hue from a pigment called melanin, which is produced by remarkable cells in the dermis. When we damage those cells, our melanin production is impaired, which is why we might see darker, disrupted tones or patchiness in our skin.

Pigmentation, however, isn’t harmful but it can sometimes be a sign of damage, and that is something to keep an eye on (too much tanning can be dangerous, as we know). Like many people, I know the pigmentation on my face, shoulders and back has come from too much sun worshipping during my teenage years (I’ve since had miraculous laser treatment AFT to treat it: so painful, so effective) but what else might be at play?

Beyond excess tanning, Dr Ana, an aesthetic doctor at Kat & Co, says there are myriad factors as to why someone might have pigmentation.

Beyond UV exposure, we see post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation a lot. This is where any type of trauma to the skin, such as heat or spots, leave a darkened skin tone after the healing process has taken place,” she says, adding that this is more common in darker skin types. Melasma is another common cause of hyperpigmentation, which is a hormonal reaction to melanocytes becoming overactive and is much more common in women.” According to Dr Ana, pregnancy is one of the top triggers for the appearance of melasma and affects pregnant women aged between 20 and 40-years-old.

So, how can we keep the dark patches at bay? It is certainly possible to improve or eliminate hyperpigmentation although it can be challenging depending on the depth of the pigment,” Dr Ana continues. Pigmentation often fades on its own during the winter months when sun exposure is less significant – a classic example of this is freckles that come and go with the seasons. Post-inflammatory pigmentation also tends to improve with time, although it can take months to years.”

Dr Ana recommends using sun protection products all year round. Just improving your UV protection with physical barriers such as sunglasses, hats, clothes and seeking shade when on holiday, as well as using a daily broad-spectrum (UVA and UVB) SPF30-50 can go a long way in reducing hyperpigmentation over time,” she says. This is by far the easiest and most cost-effective measure that everyone should take regardless.”

The key ingredients you should look out for in your skincare routine are those that act as tyrosinase inhibitors, such as arbutin or vitamin C serums (containing L ascorbic acid to ensure the formulation is stable and effective) as well as retinoids (vitamin A derivatives) such as retinol,” Dr Ana explains. It’s important to note that whenever you’re using products containing alpha arbutin and retinoids that they should only ever be used as part of a nighttime routine. Retinol and alpha arbutin shouldn’t be applied in the morning, or used in the evening, without applying SPF the following day – also worth noting that retinoids are recommended to be used sporadically, once or twice a week and never daily.

If you have the means to afford trips to a facialist, there are plenty of new technologies and procedures that are effective in fighting pigmentation. Dr Ana agrees. For persistent patches of pigmentation, I recommend skincare and then in-clinic treatments such as microneedling, chemical peels or laser resurfacing.” In the rarest of occasions, Dr Ana will prescribe hydroquinone, which is only available on prescription, and has a strong evidence base and is helpful for particularly challenging cases. However, Dr Ana says it should only be used as a last resort solution.

There are other options – accepting that our skin is not just one tone, embracing the marks and scars and getting on top of our every day SPF routine, water intake and purchasing some half decent retinol.

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