Skin pigmentation: a guide to the common causes and best treatment options

If you’ve ever returned from a beachside holiday sporting a souvenir patch of darker skin clustered across your cheeks or forehead, chances are you’re familiar with pigmentation. It’s a very common skin concern here in Australia, but the UK-based skin expert Linda Meredith also confirms that pigmentation is one of the most prevalent skin issues among her global clientele. What’s more, it’s one that can potentially affect people of all skin tones, from the very lightest to the darkest. Read on to find out what causes pigmentation and some of the best ways to address it.


What is pigmentation?

Everyone’s skin has some level of pigment - known as melanin - which is produced by a type of cell called the melanocyte. While these melanocytes are located in the bottom layer of the skin’s epidermis, the melanin they produce makes its way along a chain of cells until it reaches the skin’s surface. When the process works as it should, the melanin shows as an even and fairly uniform colour that plays the very important role of protecting the skin from UV radiation. However things don’t always go so smoothly!

The condition we commonly call pigmentation is more accurately known as hyperpigmentation, and occurs when darker patches emerge on certain areas of the skin. On the other end of the spectrum is hypopigmentation, which is characterised by irregular patches of lighter skin. The most serious form of hypopigmentation is vitiligo, where clusters of melanocytes are destroyed, leading to white patches across the skin. The cause of vitiligo is still unknown, but it’s thought that it might result from an autoimmune disease.

Pigmentation Removal via effective Skincare

What are the causes of skin pigmentation?

Here in Australia, we often point the finger squarely at sun exposure as the leading cause of skin pigmentation - and it certainly is one of the major culprits, particularly for hyperpigmentation. This is because when skin is burnt or damaged by the sun, it triggers excess production of melanin, as the skin rushes to protect itself from UV radiation. Oftentimes this excess melanin isn’t evenly distributed, but instead appears as clusters of darker pigment in certain areas. Hello, post-holiday patchiness!

But while the sun is undoubtedly a leading cause, it’s certainly not the only factor behind skin pigmentation issues. Acne is another cause, particularly for people with darker skin tones. In fact, one recent study published in the Journal of Dermatology found that almost 60 per cent of patients who consulted a dermatologist for acne also experienced acne-related pigmentation. What’s more, the pigmentation often lasted longer (in some cases, up to five years), and was considered to be more problematic than the acne itself. Not ideal!

One reason for the link between acne and hyperpigmentation is because any type of skin inflammation - including acne, as well as eczema, burns, injury and some allergic reactions - can disrupt the bottom layer of the epidermis, where the melanocytes are located. According to The Australasian College of Dermatologists, this can result in pigment leaking deeper into the skin, where it becomes trapped. Because this type of post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation is located at a deeper level, it can be more difficult to treat, but options are available (see below). Conversely, trauma or inflammation can also cause hypopigmentation, or lightening of areas of the skin, though The Australasian College of Dermatologists reports that this condition would typically last only weeks or months before starting to resolve itself.  

Another common trigger for pigmentation is pregnancy - so much so that the term “mask of pregnancy” has been coined around its appearance. This is a very specific type of pigmentation known as melasma and characterised by brown patches across the face, neck and arms. The location of the pigment also varies from one woman to the next - in some, the melanin is located in the surface layer of the skin only (the epidermis), in others, it’s deeper in the dermal layer, while for a third group it’s found in a combination of the two, which can make treatment tricky. Melasma is most common in people with darker skin tones, but can also be a concern for those with fairer skin. It’s thought to have a hormonal connection, and so in a paper presented to the American Academy of Dermatology, US dermatologist Dr Jonith Y. Breadon recommended that women experiencing the condition consider stopping the Pill or hormone replacement therapy, because of the large amount of estrogens they contain. If you’re thinking of taking this course of action, always check with your healthcare professional first.

The Pill and HRT aren’t the only medications that can trigger hyperpigmentation - The Australasian College of Dermatologists has identified a range of others that have been found to be associated with medication-induced pigmentation. Again, if this is a concern, please consult your health professional.


How can skin pigmentation be treated?

The good news is that while it’s not always a quick fix, there are a range of options available for addressing pigmentation. In some cases, the treatment will depend on the specific trigger for the hyperpigmentation - whether sun damage, acne, or hormones - but it almost always begins with a step that will be very familiar to anyone who’s concerned with the overall health and appearance of her skin: sun protection. The experts agree that daily sun protection with a broad-spectrum UVA-UVB sunscreen is essential for preventing further damage. This is particularly in cases where the hyperpigmentation was originally triggered by sun exposure, but it also applies to melasma and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.

To help repair the appearance of hyperpigmentation, the American Academy of Dermatology recommends looking for products that contain ingredients such as Vitamin C (L-ascorbic acid), licorice extracts, Vitamin B3 (niacinamide) and soy, all of which may help to visibly lighten dark spots and brighten the skin.

In Linda Meredith’s Net 45 moisturiser, the Vitamin-C-rich citrus oils of orange and lime help to reduce the signs of pigmentation and age spots, while the rich cream base improves the overall texture of the skin. For a more lightweight alternative, LM1 also improves translucency in skin, and addresses visible age spots.

Microdermabrasion and chemical peels have also been found to be effective, however Linda Meredith cautions against using them at home, noting that procedures like these should only be carried out by trained professionals.