Dark Spots 101: What Causes Hyperpigmentation?

October 23, 2018
Skincare.com by L'Oréal
By: Skincare.com by L'Oréal | skincare.com by L'Oréal
Dark Spots 101: What Causes Hyperpigmentation?

In today’s skin care world, we’re big on brightening. No beauty aisle is complete without a full cast of products promising a glowing, radiant, luminous-looking complexion. Many people may pick up these products because the idea of brightening the appearance of your skin just sounds nice—who wouldn’t want to achieve a glowing complexion? Others, though, pick up these products in the hopes that they may be able to help with the appearance hyperpigmentation—the darkening of an area, or areas, of the skin. But what causes hyperpigmentation in the first place? Read on to find out what hyperpigmentation is, what can cause hyperpigmentation, and what you can do to prevent it.   


dark spots 101 what causes hyperpigmentation what is

Let’s start at the beginning—what is hyperpigmentation? According to board-certified plastic surgeon, SkinCeuticals ambassador, and Skincare.com consultant, Dr. Peter Schmid, “hyperpigmentation is skin discoloration that may occur as areas, patches, spots, or skin lesions of a tan, reddish-brown to gray color anywhere on the skin. Involved areas become visible lesions which stand out in contrast to the surrounding skin.”

According to Dr. Schmid, hyperpigmentation is an incredibly common skin concern, and can occur on all types of skin. The opposite of hyperpigmentation is what’s known as “vitiligo,” which involves patches of lighter skin as opposed to dark.  


So what causes hyperpigmentation in the first place? “Hyperpigmentation occurs when the pigment-producing cells of the skin, melanocytes, are stimulated to produce or accumulate excess pigmentation,” Dr. Schmid says. A melanocyte is a specialized skin cell which produces melanin, the pigment that gives skin its color. So when melanin production goes into overdrive, it can cause any sort of pigmentation— from age spots (a.k.a. sun spots) to melasma to sunburns—to appear all over the body or in concentrated areas.

Cause #1: Hormones

According to The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), hormones can stimulate the production of melanin, which, in turn, can lead to hyperpigmentation. The AAFP also details how hormonal changes caused by oral contraceptives and pregnancy can lead to a type of hyperpigmentation called melasma. Melasma typically occurs as patches on the face of women. Pregnancy is a common time to experience melasma, which is why it has been coined as “the mask of pregnancy.” To learn more about melasma, click here!

Cause #2: Genetics

dark spots 101 what causes hyperpigmentation genetics

According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), melasma is more common in individuals with darker skin because they have more active melanocytes. The AAD notes that those with a blood relative who has experienced melasma are more likely to get it as well.

Cause #3: Skin Trauma

Hyperpigmentation can also occur in the wake of damage to the skin. The American Osteopathic College of Dermatology notes that this can be the result of  skin diseases and acne, as well as cuts, burns, infections, and other injuries. “Often,” says Dr. Schmid, “excessive pigmentation accumulates at sites of acne, rashes, dermatitis, abrasions, or trauma called post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH).” This can also occur in all skin types, especially those with darker skin tones.

Cause #4: Sun Damage

dark spots 101 what causes hyperpigmentation sun damage

One easily preventable cause of hyperpigmentation is over exposure to the sun’s harmful UV rays resulting sun damage to the skin. Freckles, age spots, and other areas of hyperpigmentation, when exposed to the sun, can become darker. The bottom line is that everyone must help protect their skin all year-round by wearing a broad-spectrum sunscreen each day and taking other sun protection measures. 


Hyperpigmentation of the skin can also appear due to skin’s natural aging process. This is why many people with mature skin experience hyperpigmentation as they age. As the body ages, the skin’s outermost layer—the epidermis—gets thinner and becomes more susceptible to the influence of external factors. This includes sun damage. If you spent a lot of time in the sun in your youth and beyond, you may notice a higher prevalence of dark spots.


dark spots 101 what causes hyperpigmentation prevent

On the bright side, hyperpigmentation is not typically associated with any sort of coinciding physical pain or discomfort. However, many people afflicted with hyperpigmentation may seek to reduce its appearance for cosmetic purposes. Since we’re firm believers that a prevention plan is better than a treatment plan, we’re sharing how to help reduce your risk of developing dark spots on your skin’s surface. One word: sunscreen. 

Applying broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 15 or higher daily prior to heading outdoors (and reapplying at least every two hours) is one of the best ways to safeguard your skin against premature aging and dark spots. To take things a step further, pair your sunscreen use with additional protection measures such as seeking shade, wearing protective clothing, and avoiding peak sun hours. This is especially important since there’s currently no sunscreen on the market that can fully shield your skin from the sun’s harmful UV rays.


If you already have dark spots on your skin, there are ways to help reduce their appearance. “Many types of hyperpigmentation resolve over time, but can be dramatically improved by proactive skin care practices,” Dr. Schmid says. Take a peek below to see which steps you can take to help reduce the appearance of hyperpigmentation.  


 “It is crucial to cover all areas of hyperpigmentation (and the skin in general) with daily SPF 50 sunscreen,” Dr. Schmid says. For hyperpigmentation in particular, he suggests using SkinCeuticals Physical Fusion UV Defense SPF 50 sunscreen daily. He also says you should top it off with a hat and UV protective clothing before heading outdoors.


Since hyperpigmentation is essentially just a darkening of the skin, one of the ways you can address it is by brightening the look of your skin. Some of the best ways to do this? Try to find skin care products that are formulated with either vitamin C, alpha-hydroxy acids, or retinol. For this, Dr. Schmid recommends either SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic or SkinCeuticals Phloretin CF, which are both powerful antioxidant serums formulated with vitamin C .


An active form of vitamin A, retinol is one of the most popular anti-aging ingredients out there and is available without a prescription. Some of the benefits of using retinol are reducing the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines as well as evening out the skin’s tone when used consistently over time. Retinol can even be paired along with other ingredients such as vitamin C or hyaluronic acid to  to hydrate, brighten, and up your anti-aging routine all at once.

One important thing to keep in mind whenever you use products with retinol is to let your skin build up a tolerance to the ingredient. Since it’s powerful, you don’t want to shock your skin and experience a negative reaction. Depending on where you are in your retinol journey (beginner or advanced), consider one or more of either the SkinCeuticals Retinol 0.3, SkinCeuticals Retinol 0.5, or SkinCeuticals Retinol 1.0.

Editor’s note: When using retinol in your skin care routine, it’s crucial to pair it with broad-spectrum sunscreen in the daytime since retinol can cause skin sensitivity to sunlight.



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