The cycle seems endless: You get a pimple, try to treat it in the manner in which every dermatologist and inside source at whatever beauty publication you swear by tells you to—namely, by not touching it, popping it when it’s ready to be popped (and only if necessary!), and applying the appropriate products afterward. But, no matter how hard you try to stick to the script, you’re left with a dark spot in your blemish's wake. Been there! Done that! Have the marks to prove it! Hyperpigmentation is very common—particularly for women of color—so take comfort in the fact that you’re not suffering alone.
A general definition of hyperpigmentation is when patches of skin become darker in color than the normal surrounding area. What happens is, when the skin experiences trauma of some kind, it overproduces melanin as a means of protection, leading to marks. Since those with darker skin tend to have more melanocytes, the marks are more prominent. Not all hyperpigmentation is the same though (we’ll get to this in a bit), but if you feel like you’ve seen the term thrown around more in the beauty space over the past couple of years than ever before, you’re not delusional. Medical esthetician Rachel Roff has been tackling the issue for more than 15 years with her brand Urban Skin Rx, but she says she’s seen more and more companies beginning to pour money into the issue by coming out with dark spot and brightening products.
“I think that the beauty industry used to spend their dollars marketing and catering to wealthy white women,” she says. “Before, it was all about anti-aging because, overall, it was a high-dollar category and for those of us who don't have a lot of melanin in our skin, we age quickly, so that's what people cared about.” Now, brands are starting to realize the power of the POC dollar, since women of color often outspend white women, especially in the beauty space. “[WOC] have just as many concerns, if not more, about taking care of themselves and being prideful about looking their best,” Roff explains. “It always baffled me, and I could never understand [why WOC weren't being marketed to], but I'm glad that the world is finally catching up.”
Ahead, we chat with Roff about the different kinds of hyperpigmentation, what kinds of treatments she recommends, and how to prevent it from happening in the first place.
The Different Types
The most common type of hyperpigmentation for 20-somethings is what’s called postinflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH). It’s basically what I described above, the aftermath of acne, but it can also be caused by ingrown hairs, tweezing, insect bites, eczema, or a rash.
Since PIH is so common, it’s often what brands focus on when coming out with treatments, but Roff says that melasma is also becoming more and more of an epidemic. It’s caused by estrogen or hormonal changes and used to be called the pregnancy mask, since women would commonly get it when they were pregnant or on birth control pills. It usually looks like large splotches that might show up on your upper lip area, cheeks, or across the bridge of your nose. Roff says it won’t appear as dark as PIH, but that there’s a noticeable difference in color.
Last are freckles and age and sun spots. These are most commonly found in older women with fairer skin tones and are caused by excessive sun exposure. Some freckles can be hereditary, but UV exposure typically brings them out more.
Melasma is considered the hardest kind of hyperpigmentation to treat because it’s ultra-sensitive to heat and light. Well, all three technically are—and wearing sunblock is a must always, but especially if you suffer from any kind of hyperpigmentation—but melasma can be especially finicky. “I’m very hesitant to tell anyone that I can make [melasma] go away permanently, because it can look like it’s gone, but if you get too much heat or sun exposure, it’s going to come back," Roff explains. So, her main treatment recommendation is products with tranexamic acid in it. She’s also a big advocate for VI chemical peels.
Treating PIH is all about fading the spots (which will happen over time, depending on how aggressive of a regimen you’re using and how much sun exposure the area is getting). The top ingredients Roff recommends looking out for are: azelaic acid, kojic acid, niacinamide, glycolic acid, lactic acid, and salicylic acid. Using a vitamin C product under your sunscreen daily is also important and, if you want a quicker fix, she recommends fraxel lasers and chemical peels.
For freckles and sun spots, she also recommends lasers (fraxel or pico), retinol, and chemical peels.
Staying out of the sun is the biggest preventative measure for all hyperpigmentation, Roff says. But since that’s pretty much impossible—and regular vitamin D is also important—we’re here to push the sunscreen narrative again (and again and again). Roff recommends physical sunblock over chemical since she says it does a better job at protecting, especially for those with melasma and who are sensitive to heat. Another universal recommendation is getting regular professional exfoliating treatments—like detox facials, microdermabrasion, or enzyme facials.
For those suffering from PIH, the most important thing is using products to help avoid breakouts from popping up in the first place. If razor bumps from shaving or tweezing are the source of your pigment darkening, she says to consider getting laser hair removal.
In all of these hyperpigmentation cases, it’s important to remember that this is a marathon and not a sprint. It might take months for your scars to go away, but persistence and patience is the key.