Pigmentation is an issue that many women state to be their biggest skin concern. Factors such as sun exposure, hormones (both pregnancy and menopausal surges) some medications or simply genetics can cause highly pigmented skin. Prevention is key and treatment can seem tricky. Therefore, as always, we ask an expert about the most effective ingredients to look out for and top preventative measures so you can rest assured you’re making an educated decision if you’re battling pigmentation too.
Dr. Ginni Mansberg, co-founder of Evidence Skincare (ESK).
What causes pigmentation? Is it genetic or influenced by lifestyle?
Pigmentation in the skin is caused by a build-up of melanin, the skin’s natural pigment which is made in the skin to protect it from the sun’s UV rays. If there is an increase in the amount of melanin being produced in some parts of the skin or the skin is unable to naturally remove this excess melanin, you can get excessive or hyper-pigmentation. Common causes include cumulative exposure to the sun (over years), a reaction to some medications or injury or inflammation to the skin. Darker skin tones tend to be more affected by this problem and genes play a role, too.
Often, we don’t know why it happens. Genetics and in some cases, hormones, can play a big role in hyperpigmentation. But it is exposure to the sun (even incidentally) that really ups your chances of hyperpigmentation!
Is sun protection the only true prevention or can other practices minimise pigmentation?
Sun protection is definitely the most important factor in reducing the risk of hyperpigmentation. Of course, that includes a broad-spectrum sunscreen. The sun’s UVA rays that contribute to pigmentation are there from sunrise to sunset 365 days a year, so broad-spectrum sunscreen should be used daily as part of your skincare routine. But managing skin conditions like acne and rosacea that cause inflammation in your skin can also reduce your risk of developing it in the first place.
What type of skin-care ingredients can help minimise the appearance of pigmentation?
There are 4 main groups of ingredients which can help reduce hyperpigmentation and best results are achieved by targeting multiple groups at the same time.
- Tyrosinase inhibitors: These are a group which suppress tyrosinase, one of the key building blocks of melanin (the pigment in your skin). While these take some time to work, they are viewed as the most effective. Hydroquinone, largely viewed as the gold standard ingredient in depigmentation is one of these, but it has increasingly been coming under a safety cloud and is generally not recommend for use for more than 3 months. One of the most promising ingredients in this group is 4-n-butylresorcinol. It is very effective, very well-tolerated and safe for long term use (and during pregnancy).
- Transport disruption: Pigment is made in cells called melanocytes and transported to cells called keratinocytes, where it is deposited. Ingredients like Vitamin B (Niacinamide) and to a lesser degree Vitamin A (eg. Retinal) inhibit the transport of Melanin to keratinocytes, meaning there is less deposited there and less pigmentation.
- Increasing skin cell turnover: Vitamin A (eg. Retinal) is the ultimate ingredient to increase skin cell turnover, which helps “flush” melanin from the skin
- Antioxidants: Antioxidants like Vitamin C (Ascorbic Acid) interact with copper ions in the skin (one of the elements that would otherwise be involved in the process of making melanin) and also “switch off” the message to create melanin by deactivating Reactive Oxygen Species (which are formed following exposure to the sun’s UV).
There are other practices that can reduce and in some cases, remove hyperpigmentation. There are in-clinic procedures like Laser and Microdermabrasion which may help, but often come with discomfort and cost and the (rare) possibility in some users of making things worse. Microneedling (also an in-clinic procedure) can also help and has lower levels of discomfort and quicker recovery. None of these can be performed too often and the skin usually reverts over time.
Can you ever truly get rid of pigmentation?
Sometimes… Some hyperpigmentation is created deep in the skin and is very hard to remove. Hyperpigmentation which is closer to the surface of the skin can usually be significantly reduced and in some cases removed completely. At that point, hyperpigmentation can usually be kept at bay if sun exposure is properly managed (by avoidance, protective clothing (eg. A hat) and sunscreen use) and if effective (evidence-based) skincare is used.
Below are our top choices to keep on top of pigmentation. Keep in mind, many are serum-based which means you don’t require a high amount, some are as little as a drop, so they last quite a while when factored into your regular skincare routine.