Hyperpigmentation is one of the most frustrating and misunderstood skin concerns many people experience. It can be caused by several factors, from excessive sun exposure to hormonal changes. “Most [people] deal with at least one form of hyperpigmentation at some point in their lives,” says Sapna Palep, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. There are many ingredients that can help treat hyperpigmentation, yet despite what mainstream skincare brands/media may claim, there is not a one-size-fits-all approach. The reality is that fading and preventing excess pigmentation often requires an arsenal of pigmentation inhibiting ingredients.
Pigmentation concerns can take many forms. Age spots are primarily due to extended periods of unprotected sun exposure, while post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) occurs when skin inflammation leads to a stubborn red or dark spot that can take months to fully fade. Melasma is caused by the hormonal fluctuations of pregnancy (AKA pregnancy mask) or drugs like birth control pills and is by far the most difficult to treat. While post inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) fades over time, pigmentation from the sun and melasma generally sticks around without any intervention. Certain areas of the face, such as the forehead, cheeks, and upper lip, are highly exposed to the sun and therefore more susceptible to hyperpigmentation. Rest assured; by incorporating a mix of brightening ingredients into your routine, you’ll be able to greatly improve the appearance of pigmentation concerns.
Best Ingredients To Fade Pigmentation
One of the most slept-on brightening ingredients, Arbutin can prevent the formation of melanin by acting as a tyrosinase/pigment inhibitor. It is far gentler than Hydroquinone, a controversial brightening ingredient that’s currently banned in the European Union, while offering comparable results. Brightening ingredients work even better together, so pair with Tranexamic acid and Niacinamide for a potent synergistic effect.
As we age, our skin cells tend to stick around for a bit longer, allowing pigmentation to accumulate. Exfoliation helps support our skin’s natural renewal process, ensuring that old, pigmented cells are shed and a new more even complexion is revealed. Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AKA AHAs) are known to be particularly effective for treating pigmentation concerns. Exfoliating regularly has the added benefit of allowing your other skincare products to absorb more effectively. Skin tends to be more photosensitive after exfoliation, so it’s even more important to ensure you’re wearing a broad-spectrum SPF daily. Common AHAs used in skincare products include Glycolic Acid, Lactic Acid, and Citric Acid.
When skin is under constant oxidative stress from the sun and pollution, it’s just not going to function at its best. Antioxidants help protect the skin from these environmental factors, and even offer a level of photoprotection that may help prevent pigmentation from even forming in the first place. Like pigmentation inhibitors, Antioxidants work even better when paired together. Common antioxidants include Vitamin E, Ferulic Acid, and botanical extracts.
Microneedling is the process of rolling hundreds of tiny needles into the skin with a roller or stamp type device. Like aerating a lawn, this process creates micro injuries in the skin that stimulates collagen production and breaks up excess pigmentation. Microneedling has the added benefit of allowing for much deeper product penetration, so brightening ingredients applied after treatment are multitudes more effective.
Niacinamide has many skin benefits, chief among them its barrier fortifying and pore minimizing abilities. It’s also a powerful tool for treating pigmentation due to its ability to prevent pigment from transferring between cells. This is a different mechanism of action than many other brightening ingredients and makes for a very potent combo when they are used together in a routine.
Dermatologist darling Retinol is truly a jack-of-all-trades ingredient. Proven to help clear up acne and reduce the appearance of wrinkles, it’s also highly effective for treating pigmentation concerns. It works by increasing the rate at which we shed our skin cells (AKA naturally exfoliate). In regulating this process, Retinol keeps the skin performing properly and ensures your complexion is clear and radiant. Retinol may make your skin more sensitive to the sun, so it’s important to preferably use it in the evening and follow with a good broad-spectrum SPF of 30+ in the morning.
Vitamin C is the star antioxidant and considered the gold standard when treating pigmentation concerns. A potent tyrosinase/pigmentation inhibitor, it has been studied for decades for its incredible ability to lighten hyperpigmentation. Vitamin C comes in various forms and potencies, so those with sensitive skin may want to start with a lower percentage before moving up.
The ultimate product for preventing pigmentation from rearing its ugly head in the first place is sunscreen. “Sun exposure is one of the most controllable factors,” says Dr. Scott Wells, MD. A good broad-spectrum SPF of 30+ applied (and reapplied) daily will protect the skin against the damaging rays of the sun and keep it looking even toned. Mineral sunscreens may be better suited to those with more sensitive skin, while the chemical variety offers increased water/sweat protection. The best sunscreen is the one you’ll wear every day, so make sure you absolutely love the texture, smell, and look of your SPF.