Hyperpigmentation is a condition where patches of skin become darker than the normal surrounding skin—i.e., the fancy term for “dark spots.” This discoloration results from an accumulation of excess melanin—a naturally occurring pigment in the body that gives the eyes, hair, and skin their (beautiful array variety) color.
Though hyperpigmentation can occur in people of all skin tones, it tends to be more frequent in people with darker skin—particularly black skin. The reason is that darker skin contains more melanin (more color) in the skin cells and a tendency to overproduce additional melanin in response to external factors. While hyperpigmentation is totally treatable, people with darker skin need to take extra caution to safely and effectively treat dark spots. Please read below for dermatologists' tips for treating hyperpigmentation in black skin (including our favorite Advanced Dark Spot remover).
What causes hyperpigmentation?
Post-Inflammatory hyperpigmentation (or PIH): PIH is a type of “skin trauma”—injury or inflammation of the skin resulting from several illnesses, disorders, or hormonal problems. For example, PIH may be caused by acne, eczema, psoriasis, or contact dermatitis. These can contribute to higher melanin amounts in the area and the resulting development of pink, red, or dark brown spots. PIH can affect people with any skin tone type but tends to affect those with dark skin the most.
Sun damage: Sunspots, small and flat, can range in color from light to dark brown. They tend to develop on parts of the skin exposed to the most sunlight—such as the face, chest, neck, and hands—that receive more sun exposure, stimulating melanin production. As with other dark spots, sunspots tend to get darker with additional sun exposure.
Melasma: Melasma is a type of skin discoloration caused by changes in hormone levels often associated with pregnancy or the use of birth control pills. Melasma typically develops on larger areas face—the cheeks, sides of the face, forehead, and above the lips.
Why do people with black skin need to be careful with hyperpigmentation treatment?
People with darker skin tones need extra caution when using products to treat post-acne dark spots and hyperpigmentation. Using the wrong ingredients—or even the right ingredients in the wrong concentrations—can cause skin irritation, further skin discoloration, excess skin lightening, and other side effects. However, several "gold-standard" ingredients are proven to help treat hyperpigmentation in dark skin safely and effectively when used properly.
The best ingredients for treating hyperpigmentation in black skin
The safety and efficacy of hyperpigmentation and dark spot treatments depend on their active ingredients. Below are our dermatologist-approved ingredients for treating hyperpigmentation in black skin. These ingredients can be used individually but can be more effective and less irritating when combined with other anti-inflammatory ingredients.
- Arbutin: is a naturally occurring plant-derived compound in the leaves of several plant species, including barberry, blueberry, cranberry, and pear trees. The arbutin molecule is similar to the hydroquinone molecule with an attached sugar molecule. Arbutin reduces melanin's excessive production in dark spots by inhibiting tyrosinase. It helps reduce the overproduction of melanin while keeping the melanocytes unharmed. Combined with other wild berry extracts, a retinoid, alpha-hydroxy acid, and antioxidants, it is arguably the most effective hydroquinone-free anti-dark spots ingredient.
- Bearberry extract: comes from the leaves of the bearberry plant and is believed to be the world's best plant-based dark spot remover. It works by inhibiting the enzyme tyrosinase, which produces melanin in the skin. Coming from a botanical source, bearberry extract for skin lightening contains antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents that protect against free radical damage and UV rays and prevent the formation of new melanin in existing dark spots.
- Indian gooseberry extract is a natural extract of Indian gooseberry, also known in ayurvedic medicine as Amla. Rich in vitamin C helps reduce hyperpigmentation, helps reduce acne and help provides a healthier, smoother appearance to your skin.
- Aloe Vera Leaf Extract: has soothing and antioxidant properties and hydrates your skin.
- Glycolic Acid (AHA): this naturally occurring alpha-hydroxy fruit acid is used to lighten uneven excessive skin pigment in professional settings. Through exfoliation, glycolic acid enhances the penetration of ingredients to achieve better performance for faster, visible results.
- Salicylic Acid (BHA): works like a superficial professional peel. It brightens the skin and increases the effects of dark spot-fighting compounds.
- Sunflower Oil is a naturally derived plant oil that is super moisturizing, made of 60% linoleic acid, and rich in antioxidant vitamin E.
- Retinyl Palmitate: Retinyl Palmitate is a retinol ester (retinol) combined with palmitic acid (a saturated fatty acid). In the body, it gets converted to pure retinol and then to active retinoic acid, which increases cell turnover in the epidermis for faster removal of excess melanin. Clinical studies have shown that retinoids (including retinoic acid, retinol, and retinyl palmitate) help reduce uneven pigmentation while strengthening elastin fibers and supporting structural collagen, which helps prevent breakouts and signs of aging.
- Vitamin E: An antioxidant that prevents free radical skin damage and protects the natural skin barrier.
Less Effective Ingredients:
- Kojic acid: a by-product of rice fermentation; Kojic acid also works by blocking tyrosine from forming. However, Kojic acid does pose the risk of causing allergic or sensitizing reactions in a small number of people. Since it is also a significantly less effective agent than hydroquinone at treating hyperpigmentation, Dermatologists rarely use it.
- Azelaic Acid: Found in wheat, rye, and barley, in concentrations of 20%, it may affect dark spots. It is the least effective skin brightening agent and is rarely prescribed by dermatologists for Dark Spots' primary treatment.
What is the best dark spot treatment for black skin?
Several products are available both over the counter and with a prescription that has been proven safe and effective in treating hyperpigmentation in dark skin tones. The most commonly prescribed treatment is the Kligman Formula, which combines several of the ingredients above to treat hyperpigmentation; however, due to the high concentration of hydroquinone in most Kligman Formula variations, it is often not suitable for black skin.
MDacne's Advanced Dark Spot remover: We're biased, but we think this is the best way to treat hyperpigmentation in dark skin tones—especially black skin. It was formulated by a dermatologist, Co-Founder, Dr. Yoram Harth. Inspired by Kligman Formula to help treat dark marks gently yet effectively, it is one of its kind formulated for acne-prone, sensitive skin. This dark spot corrector combines the most effective dark spots corrector available without a dermatologist's prescription with plant-based anti-inflammatory and skin-lightening ingredients for best results. This unique formulation is safe and effective for all skin tones, including black skin.
Check out these results! Using her Customized Acne Treatment Kit & Dark Spot Remover, Pamela has been able to clear her acne and fade her PIH for clear, glowing skin!
In-office treatments for hyperpigmentation
If you haven't tried the above treatments, stop here. While there are more aggressive treatment options, they are often unnecessary (or even beneficial) as the ingredients above are typically enough to effectively treat hyperpigmentation in black skin. However, as with any effective skincare product, results can take time. Be patient, and your skin will thank you.
If you've tried these and haven’t achieved full clearance of your hyperpigmentation, or you are desperate to get rid of your dark spots ASAP (hello, weddings, prom, job interview), here are some other treatments you might consider...though they come at a pretty price and with some side effects!
Microdermabrasion: This procedure removes the uppermost superficial layer of skin. Microdermabrasion is safe for people with black skin. Still, it will not remove pigment that lies deeper in the epidermis and dermis and will typically not significantly affect dark spots.
Chemical Peels: using ingredients like salicylic acid, glycolic acid, Jessner peels, and low-percentage TCA peels help remove dark pigments below the skin's surface. The milder, more superficial peels have some effect on melasma and sun-induced dark spots. TCA peels, which are more aggressive, are usually not recommended for people with dark skin due to the risk of post-treatment hypopigmentation (excessive skin lightening).
Laser or IPL Treatments: target the melanin that accumulates in skin cells with high-intensity light. The melanin in the skin cells is heated and destroyed using special wavelengths of light. Like TCA peels, laser and IPL treatment may be too aggressive and risky for people with black skin due to an increased risk of hypopigmentation.
Can you treat hyperpigmentation with diet?
Diet has not been shown clinically to directly affect existing hyperpigmentation. That said, dietary choices can influence the skin’s inflammation and indirectly help with post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. An anti-inflammatory diet can also help with active acne, one of the causes of PIH, and is an excellent supplement to the regular use of a Dark spot treatment.
Green Tea: Contains polyphenols, which have free radical-scavenging and anti-inflammatory effects. Green tea is also an excellent ingredient of anti-acne and dark spot remover. Leafy green vegetables — Good source of vitamin C and phytonutrients that decrease sun-induced free radical damage to the skin cells.
Berries: all types of berries are a great natural source of antioxidants, including vitamins C and E, that can protect the skin and help with skin healing processes.
Wild-Caught Salmon: Other omega-3-rich fish are rich in Omega 3, a potent anti-inflammatory agent.
Healthy Fats: including coconut oil, olive oil, avocados, almonds, flax seeds, walnuts, and other nuts/seeds — Help keep skin hydrated, prevent dryness, and reduce inflammation.
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- Sarkar R, Garg VK, Mysore V. Melasma update. Indian Dermatol Online J. 2014;5(4):426-435.
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- Draelos ZD. Skin lightening preparations and the hydroquinone controversy. Dermatol Ther. 2007;20(5):308-313.
- Alexis AF, Blackcloud P. Chemical peels and microdermabrasion for postinflammatory hyperpigmentation and acne scarring in skin of color. Semin Cutan Med Surg. 2012;31(2):87-92.
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