Uneven or discolored skin —aka hyperpigmentation—can appear as dark patches or spots surrounded by your skin’s natural shade. Prolonged sun exposure is one of the major causes, and while it’s true that sun damage can leave its “mark,” there are other factors besides the sun that can cause hyperpigmentation.
The good news? Dark patches on your skin are typically treatable. The even better news? There’s a lot you can do to help prevent hyperpigmentation in the first place. Here, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about how to prevent hyperpigmentation. And for you fun-in-the-sun types, we’ll show you just how to cover up, for your skin’s sake!
Changes in skin pigmentation can happen when the body produces increased amounts of melanin, which is what gives skin its color. It’s also responsible for hair and eye color—the more melanin you have, the darker your hair and eyes will be.
What causes hyperpigmentation? A mix of things—some of which can be avoided, like sun exposure, but some cannot. Here’s how to help prevent hyperpigmentation on the face and body:
Stay out of direct sunlight whenever possible. Cover up or find shade during peak sunlight hours. Do what you can to minimize direct sunlight, especially between 10 am and 4 pm.
Wear a hat. Make a broad-brimmed hat part of your daily wardrobe to help shade your face.
Wear sun-protective clothing. If you know you’re going to be in the sun, try to wear sun-protective clothing. Darker colors absorb UV rays, densely woven fabrics offer more protection than sheer fabrics, and loose-fitting clothing protects more than tight-fitting clothing.¹ Ultraviolet protective factor (UPF) does offer protection—just look for the Skin Cancer Foundation’s seal of approval.
Go big with the sunglasses. Help protect your eyes and the sensitive skin around them with large-frame sunglasses.
Apply sunscreen. Use a broad-spectrum chemical or physical sunscreen with at least SPF 30. Don’t forget to reapply every two hours or after swimming, sweating, or toweling off.
Use topical vitamin C.Vitamin C is a great antioxidant for the skin. It can fade hyperpigmentation and stop new dark spots from forming by inhibiting the enzyme needed to create melanin. Vitamin C can help prevent ultraviolet-related hyperpigmentation and provide an extra boost of sun protection.²,³
Pick pigment-friendly ingredients. Retinoids like adapalene (available over the counter) and tretinoin (available only with a prescription), are used to treat acne and improve skin tone and texture. Niacinamide is a form of vitamin B3 that can be used to improve red and brown spots on the skin.
Don’t pick. Scratching, picking, and touching spots on your face can introduce bacteria and lead to irritation of acne lesions, bug bites, or other spots. Inflammation can lead to areas of hyperpigmentation.⁴
There are several types of hyperpigmentation, but among the most common are sunspots, melasma, and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (aka PIH):
Sunspots. Also called age spots or solar lentigines, sun spots usually become darker with sun exposure. They typically appear where your body receives the most sun exposure— on the face and hands.
Melasma. This skin condition is triggered by sun exposure and hormones, but experts are still working to better understand the cause. Melasma appears in symmetrical patterns of light to dark brown patches, typically on the forehead, cheeks, chin, and upper lip. Melasma is also referred to as the “mask of pregnancy,” as it’s common in pregnant people.⁵ Here’s a guide on how to prevent hyperpigmentation around the mouth—if it’s melasma. To be sure, it’s best to consult your medical provider.
Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. PIH results from injury to the skin, like cystic acne, a burn, or other types of inflammation. Melanocytes respond to inflammation, and overproduction can lead to skin discoloration.⁶
Now that we know the most common types of hyperpigmentation let’s look at the symptoms of each in a little more detail! Spoiler alert: Knowing the symptoms will help you treat hyperpigmentation.
Symptoms: Brown, black, or tan spots that appear on the skin following prolonged sun exposure.
Where: Most commonly on the face and hands or other areas of the body regularly exposed to the sun.
Who: Because they usually take time to develop, they’re most common among older adults or people who spend time in the sun.
Symptoms: Symmetrical patches of darkened skin.
Where: Most often on the forehead, cheeks, and chin.
Who: More common in women than men. Can also occur in those who are pregnant or taking certain types of birth control.
Symptoms: Spots or patches of darkened skin that appear after an inflammatory condition (i.e., acne, eczema, or an insect bite).
Where: PIH can occur anywhere on the body.
Who: Anyone with an inflammatory skin condition or reaction can experience PIH.
Sun exposure is one of the most common causes of hyperpigmentation, but it’s not the only thing that can cause dark spots. Other contributing factors can include:
Skin inflammation. If you’re wondering how to prevent hyperpigmentation from acne, one of the easiest ways is to stop picking at pimples. Skin inflammation is the primary contributing factor to PIH. Do what you can to minimize skin inflammation and irritation from blemishes and bites.
Pregnancy. Hormonal fluctuations during pregnancy can trigger melasma and other skin concerns. So can other hormonal factors, like taking birth control pills.
Medications. Some medications, like tricyclic antidepressants,⁷ can cause hyperpigmentation. As can some topical treatments. Don’t stop taking meds without consulting your doctor first, though.
Medical conditions. Conditions like hypocortisolism,⁸ which affects the body’s adrenal glands, or hemochromatosis, a genetic condition that causes the body to retain iron, can also result in hyperpigmentation.⁹
Remember, prolonged exposure to direct sunlight is one of the main contributing factors to hyperpigmentation and dark patches on the skin—as well as photoaging and skin cancer. When you’re out and about for the day, be sure to always wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30+. Mineral (physical) or chemical, the best sun protection is what you’ll actually wear, so choose one that works well with your skin type.
Yes! Curology can treat hyperpigmentation with our personalized prescription formulas and our dark spot formula. The ingredients in our formulas can tackle hyperpigmentation, such as PIH and melasma. They’re a perfect complement to your skincare routine to help correct uneven skin tone.
So, are you concerned about hyperpigmentation? Sign up for Curology to get expert skincare guidance from a licensed dermatology provider and customized treatment options that address your skin concerns. We’re here for you every step. For us, it’s all about the service. Sign up for your free 30-day trial (just pay $4.95 (plus tax) to cover shipping and handling.* Your personalized prescription formula and other skincare products will be delivered straight to your door. Psst…don’t forget to add the sunscreen to your order—it’s also on us for the first month!
Common ways to help prevent hyperpigmentation on the face and body include staying out of direct sunlight whenever possible, and wear a hat, make a broad-brimmed hat part of your daily wardrobe to help shade your face, also, wearing sun-protective clothing. If you know you’re going to be in the sun, try to wear sun-protective clothing, also, sunglasses will help protect your eyes and the sensitive skin around them with large-frame sunglasses, using Vitamin C is a great antioxidant for the skin, pick pigment-friendly ingredients, and, avoid scratch, picking, and touching spots on your face can introduce bacteria and lead to irritation of acne lesions.
Sun exposure is one of the most common causes of hyperpigmentation, other contributing factors include skin inflammation, pregnancy, medications, and medical conditions.
Sunspots. Also called age spots or solar lentigines, sun spots usually become darker with sun exposure.
Melasma. This skin condition is triggered by sun exposure and hormones, but experts are still working to better understand the cause. Melasma appears in symmetrical patterns of light to dark brown patches, typically on the forehead, cheeks, chin, and upper lip.
Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. PIH results from injury to the skin, like cystic acne, a burn, or other types of inflammation.
Skin Cancer Foundation. Sun-protective clothing. (n.d.).
Pumori Saokar Telang. Vitamin C in dermatology. Indian Dermatol Online J. (Apr-Jun 2013).
Firas Al-Niaimi MRCP and Nicole Yi Zhen Chiang MRCP. Topical Vitamin C and the Skin: Mechanisms of Action and Clinical Applications. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. (2017 July).
Elizabeth Lawrence; Khalid M. Al Aboud. Postinflammatory Hyperpigmentation. StatPearls Publishing. (2022 January).
Sheth, V.M, et al. Melasma: A comprehensive update, part I. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (October 2011).
Silpa-archa, N., et al. Post Inflammatory hyperpigmentation: A comprehensive overview: Epidemiology, pathogenesis, clinical presentation, and noninvasive assessment technique. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (October 2017).
Milionis, H.J., et al. Hypersensitivity syndrome caused by amitriptyline administration. Postgraduate Medical Journal. (June 2000).
AARON MICHELS, MD, AND NICOLE MICHELS, PhD. Addison Disease: Early Detection and Treatment Principles. Am Fam Physician. (2014, April 1)
Porter, J.L., et al. Hemochromatosis.StatPearls. (2022, June 11).
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Kristen Jokela, NP-C