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“Out, damn’d spot! Out, I say!”  Macbeth Act 5, scene 1

There are things that frustrate you. There are things that frustrate me. And then there is hyperpigmentation, the medical term for increased skin pigment. I can’t tell you the number of times patients have asked me in frustration—“Why can’t I get rid of these brown spots, I hate them! It can’t be so hard can it?”

Unfortunately, yes.

Melanin is the skin’s natural pigment that darkens to protect us from the sun’s skin cancer causing rays. Once sun exposure stops, skin lightens back to its natural color. At least, that’s what is supposed to happen. Damaged or abnormally functioning cells produce discoloration that does not fade. To some degree, the tendency to make abnormal pigment has a genetic basis tied to ethnic background. People with more natural pigment, such as Hispanic, Asian, American Indian, etc., respond to anything that injures or inflames the skin with increased pigmentation.

There are five triggers for abnormal pigmentation—sun exposure, inflammation, injury, hormones and aging. Each of the triggers results in a specific type of pigmentation, and each is more common among different types of patients. In medicine it’s always a good idea to start with an accurate diagnosis, before deciding on treatment and prognosis. First, look in the mirror and see exactly what kind of pigment you want to improve.

From easiest to most difficult:

In the mirror: Scattered pin-head to quarter size flat brown spots on face, neck, chest, forearms, and hands.

  • Diagnosis: Actinic damage from past sun exposure, most commonly in lighter skinned people.
  • Treatment: Home skin care, prescription retinoid creams such as Retin A or Refissa, daily sun protection, Intense Pulsed Light (IPL), GentleWaves, Fraxel Laser.
  • Ease of treatment: Moderate.

In the mirror: Tan to dark brown flat or raised growths.

  • Diagnosis: Seborrehic Keratosis (age spots), often familial, and more common with age.
  • Treatment: First—physician evaluation to be sure they are benign, then destruction with liquid nitrogen, electric needle or Fraxel Laser.
  • Ease of treatment: Moderate.

In the mirror: Brown or red-brown discoloration of areas with past acne or injury.

  • Diagnosis: Post inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIHP), most commonly occurring patients with more natural pigment.
  • Treatment: Prevention by treatment of acne, not picking, and caution with procedures that can cause pigment such as chemical peels and laser hair removal. Treatment with home skin care, prescription skin bleach, prescription retinoid creams, and for some patients the very cautious use of chemical peels or microdermabrasion.
  • Ease of treatment: Moderate—difficult.

In the mirror: Large dark flat patches of discoloration, usually symmetrical, over cheeks, jawline, forehead and/or above upper lip. It is often more obvious in low light settings, such as at sunset.

  • Diagnosis: Melasma or “mask of pregnancy,” is caused by a combination of hormones, predominantly estrogen from pregnancy or birth control, and sun exposure. Once it starts, melasma tends to reoccur very easily with minimal amounts of sun exposure, even if the hormonal trigger is removed.
  • I divide melasma into two types: “relatively easy” and “hard.” The difference is dependent on how deep in the skin the pigmentation is found, and whether both the hormonal stimulation and sun exposure can be reduced. Deeper pigment is harder to improve.
  • Treatment: Involves both removing the triggers, and using creams and procedures to reduce existing pigment. Daily, year round, broad spectrum sun protection and avoidance of sun exposure is absolutely essential. Reducing hormonal triggers is often a challenge as pregnancy eventually ends, but often the need for birth control continues. Even if the hormonal trigger is removed, the melasma remains “turned on” and even tiny amounts of sunlight cause it to reoccur. Treatment at home with skin lighteners, prescription skin bleaches, retinoid creams, and sunscreen, combined with in-office chemical peels or SilkPeel are tried first. “Easy” melasma usually responds fairly well to this treatment. For more resistant cases, Intense Pulsed Light, laser, and deeper chemical peels under the supervision of a dermatologist experienced in treatment of pigment, are considered. Results are varied, and these procedures may actually make pigment worse.
  • Ease of treatment: Difficult-very difficult.

Overall abnormal pigment, especially melasma, is one of the hardest and most frustrating skin problems that cosmetic dermatologists and their patients deal with. I know, since I have had it myself.

Though Lady Macbeth and I earned our spots in different ways, the frustration is the same.

Next: Let’s dive into the pigment pool in more depth


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