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Pigment problems are one of the most frustrating things that dermatologists and their patients deal with, and I know it first hand because I have been on both sides of the exam table. To continue with our previous discussion, Out, damn’d spot! Out, I say! Get Rid of Brown Spots on the Face, let’s recap:

There are 4 main kinds of increased skin pigmentation, or brown spot problems:

  • Scattered pin-head to quarter size flat brown spots on face, neck, chest, forearms, and hands from sun damage
  • Tan to dark brown flat or raised growths from aging or genetic influences
  • Brown or red-brown discoloration of areas from past acne or injury
  • Large dark flat patches of discoloration from hormonally induced melasma

And they are easiest to hardest to treat, in that order.

The key to doing the best you can with what you’ve got, is to know what you’ve got. To some degree, you inherit the skin you’ve got. The most obvious, and one that has caused problems since our ancestors left the savannah, is skin color. Skin color is primarily determined by the amount, kind, and distribution of protective melanin pigmentation. Racial groups who were adapted to live in the tropical belt, with stronger sunlight, developed more pigmentation to protect against early death from disseminated skin cancer. Those who migrated north where sunlight is much less intense, developed reduced amount of pigmentation, and some also developed abnormal, less functional melanin, manifesting as red hair and freckles on sun exposure. Less pigmentation allowed increased UV penetration and adequate Vitamin D synthesis to prevent rickets. All well and good, until a red headed, freckled Irishman migrates over a couple of generations, from cloudy Northern Ireland to the sunny southwest United States and takes up ranching or farming. Or as I say to patients so frequently my nurses pull their hair out, “your skin should have stayed in Ireland.”

Other kinds of abnormal pigmentation are more common in groups who may have more natural pigmentation to provide sun protection. Those ugly brown growths called seborrehic keratosis occur in many ethnic groups, but are more common in some than others. Dark pigment after injury, acne or rashes is more common in those with more natural pigmentation. The scourge of the pigment world, melasma, occurs overwhelmingly in women and is more common in those with mid or deeper pigmentation.

So the first thing you need to do is look at your ethnic ancestry. The sun is stronger near the equator and progressively less strong as you more north and south away from the equator. Since natural skin pigmentation changes based on sun exposure take many generations, it is based on your ethnic background many generations past. So we are talking about areas that were inhabited in the distant past, thousands of years ago—the Old World not the New World. For instance, with the exception of Native Americans, those in the US would base it on the area from which your ancestors emigrated. No, you don’t need to go on Ancestors.com. Most of us have a general idea from our family narrative. Before I get angry email responses that I am trying to start the racial argument, imply superiority of one racial background over another, or correct me on my very simplistic description of the major racial groups or names based on DNA analysis or historical evidence —just stop. I’m a dermatologist discussing this in regards to how your racial or ethnic ancestry affects your risk of pigment changes, how you can prevent it, and what to do about it. Because in this situation, skin color does matter. You can’t handle the truth? Bummer. Get over it.

In a very general sense, if your ancestry is predominantly:

  • Celtic (i.e. Irish and Scots) you are at high risk for sun induced pigment, moderate risk of growths and melasma and low risk of post inflammation pigment
  • Northwestern European, Germanic or northern Slavic (i.e. English, Scandinavian, German, French, north-west Russian) you have moderate risk of sun induced pigment, growths, post inflammation pigment, and melasma
  • Southern European, Mediterranean, or southern Slavic (i.e. Italian, Spanish, Greek, southern Baltic, southern Russian) you have low risk for sun induced pigment, moderate risk for growths, post inflammation pigment and melasma
  • Northern Asian (i.e. Japanese, northern Chinese, Korean) you have low-moderate risk of sun induced pigment, and moderate to high risk of growths, post inflammation pigment and melasma
  • Equatorial African or Asian, Middle Eastern, Indic; Polynesian Pacific Islander; indigenous Northern, Central or Southern American (i.e. Northern African, Arabian, Persian, Turk, East Indian, Hawaiian, Malaysian, Pakistani, Vietnamese, Native American, Mexican) you are at low risk of sun induced pigment, moderate risk of growths, and high risk of post inflammation pigment and melasma
  • Equatorial or southern African, aboriginal Pacific Islanders—you are low risk of sun induced pigment, moderate-high risk of melasma and high risk of post inflammation pigment

Because humans have been traipsing all over the earth for centuries, mixing up the gene pool, many of us are of mixed ancestry. So in addition to looking at ancestry and to simplify things the Fitzpatrick Skin Type scale was developed. The Fitzpatrick skin type scale is based on your genetic skin disposition regarding how your skin responds to the sun. You can take the full Fitzpatrick Skin Type quiz, and get specific recommendations for your skin type at the Skin Cancer Foundation website. Here it is in summary:

When exposed to sunlight, do you:

  • Always burn, never tan—you are Skin Type I
  • Usually burn, tan lightly—you are Skin Type II
  • Sometimes burn, tan moderately—you are Skin Type III
  • Rarely burn, always tan—you are Skin Type IV
  • Very rarely burn, tan easily and deeply—you are Skin Type V
  • Never burn, always deeply pigmented—you are Skin Type VI

Again, in general:

  • Skin Type I is at very high risk of sun induced pigment, moderate risk of growths and melasma, and low risk of post inflammatory pigment
  • Skin Type II is at moderate to high risk of sun induced pigment, and moderate risk of growths, post inflammatory pigment and melasma
  • Skin Type III is a moderate risk of sun induced pigment, growths, post inflammatory pigment and melasma
  • Skin Type IV is at low risk sun induced pigment, moderate risk of growths, and high risk post inflammatory pigment and melasma
  • Skin Type V is at low risk of sun induced pigment, moderate to high risk of growths, and high risk of post inflammatory pigment and melasma
  • Skin Type VI is at low risk of sun induced pigment, moderate risk of growths, moderate-high risk of melasma and high risk of post inflammatory pigment

We all have different levels of natural pigmentation, and my experience has been that almost all of us are happy with what we have got. And that is good, since we can’t change it. But, with the possible exception of freckles, most of us want to be one uniform color. We don’t want darker spots, blotches or patches of pigmentation because they take the focus away from our natural beauty. When the eye focuses on spots, it distracts from the rest of our loveliness. And makes us look older, since in youth those spots don’t occur. Subconsciously we associate uniform skin color with youth, and blotches and spots with aging. Therefore, if we want to look as young as we can, we need to reduce irregular patches of pigment.

So next: we will start with how to fix spots, blotches and irregular pigment from sun damage

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