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Now we are getting into the more difficult stuff—getting rid of brown spots and discoloration that occurs after acne; scratches or other injuries; or chemical peels, laser or IPL treatments gone wrong. Since you know how to tell what kind of brown spots you have from the previous post, Out Damn Spot, Out, Out, now you need to know what needs to be done to get rid of them. Since we solved the raised brown growth problem in the last post How to Get Rid Of Evidence of Age: Removing Raised Brown Age or Liver Spots, we are going further up the difficulty ladder to how to remove the brown, or reddish brown discolored spots that come after acne blemishes, scrapes, cuts, scratches, chemical peels, laser treatments or other injuries.

To recap, here is what you see:

  • In the mirror: Brown, grey or red-brown discoloration of areas with past acne, cosmetic procedures, or injury.
  • Diagnosis: Post inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIHP), which most commonly occurs in patients with more natural pigment, also called “skin of color.”
  • Treatment: Prevention by treatment of acne, not picking, and caution with procedures that can cause pigment such as chemical peels and laser hair removal. Strict sun protection is essential. Treatment with home skin care, prescription skin bleach, and prescription retinoid creams, and for some patients the very cautious use of SilkPeel, chemical peels, laser treatments, or microdermabrasion.
  • Ease of treatment: Moderate—difficult

PIHP is best explained by a very simple skin 101 rule: skin that makes pigment makes pigment. Anything that causes injury or inflammation in the skin causes your natural pigment cells to make pigment. That injury is seen most frequently when skin is injured—yes, I said injured—by sun exposure and you tan. Your skin really tries to protect you, and it says “if you are going on offense and throw harmful, DNA damaging UV radiation against me, I am going on defense and increase the pigment shield to try to keep it out”. And cosmetically, though not medically, an even increase in color is acceptable and often desired. The problem is that process is also turned on by other kinds of injury, and that leads to spots, patches and irregular areas of pigment that are cosmetically unacceptable. Added to that, if red blood cells are released out of blood vessels and are floating around loose in the skin, your body sends in cells to chew them up and carry them away to the trash. But the iron in red blood cells is often left behind, and iron (think rust), is reddish brown.

Although all skin has color, skin types IV, V and VI have more and are referred to as “skin of color.” It has more natural pigment, and is more efficient in making melanin. When I want to know if a patient is at risk for PIHP, I ask them one question: “When you get a scratch, what color does it turn when it heals?” Skin types I and II turns red or white. Skin type III can turn white or brown. Skin types IV, V and VI turn brown. If your scratches turn brown, you are at risk of PIHP. When your skin is injured in any way, it will turn brown or darker.

That means you must be very careful with cosmetic procedures that can injure the skin in any way, however mild. The “can injure skin in any way” list includes: waxing, plucking, picking, exfoliating, scrubbing, piercing, tattoos, acne, rashes, scratches, cuts, surgical scars, chemical peels, microdermabrasion, laser or IPL hair removal, IPL photo-rejuvenation, and laser resurfacing. Sometimes the pigment comes quickly after an injury; sometimes it is delayed for several months. Much less commonly, if the injury is severe, all pigment cells are killed, and the area turns white.

I cannot tell you the number of times I have seen patients after waxing, hair removal, chemical peels, IPL, or laser resurfacing procedures done elsewhere, who come in with pigment problems from the procedure. Dermatologists are very aware and sensitive to the issue of PIHP, and we are very proactive in preventing the problem in the first place, because prevention is much, much easier than correction. We will pretreat you with skin bleaches and strict sun protection before procedures, and send you home without the procedure if we think you have not followed instructions or have had too much sun. We act very quickly to turn off inflammation after procedures with prescription topical steroids and other inflammation reducers. Procedure settings and techniques are set very carefully to reduce risk, and sometimes we refuse to do certain procedures on certain patients if we feel the risk is too high. If an injury occurs regardless of these precautions, we work to heal the injury as quickly as possible to turn off pigment inducing inflammation. I will say without qualification, if you have skin that is at risk of pigment, you should only have cosmetic non-surgical procedures done by a cosmetic dermatologist, or a plastic surgeon that also practices proactive prevention and quick correction of pigment issues. And I mean a real board certified one, not one of the many “wannabe” practitioners holding themselves out as dermatologists. Even under the care of these qualified dermatologists or plastic surgeons, pigment problems can occur. But you have the best shot at preventing them and the best chance of successful treatment if they occur. You’ve been warned.

If you have skin of color, and you have acne, the first thing you need to do is to get effective treatment, to reduce the blemishes that pigment. And you have to stop picking. Picking at acne only increases and prolongs pigment producing inflammation and skin injury. I know it is hard, I am a picker too. I give the “stop picking” lecture all day long. Here it is: STOP PICKING!

Home Treatment:

  • Don’t scrub, brush, rub, or pick: The tendency of patients with pigment problems is to try to scrub it off. But if the scrubbing causes any irritation, it will actually increase pigment production. Even using a washcloth or facial cloth, synthetic cotton balls (use 100% cotton), cleansing brushes, or a makeup brush to apply loose mineral powder a brush to apply powder can cause irritation and increased discoloration. Be very careful with exfoliants, which can cause microscopic abrasions and inflammation. Very gentle and controlled exfoliation can be helpful in removing excess pigment that has been treated with other agents, but the key phrase here is gentle and controlled. And not to belabor the point made above, but STOP PICKING.
  • Daily Sun Protection: Sun exposure produces pigment. Sun exposure on skin that has been injured or is inflamed produces even more pigment. You don’t want increased pigment in those areas, so you don’t want to expose it to something that increases pigment. So don’t. Wear a non-comedogenic sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or greater every day. Even if you don’t normally have to worry much about the skin aging and skin cancer risks of sun exposure. And I hope it goes without saying, but with me very few things go without saying, so no intentional tanning or tanning beds.
  • Prescription retinoid creams such as Retin-A, Retin-A Micro, Refissa, Renova, Differin, and Tazorac: Prescription tretinoin (Retin-A, Retin-A Micro, Refissa, Renova) or the other prescription retinoids (Differin, Tazorac) that come in creams and gels help prevent and control acne and also help remove excess pigment. Unfortunately, they can be irritating, and irritation increases pigment. So they need to be used cautiously. Creams or micro sponge formulations are much easier to tolerate than gels. The key is to have your face completely dry before you put it on at night, and use it on a regular basis, not intermittently. When your face is damp you absorb more and it is more irritating. You can apply it every other night or even every third night to start and work up. If you are having irritation, apply an oil free moisturizer first then the retinoid.
  • Over the counter Retinol: The prescription retinoids discussed above are forms of retinoic acid, and are stronger than retinol. Non- prescription, over the counter retinol can be a milder form of acne and pigmentation treatment as long as they don’t cause irritation.
  • Prescription Hydroquinone (HQ) skin bleach: Hydroquinone is skin bleach that has been used for years. It comes in over the counter forms, and stronger and more effective prescription forms. It has been helpful in the treatment of pigment problems, but has recently come under fire from consumer groups and the FDA because of safety testing concerns. The most effective of the prescription forms, in my opinion, was Tri-Luma cream, which is a combination of HQ, a topical steroid, and tretinoin. Currently it is not being produced, and has been unavailable for the last year. Intermittently other prescription HQ products are available, and then they disappear. Time will tell if HQ will be banned by the FDA, approved by the FDA, and if so, will a company produce it.
  • Over the counter or natural skin lighteners: include bearberry extract, licorice root, niacinamide, N-acetylglucosamine, forms of vitamin C especially magnesium ascorbyl phosphate, dimethylmethoxy chroman palmitate (Chromabright), arbutin, kojic acid, ferulic acid, mulberry bark extract, soy, azelaic acid, lactic acid, mequinol, aloesin, , lignin peroxidase, and various peptides. Every dermatologist and skin care company has their favorite combination. Our Antioxidant Skin Lightener contains aloesin, licorice root, bearberry, niacinamide, the form of active vitamin C magnesium ascorbyl phosphate (Melfade-J) and dimethylmethoxy chroman palmitate (Chromabright).

Office Treatment:

  • Chemical Peels: Superficial chemical peels with gly­colic acid (20%–70%) and salicylic acid (20%–30%) can be effective in the treatment of PIHP, even in patients with darker skin, if used carefully.
  • SilkPeel: SilkPeel combines microdermabrasion with the delivery of the skin brightening peptide Decapeptide-12 (Lumixyl).
  • Laser Resurfacing: Non-ablative fractional laser resurfacing with lasers such as the 1550-nm wavelength Fraxel (Fraxel Restore) or with the Q-switched 1064-nm Nd:YAG laser can be helpful in some cases, if done under carefully controlled parameters and conditions. But before you undergo laser treatment for PIHP, remember—it can always make it worse.

Treatment of PIHP is difficult and improvement varies depending on the:

  • Patient’s natural skin color
  • Underlying problem causing the areas that then become discolored
  • Effectiveness of the surface creams and cosmetic procedures used
  • Avoidance of undesirable side effects of treatments
  • Skill and experience of the treating physician
  • Cooperation and involvement of the patient with the treatment plan

It’s a challenge, but results can be good. Keep the faith. And if you think PIHP is a challenge, wait till we deal with melasma.

Next: Melasma, the bane of the cosmetic dermatologist’s existence


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