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The New "It" Ingredients for Treating Hyperpigmentation

Acne scars, sun damage, melasma -- hyperpigmentation is one of Latin women's biggest skin care woes. To fight dark spots, look for products with these winning ingredient combos
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Treating hyperpigmentation is tricky and often frustrating, so it's no surprise that Latinas cite hyperpigmentation as one of their top skin care concerns. Hyperpigmentation is caused by overproduction of the pigment melanin, and refers to any area of skin that's darker than surrounding skin. It can be caused by anything from a mosquito bite to hormonal fluctuations, says Miami-based Heather Woolery-Lloyd, M.D.

There are a wide range of factors that cause hyperpigmentation, including processes embedded in your skin cells, genetics, environmental factors and hormones. Because darker skin tones naturally have more melanin, hyperpigmentation is more pronounced -- and although Latin women have varying skin tones, they are often prone to more noticeable and long-lasting changes that are more difficult to treat.

According to Woolery-Lloyd, a board-certified dermatologist who specializes in pigmentation problems for women of color, hydroquinone is the best ingredient on the market. "I like to call it the machine gun. It's really quick, and it's a great fix, but not as a long-term treatment," she says. Woolery-Lloyd warns that it can cause serious irritation for people with sensitive skin, and some people may experience an allergic reaction or permanent lightening of the treated skin.

Woolery-Lloyd says that the most effective treatments attack dark spots from multiple angles, aka combination therapy. "New" treatments on the market are simply new combinations of plant-based ingredients working synergistically with synthetic ones.

Here are the best hyperpigmentation-treating tag teams -- which, when coupled with a few lifestyle changes, get the fastest results.

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Lifestyle Changes
It's important to note that combining lifestyle changes with topical skin care products will net the best results in treating hyperpigmentation. The No. 1 mistake Woolery-Lloyd sees patients make when trying to treat hyperpigmentation? "They don't wear sunscreen and or practice sun avoidance. If you don't [protect your skin from the sun], you're fighting an uphill battle," she cautions.

Healing antioxidants can be a great ally in improving sun protection and preventing unwanted melanin production. "An SPF 30 blocks approximately 97 percent of the sun's UVB rays, but topical antioxidants prevent free radical damage from the small percentage of UVB that does enter the skin. Plus, they reduce inflammation, which triggers melanin production and often contributes to dark spots in darker skin types," says Woolery-Lloyd. Look for products that couple antioxidants like Vitamin E with barrier function strengtheners like black bamboo extract, which help build and strengthen skin's natural moisture barrier to lock in hydration.

Woolery-Lloyd also suggests the following tips to enhance results:

- Use a sunscreen with minimum SPF 30, seven days a week, regardless of the forecast.
- Wear a hat when out in the sun.
- Take a supplement with polypodium leucotomos, an antioxidant from a tropical fern that fights melasma and is photo-protective. Woolery-Lloyd also suggests taking a green tea supplement, which "has also been studied, but less extensively."
- Review your medications. Some medications can make hyperpigmentation worse, including oral contraceptives, hormone replacement therapies, topical estrogen creams, some diuretics used to control blood pressure, and some antibiotics.

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The Process
To understand why combination therapies are your best bet in reducing hyperpigmentation, it's important to know what's going on under the surface of your skin. Special skin cells called melanocytes produce melanin, the natural pigment found in skin. Melanocytes do this by housing cellular vehicles called melanosomes, which are responsible for the first step in melanin production. When inflammation occurs (caused by the sun's powerful rays or a pimple-popping gone awry, for example), melanin production is triggered within melanocytes. This all starts with the enzyme tyrosinase, which turns the amino acid tyrosine into melanin inside melanosomes.

Once melanin is synthesized, melanosomes pass through the outer tips of melanocytes to transfer melanin (a process known as melanogenisis) into the other skin cells. The end result: more melanin, aka hyperpigmentation, which you might refer to as an age spot or acne scar.

We all have the same number of melanocytes, but the size and distribution of melanosomes vary from person to person; the larger and more clustered these melanosomes are, the darker the resulting spot will be.

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The Perfect Formula
According to Woolery-Lloyd, combination therapies are more effective because they attack melanosomes from a variety of angles. To give melanosomes that one-two-three punch, a successful combination therapy product typically contains:

1. A tyrosinase inhibitor (like hydroquinone) that suppresses the enzyme tyrosinase and keeps it from turning tyrosine into melanin.

2. An exfoliator that increases cell turnover to reveal newer, and thus more lightly pigmented, skin. Examples include retinol, glycolic acid and salicylic acid.

3. A melanogenesis inhibitor that stops melanosomes from transferring newly produced melanin to other skin cells in the body.

Woolery-Lloyd notes that some combination therapies also contain penetration enhancers such as kojic acid, which help topical treatments penetrate more deeply into skin. Combining this three-part formula with botanical ingredients and penetration enhancers is a more recent approach to targeting hyperpigmentation.

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Winning Combo No. 1:  licorice root extract + glycolic acid + vitamin E
Best for: uneven skin tone and dark spots

Licorice: The extract from licorice root is naturally high in glabridin, a chemical compound that inhibits tyrosinase, the enzyme that kick-starts the discoloration process.

Glycolic acid: This chemical exfoliator removes the outer layer of dead skin cells, bringing fresh, new skin to the surface. Most over-the-counter skin care treatments usually have six to 10 percent glycolic acid. Chemical peels, which should be applied by professionals, have concentrations ranging from 20 to 70 percent.

Vitamin E: An antioxidant well known for its soothing properties, vitamin E protects against the sun's damaging rays while moisturizing and healing skin cells.

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