Dark Spots & Hyperpigmentation Explained

Up to 25% of women suffer from hyperpigmentation. What is the cause of hyperpigmentation? What is the difference between melasma, sun spots, and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation? How can you treat it at home, and what are the ingredients you need? When is the time to seek professional help? Watch the video below where Chris, cosmetic scientist extraordinaire, joins Maleka to answer these questions.

What are dark spots, and what causes them?

Dark spots, age spots, melasma - all are types of hyperpigmentation.

Hyperpigmentation is when pigmentation is hyperactive as a result of sun damage. It produces dark spots. By definition, a dark spot is a sun spot. When exposed to the sun, our skin produces pigment (melanin) as a natural sunscreen. But over time, we get oxidative damage from the sun.

Chris compares the skin to a line of conveyor belts. When it's working as it should, the skin produces regular amounts of pigment. But when sun damage causes a blip, it can result in wrinkles and sometimes dark/sun spots.

If we were sun worshippers in our youth, are we more likely to suffer from hyperpigmentation as we get older?

We are more likely to get hyperpigmentation in places where there was a level of burning. Typically, our skin gets the most sun exposure when we are younger. Likewise, more affected are places where the skin is thinner.

What is melasma?

Melasma is quite different from dark spots. It is also a form of hyperpigmentation, but it is not typically caused by the sun (though sun exposure can trigger it). It is often caused by hormonal changes - contraceptive pill, pregnancy, during menopause, or after going on HRT. Some people call it "the mask of pregnancy." After pregnancy and when oestrogen levels go back to normal, it can disappear. Melasma can manifest as a patchy discolouration to the skin (most often on the bridge of the nose or the upper lip) and sometimes on the face and arms. In some cases, it can be hereditary. Certain skin types and individuals are more prone to it. But, the likelihood increases with sun exposure.

But melasma can be treated or even go away on its own (no matter what the trigger is).

Hyperpigmentation and skincare

With all these types of hyperpigmentation and skincare, there are a couple of things to bear in mind.

  • There isn't one product that will be the answer. To treat hyperpigmentation successfully, you'll need to use several types of ingredients. If any brand promises one product will get rid of it, it probably isn't true. What triggers it is also different for everybody. Melasma does fade, and it can be under control with a selection of ingredients (like vitamin C, AHA, retinol, acids) and, most importantly, sunscreen.
  • It is understandable people want a quick fix. However, products with high concentrations of one ingredient are not the best answer. Instead, it is better to opt for a selection of ingredients, at a tested concentration, and using them consistently. It is about restoring the balance.
  • If your pigmentation is superficial, skincare can help with that. If it is deeper in the dermis, seek a professional opinion.

Sunscreen and hyperpigmentation

Woman on beach in sun


Sunscreen is vital - it all comes back to pigmentation triggered by the sun. With the use of a good sunscreen, you prevent the pigmentation from being formed.

Three key elements about sunscreen are - how much you use, how frequently you reapply, and whether you use a high enough factor.

Likewise, it is important to look at your daily routine and specific situation. If you walk to work and back and it takes about 10 to 20 minutes, lower SPF is ok since your exposure will be pretty low. You'll need a high SPF if you are out in the middle of the day in July.

Maleka's tip - layer your sunscreen - low-level sunscreen in your moisturiser, followed up with a dedicated sunscreen, and then in your makeup.

Which ingredients treat hyperpigmentation?

Antioxidants

Antioxidants, like vitamin C, disrupt the process within the skin that causes pigmentation to form. When the skin produces more melanin, vitamin C inhibits this process. It prevents new pigmentation from forming but also increases cell turnover. It is a skin lightening ingredient.

Merumaya's products to try:

Merumaya's Treatment Toner with Vitamin C contains encapsulated vitamin C, which means it activates when it is on the skin.

Maleka's tip - dab a bit extra on the patches of hyperpigmentation. It breaks down the melanin and promotes cell turnover.

Alpha-Hydroxy acids

If you have deep, long-standing dark spots, Alpha-hydroxy acids won't get rid of that. They help with superficial hyperpigmentation. AHAs increase cell turnover and remove an outer layer of pigment and reveal the skin underneath. Do be mindful of your skin's tolerance to acids.

Merumaya products to try:

Gentle Exfoliating Toner


Gentle Exfoliating Toner
with Lactic, Tartaric, and Citric acids. The formula also contains Hyaluronic acid to hydrate, calm, and soften the skin.

Skin Brightening Exfoliating Peel combines Glycolic acid, Pomegranate enzymes, and powerful anti-inflammatory ingredients to soothe and calm the skin.

Maleka's Tip - you don't need to use Gentle Exfoliating Toner or Skin Brightening Exfoliating Peel all over your face. Apply them to your dark spots only. It is a common mistake all of us make, in that we treat the whole face the same, and we don't need to. Treat different areas of the face depending on how your skin is behaving.  

Azelaic acid

Azelaic acid is similar to vitamin C and B3 (Niacinamide) and has a preventative effect. It prevents pigment formation. Azelaic acid can be quite harsh, and Chris suggests opting for vitamin C instead.

Is there any scientific evidence that compares vitamin C, Niacinamide, and Azelaic acid?

Data is available on both their skin lightening and antioxidant properties. The benefit of vitamin C is it doesn't have negative side-effects when compared to others. With other ingredients, you can minimise dark spots but can experience inflammation. Niacinamide is also very good and works well with vitamin C.

Arbutin and Kojic acid

Both Arbutin and Kojic acid work as tyrosinase inhibitors. Tyrosinase is the same enzyme that causes melanin production. They both prevent pigment from forming, but in a slightly different way.

Kojic acid and Hydroquinone have some quite harsh side-effects, and some markets banned them. If you do decide to go the Hydroquinone route, make sure to do so in consultation with a dermatologist.

Professional treatments

Woman getting facial


If your hyperpigmentation is bad and causes you distress, get a professional opinion. There are effective treatments available (like chemical peels, lasers, and hydroquinone). Do not (DO NOT) buy stuff off Amazon and try treating it at home, these products can damage your skin. That damage can result in post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, which can make the dark spot even darker. Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation can also happen as a result of acne or other skin inflammation.

The professional treatments work by breaking down the pigment. They also need to be done in a controlled and localized manner. As an example - Hydroquinone is applied to patches of hyperpigmentation.

People with darker skin tones (Asian/Black/Hispanic) can have very deep and pronounced hyperpigmentation, it is essential to seek professional advice. Likewise, darker skin tones are more prone to post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. You will want to find a doctor who specializes in darker skin.

A few things to keep in mind:

  • With professional treatments, the effects will not be immediate. You will see the results in a few weeks, as the cell turnover happens.
  • Stay indoors and wear the highest SPF available, since your skin is completely exposed. If you get out into the sun, the skin will form more pigment. The same applies if you are using ingredients like retinol and AHAs. You are undoing all the good work if you are not diligent about sunscreen.

There is no quick fix for hyperpigmentation. Use all of these together consistently and regularly, and you'll see the results within weeks.

Merumaya products to try:

  • Retinol Resurfacing Treatment with stabilised vitamin A, Retinyl Palmitate.
  • Skin Brightening Exfoliating Peel with Glycolic acid and Pomegranate enzymes to peel away the surface dead skin cells. Powerful anti-inflammatory ingredients soothe and calm the skin.
  • Treatment Toner with Vitamin C contains encapsulated vitamin C (Ascorbyl Glucoside), which activates on the skin and ensures slow release.
  • Iconic Youth Serum contains Chromocare, plant stem cells, and Turmeric (among other powerful ingredients). It normalises the skin tone, including redness, not just hyperpigmentation.
  • Gentle Exfoliating Toner combines Lactic, Tartaric, and Citric acid together with Hyaluronic acid. It exfoliates and calms the skin at the same time.

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