Hyperpigmentation is one of the most common skin conditions, darker patches of skin due to increased melanin production, and melasma, a form of hyperpigmentation, affects nearly 5 million people in the United States. While some types of hyperpigmentation fade naturally or with age, most take longer to disappear and require a treatment plan. However, it’s not as scary as it sounds, as there are tons of dermatologically-approved skin care products that can help.
Here, we consult with dermatologists to gain insight into the underlying causes of hyperpigmentation and melasma, as well as the best ways to treat uneven skin tone.
Although studies have shown that women with elevated melanin levels and people of color are more prone to hyperpigmentation, it is a concern of all ages, genders and skin types. “Melanin is the substance in your body that creates pigmentation in your hair, eyes, and skin,” says Dr. Blair Murphy-Rose, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. “Several factors can trigger increased melanin production, but the main factors are age, hormones, sun exposure and skin damage or inflammation.”
Hyperpigmentation appears on the skin in two main ways—localized or diffuse—with the former appearing in more concentrated, smaller patches, and the latter in larger, more diffuse areas. Spotted hyperpigmentation is the most common and is often caused by skin damage or inflammation, such as UV damage, acne, and hormonal fluctuations that occur during pregnancy or birth control.
Hyperpigmentation, then, is broken down into three main types—post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, or PIH, age spots (also known as solar freckles), and melasma—each with different underlying causes and optimal treatments. “Melasma very typically appears as a butterfly pattern of pigmented spots on the cheeks and forehead,” explains the board-certified dermatologist. Zhang Wanlin. “PIHs tend to have fuzzy borders, whereas age spots have discrete edges.”
“In general, people of color are prone to hyperpigmentation,” continues Teo. “Dry or eczema-prone skin may get worse [hyperpigmentation] Symptoms that occur due to a weakened skin barrier compared to oily or combination skin. ”
Melasma is a common skin condition and type of hyperpigmentation that occurs mainly in pregnant women. This condition is most often caused by an increase in the hormones estrogen and progesterone, but it can also be caused by ultraviolet light exposure, thyroid disease, and certain medications (such as retinoids, blood pressure medications, and birth control pills). “Melasma is a common acquired hyperpigmentation disorder that affects sun-exposed areas,” says Murphy-Rose. “It presents as hyperpigmented, irregular patches and is most common in women of childbearing age and rarely in men. It is associated with sun exposure and estrogen.”
According to the American Board of Dermatology, melasma typically appears in women of childbearing age and is most common in people with fair to dark skin tones and a genetic predisposition to the condition. A recent study found that almost half of the melasma patients surveyed had a relative with the disease.
When melasma occurs, it develops as tan, brown, or blue freckle-like spots or patches. While it most often appears on the face, cheeks, forehead, and chin, it can also appear on the legs, arms, and neck. “The hormonal aspect largely separates melasma from hyperpigmentation and makes it more difficult to address,” says Arcona owner, creative director and esthetician Chanel Jenae. “Melasma often looks more like a patch on the face, while hyperpigmentation can appear as sunspots, dark spots or freckles, and is often more diffuse.”
How to Treat Melasma and Hyperpigmentation
“Involving a dermatologist is key when it comes to treating melasma,” says Dr. Brandith Irwin, board-certified dermatologist, founder of SkinTour.com and MadisonMD Skincare. “If the problem is post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation—acne, superficial abrasions—it might be reasonable to try home remedies, like MadisonMD Skin Care Uneven Pigmentation Fighter, for a month or two.”
Unless done by a specialist, resurfacing treatments, such as lasers, can make melasma worse, advises Owen. However, laser treatments are often better suited to help other forms of hyperpigmentation, especially if caused by sun damage. While most people opt for at-home treatments and care, the fastest way to treat hyperpigmentation is through dermatological procedures such as chemical peels, lasers, microdermabrasion, and dermabrasion. For home users, look for products rich in alpha hydroxy and kojic acid, as well as vitamin A such as retinol and tretinoin, all of which aid in cell renewal and skin regeneration.
Although treatment is crucial to treating hyperpigmentation, dermatologists recommend prevention as one of the best forms of treatment. “Proper sun protection — SPF, hats, protective clothing, and tinted SPF — are all beneficial,” Owen says. “Wear a full-brimmed hat when you’re out and about. If you have melasma on your forearms, cover them up. If you’re not sure what pigment is causing it, see a dermatologist ASAP.”
Best Products for Melasma and Hyperpigmentation
Hyper Skin was created after the founder himself battled with acne and dark spots. A top-of-the-line formula specially formulated for melaninized skin, this hyperpigmentation treatment contains 15% Vitamin C, Bearberry, Licorice and Kojic Acid to target dark spots.
With a unique formula of Azelaic Acid, Salicylic Acid and Licorice Root, this treatment is the ultimate multi-action treatment that helps smooth the appearance of blemishes and texture, while regular use calms redness and evens skin tone. You can apply directly from the tube, or mix it into your favorite moisturizer or serum.
Dermatologist-favorite SkinCeuticals Daily Dark Spot Corrector is great for dry, oily or combination skin and helps reduce discoloration and hyperpigmentation. This product is the perfect at-home alternative for those concerned about trying more invasive procedures such as peels or lasers.
This serum has received rave reviews for its ability to quickly fade dark spots and hyperpigmentation. It contains the antioxidant resorcinol, as well as tranexamic and glycolic acids to brighten and balance skin. “I don’t know how much I love these things [until] I ran out and found my texture and zits came back,” shared one reviewer. “This serum definitely works! My dark spots faded in three weeks and my skin was smoother and brighter. I have sensitive acne prone skin and this is not harsh and I use it every morning. “
This exfoliating toner from The Ordinary targets uneven, dull skin with glycolic acid—proven to directly improve skin tone over time. While a toner can be used on a daily basis (and should always be used with SPF), those with sensitive skin should use caution when using this product, as it may cause irritation.
Infused with Turmeric, Holy Basil and fruit-based alpha hydroxy acids, this anti-inflammatory face mask brightens and corrects dark spots. One reviewer raves: “I have acne, early signs of aging and hyperpigmentation issues and this mask works exponentially after just one use. I love that it contains glycolic acid – a must in my skincare routine Fewer ingredients.”
Dermalogica’s Dark Spot Serum contains top-notch ingredients like Ashwagandha, Black Currant Oil, Peony Flower and Niacinamide. This daily serum’s light-diffusing technology is proven to improve the appearance of hyperpigmentation after just one application.
A favorite of Irwin’s, this Pigment Fighter fights melasma and dark spots with Vitamin C, Azelaic Acid and nine botanical brightening ingredients.
Apto founder Marta Cros, who developed melasma after giving birth to her second child, created this turmeric oil to soothe the irritating retinoid and hydroquinone creams that made her skin Side effects of peeling and inflammation. Antioxidant-rich Turmeric soothes the skin and may also help reduce acne scarring, while Coconut Oil conditions the skin and supports the skin barrier.
While venturing into the world of retinol can be daunting for some, CeraVe’s Peeling Serum is the perfect place to start. The price-friendly option reduces post-acne marks and scars while also resurfacing the skin.
Target dull skin, blemishes and hyperpigmentation, this AM/PM Tranexamic Acid Serum from The Inkey List contains brightening and brightening ingredients like acai extract and vitamin C.
Use this serum nightly to fade sun spots, discoloration and melasma. It contains Kojic Acid, Azelaic Acid and Vitamin C to even out skin tone.
This dermatologist-recommended tinted sunscreen brings a sheer glow to any skin tone and prevents the worsening of zinc oxide hyperpigmentation.
Containing over 100 micro-dots to reduce the appearance of dark spots while hydrating and hydrating skin, these brightening patches are the perfect solution to those pesky post-blemish dark spots.