As you bask in your summer glow, you might also be getting visits from its unwelcome relatives, including dark spots and uneven skin discolouration – pigmentation by any other name. Ways to out those damned spots.

Lines and wrinkles are the most lamented signs of ageing skin, but dark spots or patches (aka pigmentation) caused by sun damage, hormones or inflammatory reactions to skin trauma can, incredibly, make you look 10-15 years older than your true age.


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In Australia’s harsh climate, this makes it a very big deal. Indeed, a survey conducted by skincare giant Clinique in 2011 revealed that pigmentation was the third largest skin care concern among Australian women, with 62 percent of those surveyed saying they suffered from it to some degree.

“When we look at skin, we see a reflectance of light,” says associate professor Greg Goodman, from the Dermatology Institute of Victoria. “Light bounces off the epidermis and, if it’s well hydrated and even in tone, the result is a nice vibrant effect. If, however, the epidermis is unevenly coloured, light will bounce back at you in a scattered, dull way.”

So …  just as a key hallmark of young or youthful-looking skin is its ability to reflect light (ie. radiance), dullness and discolouration that “swallow” light create the perception of an ageing skin.

Not only can pigmentation contribute to an older appearance, in more severe cases it can cause emotional distress. Sufferers may resort to wearing thick, layers of makeup to mask it or avoid social situations they believe will place them under negative scrutiny.

They main causes of pigmentation are:

Excess of melanin, or pigment,  in the skin as a result of too much UV exposure (solar lentigines: isolated dark spots, or spreads of finely clustered freckle-like spots). Some people are so sun-sensitive, however, that that a short walk in the park can bring it on. Pigmentation as a result of sun damage takes the form of.

Hormones play a role in many cases. Many women develop pigmentation from taking the contraceptive pill or during pregnancy. This is known as melasma (it can also result from genetic and other factors) and, while it usually fades after childbirth, it may persist in some cases. Melasma is notoriously difficult to treat and may recur even after an apparently successful treatment.

When the skin scars after an injury (whether from an accident, surgery or from acne outbreaks) it may develop post-inflammatory pigmentation.

Being vigilant about applying a high SPF, broad spectrum sunscreen on a daily basis, wearing protective clothing such as hats and avoiding unnecessary or prolonged exposure to the sun are key to avoiding pigmentation.

However, once you have it, these basic rules may stop the condition worsening, but won’t cure it. The dark spots and patches usually fade in the mellower months but they’re bound to make a comeback when the sun is once again at its seasonal peaks.

Reducing and ideally reversing pigmentation requires dedicated treatment. Depending on its severity – or your level of concern and your budget – this can range from home skin care regimens to salon or spa solutions or calling in the bigger guns – scientific-medical technologies and treatments. SheSaid looks at the options in the first of two parts.

Topical treatments
Just about every chemist, department store and “boutique” skincare outlet (from medi-clinics to beauty salons and retail cosmetic chains) carry lightening/brightening products to cater for pigmentation conditions and budgets across the spectrum.

They vary greatly in the range and intensity of their active ingredients – eg. kojic acid, niacinamide (Vitamin B), bearberry, coffeeberry, liquorice extract, Vitamin C, rice bran extract, glycolic and salicylic acids (to name but a few). These “melanin inhibitors” target the pigment production phase.

All can help pigmentation to fade, but they require dedicated use and it may take weeks or months to see an improvement. Melanin is not only hard to remove but has a dark habit of coming back (hence wearing broad-spectrum sunscreen every day is crucial when treating pigmentation).

When pigmentation is particularly problematic – as in the case of melasma – you are probably best to get a referral from your GP to a dermatologist.

“Melasma is a difficult condition that causes a lot of distress,” says Sydney dermatologist Dr Chris Kearney, who prefers to address this type of pigmentation with prescription formulations incorporating hydroquinone. The latter is commonly mistaken for a bleaching agent, when it actually works by blocking tyrosinase – the enzyme that tells cells to produce pigment.

What’s going on in the top layer of the skin where excess pigment is housed can be helped with exfoliation – such as peels or microdermabrasion. This also allows for greater penetration and effectiveness of lightening/brightening products.

If you’re using skin peels or microdermabrasion systems at home, remember that over-zealous use can actually contribute to making pigmentation worse by inflaming the skin or making it weaker and, so, more vulnerable to sun damage.

Beauty salon or medi-clinic treatments use various types and strengths of enzyme or acid peels that are usually conducted over several intervals. These chomp away at the dead, discoloured superficial layers of the skin. In some clinics, peels are followed by an LED (Light Emitting Diode) treatment, such as Omnilux, to help reduce any side effects and speed up the time your tissue takes to regenerate.

What products have you used to treat skin pigmentation?