The skin is the largest organ of the human body and thus remains susceptible to a number of risks. One such risk is hyperpigmentation, which causes some parts of the skin to be darker in shade when compared to the surrounding area. It occurs when there is an excess production of melanin, the pigment that gives the skin its colour, which forms deposits under the skin, causing it to appear darker. The affected areas will usually manifest in any form such as sunspots, scars or uneven brown patches. There is, however, no cause for alarm, as the condition is medically harmless and only interferes with cosmetics.

Signs and Symptoms

The only clear sign and symptom of hyperpigmentation is the appearance of dark patches anywhere on the skin. The patches may vary in size and shade depending on the type of hyperpigmentation. There is melisma, a form of hyperpigmentation that occurs because of hormonal changes such as during pregnancy. Then there are sunspots, which appears on areas of the skin that are constantly exposed to the sun such as the face and hands. Finally, there is post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, which occurs due to injury to the skin. Note that any of these types of hyperpigmentation can affect people of all ages, race and any gender.

Other factors may cause parts of the skin to become darker, but may not necessarily be forms of hyperpigmentation. These include skin cancers, birthmarks and actinic keratosis.

Causes, Triggers and Contributing Factors

Sunlight: The leading cause of hyperpigmentation is over-exposure to sunlight. When exposed to UV rays of the sun, the skin produces an inflammatory response, which is usually very low and goes unnoticed if exposed for short periods. However, in extended exposure periods, the inflammation increases and the body initiates inflammatory hormones. The hormones trigger responses such as activation of melanocytes, which begins the production of melanin. Over time, the constant and extended exposure to the sun leaves the melanocytes permanently active, resulting to dark patches appearing on the affected areas.

Skin damage: Any damage to the skin such as cuts or acne can lead to excess production of melanin. Just like when exposed to UV rays, the skin initiates inflammatory reaction in case of any damage. That coupled with the inability to regenerate new skin pigments on the damaged area results to a darker pigmented patch. Allergic reactions, improper skin removal techniques and skin conditions such as eczema are also forms of skin damage.

Hormonal changes: A rise in hormones such as estrogen and progesterone, common in pregnant women and users of birth control methods, can also lead to increase in production of melanin, and thereafter hyperpigmentation. For some people the skin may go back to normal shade once the hormones stabilize while for others it might not be the case.

Genetics: For some individuals, hyperpigmentation is embedded in their genetic make-up and thus exposure to risk factors such as the sun and hormonal change leaves them vulnerable.

Medications: Some medicines can have hyperpigmentation as a side effect. Depending on their formulation and their working mechanism, they may trigger an excess production of melanin.

Treatment and Management

Perhaps the biggest challenge of hyperpigmentation is finding an effective solution to get rid of the dark patches completely. Once you have identified the cause of your hyperpigmentation, here are some ways you could treat and manage it:

Chemical peels: This involves the application of an acidic solution to the affected areas to facilitate skin renewal. The skin will usually blister, and then peel off to reveal a new and evenly pigmented skin underneath.

Photofacial (IPL): This is highly recommended by doctors and it involves using intense pulsed light, or a photofacial.

Laser therapies: The technique uses high energy light to zap different layers of the skin. The advantage of this is that it can be used on the surface layers as well as deep within the skin, making it effective for any type of hyperpigmentation.

Topical applications: These range from skin lightening products that contain ingredients such as vitamin C, kojic, retinoid and hydroquinone to organic remedies such as Aloe Vera, raw potato and cucumbers.

While some of these solutions will help treat hyperpigmentation. They can be very expensive, and you risk worsening the situation if they are not properly done. It is therefore advisable to check with your dermatologist before settling on any of the treatment methods, and then carefully weigh the pros and cons before making a decision.