Brown spots, sun spots, melasma, uneven skin tone—whatever your pigment woes may be, we feel your pain. Pigmentation happens to be one of the most persistent and difficult skin concerns to tackle. It typically takes a whole village of products and a lot of diligence to see significant results. But hard work pays off, so let’s build your routine to tackle this stubborn skin concern.
Causes of Pigmentation
Before getting into the complex strategy of fighting uneven skin pigmentation, let’s run through why uneven pigmentation even happens in the first place. The process is actually pretty straightforward, so we’ll speed-walk through the biology so you’ll have some context behind our strategy. Let’s start with some key players.
Melanocytes are skin cells that live in the deepest part of your epidermis and are, in a nutshell, your skin’s one-stop-shop for pigment. Through a process called melanogenesis, each melanocyte produces, packages, and delivers melanin to the skin’s upper layers, where it becomes visible pigmentation.
One of the most important enzymes in this process, tyrosinase determines how fast melanin is produced—and when it comes to melanogenesis, “how fast” is crucial. Uneven skin tone, melasma and hyperpigmentation are all linked to overly enthusiastic melanin production.
The melanin-production process can be affected by a number of external factors that can cause a group of melanocyte cells to amp up production, leading to uneven skintone and unwanted dark spots.
Excessive UV exposure: When it comes to hyperpigmentation, the sun is your enemy numero uno! It’s the leading cause of unwanted pigmentation, triggering uneven, excess production of melanin.
Inflammation: Irritation and inflammation are key triggers of hyperpigmentation. In fact, PIH (postinflammatory hyperpigmentation) can be an unwanted side effect from chemical peels or laser treatments.
Hormones: Our hormones can influence melanogenesis, which is why some women can exhibit melasma during or after pregnancy.
Pigmentation Skincare Routine
Pigmentation issues are so frustrating, in part because there’s no quick fix. The good news is that a truly comprehensive, diligent skincare routine can effectively address the dark patches that can result from sun damage, aging, acne scarring, and other factors. A well-rounded and effective hyperpigmentation-fighting routine involves every step and every factor that might affect melanogenesis. Here are the steps to success in this battle:
- Prevent external aggressors. The best offense is a good defense.
- Tell your tyrosinase to take a chill pill. Slow down pigment production.
- Slow melanin transport to the upper layers. Melanin doesn’t become visible until it makes it to the upper layers. So if no one can see it, then it doesn’t exist.
- Make sure your cell turnover is in tip-top shape! Chemical exfoliants shed your old, dull skin faster, helping to fade dark spots.
Here, we have the foundation of your daytime routine. The key strategy here is damage prevention, with the two key products being an antioxidant serum and a good daily sunscreen.
L-ascorbic acid is the gold standard antioxidant and tyrosinase inhibitor, making it a prime candidate for the day routine. For those of you who find it irritating, you can consider replacement ingredients such as silymarin, lipoid acid, resveratrol, or magnesium ascorbic phosphate.
You can use any sunscreen you like, just as long as you’ll use it daily! Not only is sun protection key to preventing damage that spurs the cycle of hyperpigmentation, but many pigment-fighting actives can also make your skin more sensitive to sunlight.
Below is a summary of the steps you need to take for the day routine:
- L-Ascorbic Acid (Vit C) Serum
- Sun Protection
Below is a sample well-rounded night routine. This is really where you ramp up the actives to correct the unwanted hyperpigmentation!
- Exfoliate (Glycolic Acid)
- Tyrosinase-inhibiting Treatments
- Moisturize (Consider Soothers and Niacinamide)
Exfoliate: Glycolic acid is really the gold standard here. This step doesn’t necessarily have to be daily if your night routine is starting to feel overbooked.
Tyrosinase inhibiting: Nighttime’s a great time to target any hyperactive tyrosinase. Keep in mind that many highly effective ingredients can also be a bit irritating; this list ranks pigment-fighting actives by general irritation potential. Many pigment-fighting serums contain a blend of tyrosinase-targeting ingredients, however. So, use the list as a general guide, but always patch-test!
- Milder: Licorice root, Uva ursa (bearberry), peony extract
- Medium: Arbutin, kojic acid, azelaic acid, tranexamic acid, resorcinol, ascorbyl glucoside
- Heavy duty: Hydroquinone
Moisturize: It’s great to find a niacinamide-containing moisturizer. Niacinamide targets the melanin-transport step instead of blocking tyrosinase, which means it complements your serum perfectly.
Retinol Centric Routine: For those who also want to loop in wrinkle prevention, retinol can be a great staple to build your nighttime routine around. Remember that retinol will require some acclimation, so it’s best to pair it with a soothing serum.
Ingredients For Pigmentation
There are a ton of pigment-fighting active ingredients out there. They all work to regulate or slow down pigment production one way or another. One of the most common targets for these ingredients is our friend tyrosinase. Since tyrosinase determines how fast melanin is created, telling it to take a chill pill is a very effective strategy.
Of course, tyrosinase isn’t just going to take it without a fight. This is why most effective brightening treatments contain a blend of ingredients. We classify these hyperpigmentation fighters into three general ingredient categories: isolated compounds, multitaskers, and botanical brighteners.
These ingredients have been identified and tested as effective hyperpigmentation fighters. The key to these ingredients is not using them at such a high percentage that they irritate your skin. Many products come with a blend of active ingredients; we recommend choosing one that contains at least one of these key compounds.
|Name||Chemist Notes||Target Concentration|
|Hydroquinone||Considered the gold standard pigment-fighting active ingredient.||2% and up|
|Arbutin||Chemically speaking, a close relative of hydroquinone||2% and up|
|Tranexamic Acid||Though relatively new to the US market, it’s been popular in Asia for years. Fun fact! It’s been administered as both oral tablets and injections to fight melasma.||3% and up|
|Kojic Acid||This is a fairly unstable compound. If you notice your product going from white to brown to black, please throw it out.||2% and up|
|Ellagic Acid||This is a difficult ingredient to work with. It’s quite rare; you’ll see it more in extract form, such as pomegranate extract.||1% or in the top half of the ingredient list|
|Resorcinol||This can be a whole family of ingredients with similar chemical structures. It’s also used in chemical peels.||Often part of a proprietary blend|
Who doesn’t love an ingredient that can solve more than one of your skin concerns? These ingredients are great additions to your other brightening active ingredients, depending on your skin needs.
|Name||Chemist Notes||Target Concentration|
|Azelaic Acid||A very popular ingredient in recent years! In addition to data on pigment fighting, there’s data on acne treatment.||10-20%|
|L-Ascorbic Acid||We love it because it fights hyperpigmentation in more than one way, preventing damage as an antioxidant and slowing down tyrosinase productivity.||5-20%|
|Retinoids||Topical retinoids are approved for the treatment of acne and for pigmentation disorders such as melasma or mottled hyperpigmentation associated with photodamage.||3% and up|
“Natural” has been a hot category in skincare for the past couple of decades. The thing is, not all botanical extracts have been through rigorous testing—or much testing at all really. Another difficulty with extracts is that it’s hard to assess whether a brand has used an effective dose of active ingredients. For example, bearberry (Uva ursi) extract is a natural source of arbutin. But just how much arbutin is in the extract or how much extract is in the product is impossible to tell from the packaging alone.
Sadly, this lets less responsible brands get away with using a sprinkle o’ fairy dust’s worth of the good stuff. Here’s a list of our chemist-preferred botanicals that have a decent amount of data backing up their skin benefits. Think of these as great sidekicks for your isolated compounds. However, we wouldn’t rely on these alone to tackle pigmentation issues:
- Milk thistle extract
- Licorice root extract
- Mulberry extract
- Bearberry extract
- White peony extract
- Emblica extract
Other Things To Consider For Pigmentation Treatment
Ultimately, unwanted hyperpigmentation is too stubborn, too complicated, for just one good treatment to solve. It really takes being mindful through your entire routine for the most effective, efficient strategy. Other than your main treatment active ingredients, there are three other areas of support you should consider: damage prevention, blocking melanin transport to the upper layers, and chemical exfoliation.
The best treatment for pigmentation is prevention, my friends! Pigmentation is stimulated by outside factors like UV rays and inflammation. So, naturally, an integral part of your pigmentation care is to get ahead of these pesky unwanted spots before they evolve into full-fledged hyperpigmentation. Here are your product helpers and what to look for:
- Sunscreen: It is important to have good sun-protection habits to avoid pigment woes.
- Antioxidants: These are the perfect products to pair with your sunscreen for some extra oomph to battle free radical generation. L-AA is our favorite here. It’s an antioxidant and a tyrosinase inhibitor. Others include ascorbic acid (vitamin C), tocopherol (vitamin E), lipoic acid, and resveratrol.
- Soothing Ingredients: Inflammation is a big source of excessive pigmentation, so an easy prevention technique is to do what we can to keep the skin calm and happy. There are a lot of great botanicals in this category but they are not all created equal. Some of our chemist favorites include Bisabolol, Centella asiatica (madecassoside, asiaticoside), allantoin, cucumber extract, etc.
Of course, if you bombard your tyrosinase with all these actives to slow it down, at some point you’re going to saturate this method. So, to help your tyrosinase fighters be more effective, you can target unwanted pigments by just, well, not sending it up. Melanin is made in the deepest layer of the epidermis, but this melanin doesn’t translate to visible pigment until it gets delivered upward in a process called melanin transfer.
What can help slow down the delivery process? Our good old friend niacinamide. A great addition to your pigment-fighting skincare routine, it increases efficacy without taking anything away from your other brightening products.
Unveil New Skin
Your skin is constantly turning over, generating new skin. So, by using chemical exfoliants like AHAs, you help cycle through any unwanted pigment anomalies as soon as possible. A high-level chemical exfoliant peel mask, or even a professional-strength peel, can help reveal brighter, more even skin faster.
Glycolic acid is the gold standard AHA when it comes to battling hyperpigmentation. However, it might not be the right molecule for everyone.
Beware of going too aggressive too fast. Especially for those with darker skin, postinflammatory hyperpigmentation from overaggressive peels is a real concern—not to mention that it defeats the whole purpose of getting a peel anyway. So, make sure you’re acclimating your skin to such actives, and beware of anyone who tries to sell you on something overly aggressive right off the bat.