Skin pigment disorders – of which there are many variations – can cause huge anxiety, particularly as the face and exposed areas of the body are more commonly affected. Whether it’s dark spots, white spots or freckly spots, pigmentation problems can make individuals feel extremely self-conscious.
Fortunately, there is a range of treatments available, depending on the particular disorder.
What is pigmentation?
Pigmentation is essentially the colouration in the skin; it’s determined by the amount of melanin (the pigment) which the body produces from its melanocyte cells. The amount of melanin produced depends primarily on race and exposure to sunlight. Fairer skin is a result of a lower melanin production, while darker tones are the result of higher production.
Other than to colour the skin (plus hair and eyes), the role of melanin is to protect the skin – it absorbs UVB radiation from the sun. A sun tan (melonogenesis) is the result of higher melanin production, the body’s own defenses against that damaging UVB.
There are other hormonal and environmental factors that can impact melanin production, however, resulting in pigmentation disorders.
Types and causes of pigmentation problems
Pigmentation problems can be broken down as follows:
This is the darkening of the skin in patches or localised areas due to the over-production of melanin:
- Moles: A form of pigmented growth on the skin.
- Freckles: A cluster of cells which have produced more melanin. They’re prominent on people with fair skin. Most common in children, they’re caused by exposure to the sun.
- Birthmarks: Caused by the over production of melanin in localised areas from birth.
- Sun spots/age spots: Appear as a result of exposure to the sun over a long period of time.
- Melasma: Also known as pregnancy mask, this is the darkening of the skin on the face and body – commonly the linea nigra on the stomach.
- Post-inflammatory: Any dark mark which is left on the skin after a burn, spot, cut or other injury has healed, due to the trauma the skin has endured. Acne scars come under this category.
Conversely, this is a reduction in the production of pigments, characterized by white or pink patches:
- Vitiligo: Patches of white skin that appear on the face and body, caused by an autoimmune reduction of melanin production. It can be hereditary or spontaneous.
- Post-inflammatory: As above, any injury to the skin which has left a pale mark behind.
- Tinea versicolor: An outbreak of pale marks of the skin, usually treatable with creams.
- Achromia: More commonly known as Albinism. This occurs when there is no pigmentation. Very rare, it affects skin, hair and eyes (colour and vision).
It’s worth noting that hormonal changes can also impact pigmentation. Other than pregnancy, women on the contraceptive pill or with thyroid conditions can exhibit patches.
How can pigmentation problems be treated?
Treatment varies depending on the type of pigmentation problem and the individual’s skin.
For hyperpigmentation, there are several options. The first would be to speak to a qualified skincare expert for advice on the specific issue.
Skin peels are an effective option. Many forms of hyperpigmentation exist on the upper layers of the epidermis, hence a skin peel – which removes blemishes and dull cells from the surface – can prove successful. It also improves the visible texture and smoothness of the skin, so is an ideal all-round, low-maintenance treatment.
Laser and light rejuvenation is generally acknowledged as a more permanent and visible solution. Destination Skin uses Intense Pulsed Light treatment, which targets, breaks-up and lightens deep sun damage and hormonal melasma to create a more even skin tone. Although a single session can show notable improvements, a course of three or four treatments is usually recommended.
If a topical treatment is preferred, the Obagi Nu-Derm System professional skincare range (prescription only) is an 18-week programme which resurfaces and regenerates the skin. It can visibly reduce the appearance of dark spots.
Hypopigmentation can be more difficult to treat. While a skin peel or laser treatment can help reduce post-inflammatory cases, and there is medication for tinea, vitiligo has no cure.
Some people opt for total depigmentation, which can be extreme. Others may find that light treatment helps, stimulating the cells to produce melanin. More often than not, camouflage creams and good foundations can be used to disguise the white patches, especially on the face. Again, talk to an expert to determine the right course of action for you.
Find out more about the effective treatments we offer for pigmentation here.
How to avoid pigmentation
Although pigmentation is a natural and unavoidable part of ageing, you can take steps to minimise its effects.
Use a broad-spectrum moisturiser that protects you from the sun. Don’t just leave the sun cream for the summer holiday – wear a daily SPF, especially on the face, ideally a minimum of 30+. For women, there are plenty of foundations that also have SPF built in, but a quality mineral-based sunscreen will protect your face and can be worn under make up too.
Leave any spots, scabs and lesions alone to prevent scratching and damaging the skin surface. By disturbing the skin cells, you are causing them to react and leave a mark.
Gentle exfoliation can rid the body of dull skin cells and moisturising afterwards can help the skin become more resistant to scratches, etc.
Though there is no evidence to suggest a link with diet, it goes without saying that good skin does come from within. A healthy and balanced diet, crammed with antioxidants, should enable your skin to better protect itself whilst making you feel and look great.