Treating Hyperpigmentation in Darker Skin Tones

Photo: @annekapresston for @skindramaa/ Instagram

Navigating the skincare market as a Black person is often complicated and strenuous. Hyperpigmentation, the number one skin concern for black people, can be especially hard to navigate. Hyperpigmentation varies from person to person and is long-lasting; dark spots from acne scars or post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation can take years to naturally fade while hyperpigmentation from melasma (hormonal discoloration), eczema and sun damage can last up to a decade.  Hyperpigmentation manifests in different ways depending on the person; Black skin can experience circular markings or large patches of skin that range significantly in colour, typically around the mouth, cheeks and jaw. Since hyperpigmentation is exasperated by the amount of melanin a person produces, treatment also differs depending on a person’s skin type and colour.

The best way to address hyperpigmentation is to prevent it by reducing the skin’s exposure to the sun and applying sunscreen often. Naturally, melanin protects the skin from sunburns and helps reduce the risk of skin cancer. While Black people naturally produce higher amounts of melanin than people from other communities, they are still not exempt from photodamage and UVA light that can cause the skin to become irritated and inflamed; Black people should still continue to care for their skin to protect it from the sun. However, the biggest issue with sunscreen is in how it is formulated in North America, which is inconsiderate of darker skin types. In North America, there are two main forms of sunscreen available, mineral and chemical. Mineral sunscreens are formulated with Zinc Oxide, to reflect the sun’s rays. However, Zinc Oxide can leave a purple or grey cast on the skin, which is more noticeable on Black skin. Chemical sunscreens are formulated to absorb the UVA and UVB light, however, the formulations in North America can be irritating and comedogenic on the skin.  While the best way to prevent hyperpigmentation is to limit sun exposure, sunscreen can help prevent sun damage but comes at its own costs.

One of the best ways to treat pre-existing hyperpigmentation is through L-ascorbic acid, commonly referred to as Vitamin C. Since Vitamin C is an antioxidant, serums with Vitamin C can help fade skin discolouration. Vitamin C protects the skin from oxidative stress by neutralizing free radicals. However, Vitamin C as a chemical is naturally unstable when it reacts with water, air and sun, which are all elements that the skin is exposed to. As a result, exposure to the elements can cause Vitamin C products to become unstable. Additionally, unstable Vitamin C is difficult for the skin to absorb and can cause irritation. In an effort to address this issue, companies have developed different L-ascorbic acid formulas to make it more stable and minimize negative effects. These formulas are often combined with depigmenting agents, such as soy and liquorice, to enhance the depigmenting effect. Choosing the best Vitamin C for you depends on understanding which derivatives of Vitamin C best suit your individual skin type.  

Another remedy for hyperpigmentation is to use exfoliation, which can be the skin’s best friend due to its ability to prevent and treat hyperpigmentation. Exfoliation allows for a quicker and higher skin cell turnover rate; however, over-exfoliating can actually worsen hyperpigmentation. To avoid causing additional, unsolicited hyperpigmentation, use a chemical exfoliant like glycolic or lactic acid, instead of a physical exfoliant, to prevent excess skin damage altogether. Other treatments that improve skin cell turnover are retinoids such as retinol, and tretinoin. Retinoids can be bought over the counter in low doses, and/or can be prescribed by a dermatologist. 

Black-owned skincare brands are breaking barriers within this industry. Brands like Skin Drama have created an antioxidant-based serum to help combat hyperpigmentation; Mary Louise is another Black-owned skincare brand that focuses on creating serums to help fade dark spots on darker skin. Mary Louise Cosmetics is 100% vegan and has formulated its Miracle Serum to reduce the look of hyperpigmentation. To combat the discoloration and white casting issues Black people face in using sunscreen, products such as Black Girl Sunscreen, and Fenty Beauty’s Hydra Vizor Invisible Moisturizer Broad Spectrum SPF 30 Sunscreen are great alternatives to regular sunscreen; both are formulated to prevent the white cast that is prevalent in drug store brand sunscreen. Fenty Beauty also formulates their sunscreens for darker skin tones, through a clear and moisturizing combination.

While hyperpigmentation is different for everyone, even within the Black community, there are preventative and curative measures that one can take to treat it, such as limiting sun exposure or leveraging sunscreen, Vitamin C, Retinoid or exfoliation treatments. While these measures help, they are not perfect. As a result, Black people have been working to create beauty brands of their own that address the needs that the industry fails to meet. Issues that plague the Black beauty community, such as hyperpigmentation, are nuanced and specific to the Black experience; as a result, it is necessary that skincare products reflect our demands in order to claim a fully-inclusive beauty experience.

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