In our earlier post, we explored how those dark, unattractive spots or patches develop on our skin, usually in areas that receive a lot of sun exposure. The sun’s rays contain ultraviolet radiation, which damages our skin when we’re exposed to it for more than a short time, even as little as 15 or 20 minutes. The ultraviolet radiation causes hyperpigmentation, aka age or liver spots. We can develop dark spots from other causes too, such as hormonal changes, medication, diabetes, acne and skin trauma. Most brown patches due to hyperpigmentation are harmless, but that doesn’t mean we have to live with them. Read on to learn how to lighten or eliminate dark spots on your skin.
What Is Hyperpigmentation?
Before we explore how to minimize the appearance of hyperpigmentation, it’s helpful to understand a little about how it happens. Our skin contains cells called melanocytes, which produce and store melanin. Melanin is a pigment that gives our skin, hair, and eyes their color. Melanin also protects our skin from UV radiation by absorbing it. When our skin is exposed to too much UV radiation, either from the sun or tanning beds, its defenses go into overdrive — meaning the melanocytes produce excess melanin. The extra melanin forms deposits, which show up as dark patches or spots. As we mentioned above, other things can cause an excess of melanin production. People of all races and skin colors can develop hyperpigmentation.
What to Do About Dark Spots
First, you should see a dermatologist rule out serious conditions such as skin cancer if you see dark spots appear on your skin. If you’ve developed hyperpigmentation from excess exposure to the sun or tanning beds, you’re at an increased risk of developing skin cancer. Some types of skin cancer don’t spread beyond the skin, but one type called melanoma can be deadly. If melanoma isn’t caught early, it can spread to other parts of the body. Melanoma can develop even without sun exposure and often develops in places on our body not normally exposed too much sun.
Dark spots due to hyperpigmentation are not moles either. Moles tend to develop during childhood and are not related to ultraviolet radiation, although it can make them appear darker.
The best defense against age spots is prevention — consistently using a high-quality sunscreen, hats, cover-ups and staying in the shade. However, for most of us, we’ve either purposely or inadvertently exposed our skin to too much UV radiation and those unattractive dark patches are proof. This visible proof of UV radiation-related skin changes is also called photo-aging. Fortunately, we have some options that can lighten or even eliminate hyperpigmentation. Unfortunately, many treatments have unpleasant side effects and can be expensive, costing hundreds of dollars.
Medical Procedures for Treating Photo-aging and Hyperpigmentation
Dermatologists and other medical skincare practitioners can perform a variety of procedures in their offices or clinics. The most common medical procedures for removing hyperpigmentation include:
Laser Resurfacing and Intense Pulse Light Therapy (IPL): Lasers remove the upper surface of your skin, so new skin replaces it. Recovery can take 10 to 21 days. IPL therapy removes dark spots by destroying the skin’s melanocytes — but they don’t damage the skin permanently. The procedure does not usually require anesthesia, but it can be painful. The intense light pulses can feel like tiny rubber bands snapping against your skin. Recovery is no picnic either, and for about a week, you’ll look and feel like you’ve had a bad sunburn. And to achieve optimum results, you’ll likely need three to six treatments. And last, IPL and laser therapies aren’t cheap, averaging around $400 per session.
Cryotherapy: In this procedure, a medical professional applies freezing cold liquid nitrogen to the dark spots. The nitrogen destroys the cells and then new, lighter cells usually grow back. The freezing liquid feels like a superficial burn, and the treated areas will be red and irritated until the skin grows back.
Dermabrasion and Microdermabrasion: In these procedures, a skincare professional uses a special instrument to sand down the surface of your skin. Another technique involves spraying and then suctioning fine sodium bicarbonate or aluminum oxide particles. Lighter, new skin grows back. Dermabrasion is a more aggressive procedure than microdermabrasion with longer recovery time, higher cost ($2,000+) and often requires local anesthesia. Your skin will be red and tender as it heals — and you may need follow-up treatments. Microdermabrasion costs average $75 to $200 per session.
- Chemical Peels: This procedure involves applying an acidic solution to your skin, which causes it to blister and then peel. It can look and feel like a bad sunburn. Recovery varies by the strength of the solution used, anywhere from three to 14 days. Cost also varies widely, anywhere from $150 to several thousand dollars.
Topical Drugs for Treating Dark Spots
A doctor can prescribe a variety of topical creams and ointments that can reduce or remove hyper-pigmented areas. You can also buy over-the-counter creams, which contain lower amounts of the active ingredients used in prescription ones. OTC treatments are usually not as effective or as fast as prescription-strength ones — but can cost less. You’ll usually apply the medication one to two times per day for several weeks or even months. The most common ones include:
Hydroquinone: Hydroquinone lightens dark patches by breaking down and inhibiting melanocytes’ ability to produce melanin. Gradually, brown spots fade.
- Retinoic Acids/Tretinoin: These work by accelerating the turnover of skin cells, meaning they die faster and new, lighter skin cells replace them. They also inhibit melanin production. They can irritate your skin, especially at first.
Natural Remedies for Treating Age Spots
If you’re wary of costly, painful medical procedures or want to avoid medicated treatments, research has found that some natural ingredients are successful as minimizing age-related skin damage. A 2018 systematic review of 30 clinical studies found that the following natural ingredients showed efficacy in improving hyperpigmentation:
- Azelaic acid
- Licorice extract
- Lignin peroxidase
- Kojic acid
- Niacinamide (vitamin B3)
- Green tea
- Ascorbic acid (vitamin C)
Studies have also found that alpha-hydroxy acids such as glycolic acid and tartaric acid are effective at reducing melasma, photo-aging and dark spots. You can find several of these natural ingredients, including vitamin C, licorice, glycolic acid, tartaric acid and aloe in Eden Beauty’s line of skincare products. Eden Beauty’s contain a minimum of 40 percent of active ingredients, whereas drugstore and department store products average between 1 and 10 percent. Made 100 percent in the U.S., Eden Beauty’s products are also free of harsh bleaching ingredients, artificial dyes, parabens, sulfates, and phthalates.
Often, a nice side effect of hyperpigmentation treatments is a reduction in wrinkles, dryness, redness and sagging skin! The key takeaway is regardless of which treatment(s) you choose to minimize or eliminate hyperpigmentation is you must diligently use sunscreen daily. The pigmentation can return almost right away with subsequent sun exposure. During and for months after these treatments, our skin is particularly sensitive to ultraviolet radiation. The last thing you want to do is invest time, money and energy into rejuvenating your skin — only to have the dark patches return.