Science Behind Hyperpigmentation

Let’s start this off with a little science nerd chat! Hyperpigmentation occurs when there is an overproduction of melanin, which is controlled by an enzyme known as tyrosinase. As tyrosinase produces melanin, it stores it into vesicles that are inside the melanocyte, and are known as melanosomes. Then, they are transferred from the melanocyte to the keratinocytes. Keratinocytes travel from the bottom of the epidermis to the stratum corneum (the part that we see) as they age, and they carry with them the melanosomes. This results in a deposit of melanosomes that contain melanin on the epidermis.

So now that we know how hyperpigmentation occurs, how do we stop it dead in its tracks?

Tyrosinase Inhibitors

Tyrosinase inhibitors are the answer to my previous question! By inhibiting the enzyme tyrosinase from producing melanin, we prevent new dark spots from forming as well treat the melanin deposits already present in the skin. One of the most effective synthetic tyrosinase inhibitors is hydroquinone. It is offered typically at a percentage of 2 in over the counter products, and 4% in prescription products.

One of my favorite hydroquinone products is the Murad Rapid Age Spot and Pigment Lightening Serum which contains 2% hydroquinone as an active ingredient, as well as glycolic acid to chemically exfoliate the skin. Ambi Fade Cream is another great dark spot corrector that also contains 2% hydroquinone, lactic acid, and sunscreen.

If you are wary about using hydroquinone to lighten your dark spots because of a [misleading] study that showed hydroquinone causes cancer, other tyrosinase inhibitors are available that are natural yet effective. Some others are vitamin c, kojic acid, licorice root extract, mushroom extract, and arbutin. Most importantly, it is crucial to not use one of these for an extended period of time but to alternate them instead. This is because prolonged use of hydroquinone, specifically, can trigger the production of homogentisic acid, which actually makes the skin darker.

Other Hyperpigmentation Treatments

Lactic Acid: An alpha hydroxy acid that works best to gently exfoliate the skin while diminishing the appearance of dark marks. It is also a humectant which means that it hydrates the skin by drawing in water from the air. Lactic acid happens to be the most gentle AHA out there, meaning all skin types can use it with minimal irritation.

Citric AcidAn alpha hydroxy acid that treats dark spots

Vitamin C: Brightens the skin and acts as an antioxidant

Rosehip seed oil: Contains high amounts of vitamin c which helps to reduce the appearance of dark spots.

Retinol: Vitamin A derivative that works by promoting cell turnover

Sunscreen: When trying to treat hyperpigmentation, the sun is your enemy. Specifically UVA rays which are directly linked to hyperpigmentation. When you expose your skin to the sun, it feels the need to produce excess melanin as a defense mechanism. If you’re attempting to treat your hyperpigmentation and you’re not consistently wearing sunscreen? Congratulations, you’re playing yourself.


Why Can’t I Just Use Lemons?

Before I even explain why I just first want to say this: don’t. Many people believe that lemons work to treat discoloration because of their citric acid and vitamin c. Yes, Citric acid is an alpha hydroxy acid that also treats hyperpigmentation very well, the only difference is that in a lemon, the pH is not controlled and in a skin care product, it is.

Lemons have a pH of 2, which is extremely acidic and will likely cause a chemical burn on your skin. Guess what this chemical burn will then turn into? Discoloration. Back to square one! Also, lemons are phototoxic which means that when exposed to the sun while on your skin, they can cause a sunburn-like reaction. Lemons may seem like a quick fix, but the only thing that will be quick is the chemical burn.

That’s all for this post! How have you been treating your hyperpigmentation? Let me know in the comments!


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Written by Lily Njoroge