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Today we have the first part of a little two-parter I'm doing on hyperpigmentation (including melasma and other forms of discolouration), and how to treat it. I wanted to start by sharing some ingredients to look out for and how they work, then next week I'm going to share some of my favourite treatments that combine them, because I really do think there's not one silver bullet ingredient when it comes to tackling this issue; it's really is about incorporating as much of this good stuff into your routine as possible. All that being said, let's dive in...
I'm sure if you're reading this post, you know that hyperpigmentation occurs when the skin experiences an injury (post-inflammatory), irritation or sun damage and you're left with dark patches of skin. However, it's important to have a basic idea of how and why it happens so we can understand what it is we're targeting with these ingredients. Hyperpigmentation is caused by an overproduction of melanin (produced by melanocytes in our skin), which is what gives our skin its pigment. If you have darker skin, you don't actually have more melanocytes, but they're larger and therefore more easily triggered into melanin production overdrive, which is why people with deeper skin tones generally have more issues with hyperpigmentation. Most of the ingredients we'll look at in this post are tyrosinase-inhibitors and tyrosinase is the enzyme that triggers melanin production, so by interfering with its operation in the skin, you can prevent that overproduction that causes the hyperpigmentation.
Let's kick things off with an ingredient you're probably familiar with, but not necessarily for the reason we're discussing today. One of the many benefits of niacinamide (AKA Vitamin B) is that it can prevent hyperpigmentation from spreading through the skin. Have you ever had a spot, cut or insect bite where the scar ended up being larger than the original injury site? Niacinamide can help with that, so if you regularly break out or get large patches of discolouration, I really recommend incorporating this into your daily routine (plus it regulates oil production in the skin so you could benefit from breaking out less in the first place). I recommend no more than a 5% concentration and it doesn't have to be a dedicated standalone niacinamide serum; it can form part of a wider formula with other great actives or even in your moisturiser. Just try to get it in there in a gentle way because it's one of those ingredients that will do amazing background work for your skin.
I like: the Alpha-H Vitamin B Serum with 5% Niacinamide* | £44.99 | full review coming soon.
I recommend almost anyone who has previously or is currently experiencing acne or is over 25 gets some form of retinoid (AKA Vitamin A) into their routine. Whilst retinoids are known for being the gold standard in anti-ageing, they're also great for scarring, texture and uneven skin tone (including reversing signs of sun damage). There are a million reasons to include a retinoid in your routine but helping improve the appearance of hyperpigmentation and indirectly helping by treating acne (so fewer new scars are created in the first place) are definitely up there. They work by increasing skin cell turnover and reducing inflammation, so your skin is all brand new. If you want a cosmetic product that's a little gentler on the skin then I recommend retinal for the perfect combination of results without the irritation. If you've tried that and it's just not punchy enough for you any more, then it's worth looking into prescription services where a dermatologist will assess whether you're a candidate for tretinoin. Just be aware that retinoids aren't suitable for you if you're pregnant or breastfeeding.
I like: the Medik8 Crystal Retinal series* | from £42 | full review and Skin & Me's prescription service | £20 / month | full review.
This is a bit more of a 'throw it in' ingredient for me; I find it really needs to work alongside the other powerhouse actives we're going to discuss, so look out for it in a serum blend or find an affordable formula that you can easily throw into your routine. Alpha Arbutin (and make sure it's Alpha Arbutin, not Beta Arbutin to get the best results) is a typically berry-derived antioxidant from the same family as hydroquinone, a well-known prescription-strength short-term treatment for pigmentation issues. It doesn't have the same issues as hydroquinone; it's gentler and can be used long-term, but it's still an effective tyrosinase-inhibitor.
I like: the Ordinary's Alpha Arbutin 2% + HA | £8.60 | full review coming soon.
Tranexamic acid is a newer ingredient to the cosmetic skincare market but has been used as a medication to aid with blood clotting issues; its potential to treat discolouration in the skin was an accidental discovery. It's particularly good if you're suffering from melasma. This is another great supplementary option because although it's an acid, it's not a exfoliating acid that's going to cause a sensation, it's actually a very compatible ingredient so is often found formulated with other ingredients we're covering off in this post so should slot in easily within most routines. It's not super well-studied, which is also why I recommend using it alongside other ingredients in this post that have more backing.
Mandelic acid is a next-generation alpha-hydroxy acid with a large molecular size, so it's a great gentler chemical exfoliation option and a great alternative to something like glycolic (which can cause irritation in some people's skin, which can actually worsen hyperpigmentation). You're getting the increased skin cell turnover but also some antibacterial benefits to help prevent spots in the first place and studies suggest it's particularly good for treating colouration issues like melasma. I don't push extremely strong exfoliants or over-exfoliating. the skin, so I recommend just using something like a 10% mandelic acid 3 times a week as your only form of exfoliation.
The other option that could be good if you have more mature or dry skin (rather than acne-prone skin) is lactic acid. Choose one or the other to reach for 3 times a week - not both! Lactic acid is a slightly punchier AHA than mandelic, but is still a gentler option than glycolic that should be fine for most skin types prone to hyperpigmentation. It's incredible for resurfacing the skin, if you're also struggling with texture, plus you're getting that increased skin cell turnover that you get from any exfoliating acid.
I like: the StriVectin Advanced Hydration Lactic Acid Nightly Retexturising Serum* | £60 | full review.
Next up is azelaic acid, which is famed for its ability to treat rosacea but it's actually also great at tackling hyperpigmentation and even acne. It's a grain-derived ingredient that's antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory, plus it's an antioxidant, protecting the skin from free radical damage. As well as all of that: it's a tyrosinase-inhibitor. If you suffer from discolouration alongside acne, rosacea or acne-rosacea: this is going to be your superstar active. I recommend starting with a 10% concentration once a week and building it up from there to daily use if your skin is happy with it. If you've used azelaic acid before and your skin is happy with it but you have significant acne and / or rosacea alongside your uneven skin tone then you can then up it to a 20% treatment. With a stronger formula, I recommend sticking to a gentle, skin barrier supportive routine alongside it.
I like: the Dermatica Azelaic Acid 20% Cream* | £19.99 | full review coming soon.
Next, let's talk licorice root extract; a gentle double-whammy against hyperpigmentation. It's a tyrosinase-inhibitor but it's also anti-inflammatory, so it's helping the skin when it's breaking out so you experience less of that angry redness that then gets converted into discolouration. It also vibes with other ingredients in this post so you're likely to find it in a wider formulation with other tyrosinase inhibitors to boost its overall potential.
I like: PSA Skin Heroine Mandelic Acid Licorice Superfood Glow Toner* | £28 | full review.
Last - but not least - we have Vitamin C: one of the most well-known ingredients on the market for tackling dark spots. Truth be told: if you can't afford the gold standard in ascorbic acid (which is in the product I've featured for this post) then derivatives are still great for this specific concern - it's more the other benefits like the antioxidant abilities and the collagen-boosting effect that you could be missing out on. And derivatives can be a little gentler on the skin, so it's really about your budget and preferences. However, Vitamin C in all of its forms is a tyrosinase inhibitor, and alongside its other benefits: I think it deserves a place in your AM routine.
Lastly, it's not an ingredient but I just wanted to mention the importance of sunscreen as the foundation for all of this work. I know some people very prescriptive in that it has to be a mineral sunscreen (and zinc oxide has an added anti-inflammatory benefit) but I think: if it doesn't irritate your skin then use whatever product you're going to reach for and apply enough of every single day. Look out for advertised visible light protection or iron oxides in the INCI list too, as this type of light can really worsen hyperpigmentation.
Do you suffer from hyperpigmentation? Which ingredients have helped your skin? (Don't forget to come back next week for multi-active serums and treatments!)