Hyperpigmentation Explained: How to Deal With Dark Spots and Acne Marks

While most of us deal with some degree of hyperpigmentation, most guys would also draw a blank in defining the common skincare condition. That’s because we don’t classify a months-old acne mark alongside a summer freckling. Melasma is far different from a newly sprouted mole. And yet, all of these things are, by definition, hyperpigmentation.

It’s easy to break these things into their respective categories, especially when it comes to treating them. (Some of them, like those freckles, don’t need to be “treated” at all.) And this segmentation is why it’s hard to get a singular grasp on “hyperpigmentation” as a whole. The same Vitamin C serum you use on an acne mark won’t do anything for a mole.

But it is also important to understand hyperpigmentation in its big-picture entirety, because it’s a condition that is only going to show up more as you age. And if you know all of this, then you’ll also know how to slow its progress and prominence (so that these occurrences are a little more ‘hypo’ and a little less ‘hyper’). Those scars and marks heal faster. Those moles appear less frequently. And so forth.

For a top-down look at hyperpigmentation and to build up your defenses against it, we spoke with NYC-based cosmetic dermatologist Michele Green. Here is her insight, along with the strategies she deploys with her own patients.

What is Hyperpigmentation?

For starters, hyperpigmentation is a pretty vague term. “Hyperpigmentation is a general term used to describe patches of skin which are darker in color than the rest of the surrounding skin,” Green says. “The color of one’s skin is related to a substance called melanin, which is produced by skin cells to protect from harmful UV rays. Too much melanin can be produced if the skin cells are damaged or unhealthy, causing that area to appear darker. Increased sun exposure causes increased amount of melanin in the skin, so the skin becomes darker or ‘tan.’” A tan is usually considered a good thing, aesthetically, but it’s when those patches are uneven that people might feel like they have a problem. 

In terms of what might cause it, that’s also a mixed bag. “While dark spots on skin can develop for a wide variety of reasons, one of the most common contributing factors is overexposure to the sun. Some of the other factors that may influence the presence of hyperpigmentation include fluctuations in hormone levels, a genetic predisposition to hyperpigmentation, the healing process associated with an inflammatory wound (like acne), and skin damage caused by laser treatment.” No matter what the cause is, Green says that “you will know that you are experiencing hyperpigmentation if you observe areas of discolored or darkened skin that cause an uneven skin tone.”

Green says that anyone can experience hyperpigmentation. “It can occur in individuals of any skin tone and type, and depending on the underlying cause of the hyperpigmentation, it may appear at any age.” But it does tend to happen more frequently as you get older: “Over time, melanin can clump together to cause ‘age spots’. As you age, your skin becomes thinner and drier, making it more susceptible to developing scaly patches and discoloration. With increased sun exposure, the amount of melanin is stimulated and the result is photodamage, sun spots, and an increased risk of skin cancer.”

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