What is Skin Pigmentation?

Unwanted pigmentation is a skin concern that is experienced by many people at some stage in their lives.

Pigmentation refers to the pigment in the skin, so is the overarching term used. Hyperpigmentation means the skin looks darker than usual whereas Hypopigmentation means that the skin looks lighter than usual.

In order to understand this skincare concern better, let’s look at the role that pigment plays in giving skin its natural colour.

Melanin is a pigment that is produced by cells known as melanocytes in the bottom layer of the skin’s epidermis. A person’s melanin level determines the natural colour of the skin from very fair to dark brown. Melanin protects the skin by absorbing UVA and UVB rays in the sun. The more melanin, the more protection.

UVA radiation is what makes us tan. As these rays penetrate the lower layer of the epidermis, they trigger the melanocytes, increasing melanin production, which causes tanning. Melanin is the body’s way of protecting us from the damaging effects of UV radiation.

UVA radiation can cause cellular damage and UVB radiation can cause sunburn.

Pigmentation on the surface of the skin becomes visible as melanin moves upwards though the layers of the skin’s epidermis to the skin’s surface.

Pigmentation irregularities occur when UVA radiation damages melanocytes causing them to release melanin irregularly into the skin, either too much or too little and this can happen anywhere on the body, however it is most commonly found on the areas of skin that are exposed to sun, like the face, décolletage, arms and back of the hands.

Pigmentation Scale

Pigmentation not only develops because of different causes but also presents in different intensities. It is important to find where you are on the pigmentation scale so you can best choose your individual treatment.

So what causes pigmentation?

Pigmentation types

The body produces excess melanin when the melanocyte becomes damaged. This can be due to sun damage, skin trauma, acne scarring, stress, hormone irregularities or hereditary pre-dispositions.

Skin type also plays a role.  For example, fairer, lighter skin will be affected more by sun damage, while darker skin will be impacted more by skin trauma and olive skin will be more affected by hormonal changes.

There are different forms of pigmentation which include flat brown marks, age spots, larger darker patches and uneven skin tone.

What are the most common types of pigmentation?

The most common types of pigmentation are hyper-pigmentation and melasma.

Freckles, or to use their technical term, ephelides, are the most frequently found form of pigmentation . While some people are born with freckles, they commonly develop after repeated exposure to sunlight, particularly if you have a fair complexion. They often appear darker and more pronounced during the summer months and usually fade in the winter. Genetics also come into play when it comes to one’s inclination to have freckles.

Melasma often appears on the face and may be caused by hormonal changes, such as pregnancy (the pregnancy mask), birth control pills, hormone therapy including IVF and HRT, and medication that causes sensitivity to sunlight, stress and overexposure to the sun.  Melasma usually forms a symmetrical pattern on the face.

Post Inflammatory Hyperpigmentation (PIH) occurs after an injury to the skin. It is a discolouration of the skin that follows an inflammatory wound such as a rash, scrape or pimple. Popping a pimple increases the chance of PIH as it is increasing the inflammation.  It can range in colour from white, to pink, red, purple and very dark brown.  It affects both men and women and all skin types, however tends to be more severe for people with medium to dark complexions.  As the skin starts to heal, the skin overproduces melanin and this excess melanin darkens the skin.  Unlike acne scaring, PIH is a type of pigmentation, similar to sun damage as it does not damage the hair follicle.

Solar Lentigines, more commonly known as sunspots or liver spots, refer to pigmented spots, which, unlike melasma, have a clearly defined edge. A form of pigmentation that can occur anywhere on the body, sunspots may vary in colour from light brown to black. These spots are caused by UV sun exposure and the degree of their darkness depends on how much UV light they’re exposed to. It’s important to ensure that sunspots are regularly monitored, as they may develop into skin cancer and melanoma. Subsequently annual checks with your skin specialist or GP are essential.

pigmentation prevention

How to prevent further pigmentation?

The most effective is to avoid further sun damage. Protect the skin, wear sunscreen everyday even in winter whenever you are exposed to the sun.