What is Skin Pigmentation?

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

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.

pigmented woman
Pigmentation types

So what causes pigmentation?

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, olive skin will be impacted more by skin trauma.

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.

Hyper-pigmentation is often caused by skin damage, such as burns, scarring or UV damage caused by overexposure to the sun.  It can also be caused by post acne scarring.  Hyper-pigmentation is often patchy covering quite small areas of the face or can be widespread across larger areas.

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.