Skin discoloration is one of the most frustrating and confusing skin conditions, primarily because there are so many factors that can cause discolored skin patches. Maybe you were born with freckles, dark spots, or white patches. Or perhaps your skin became discolored from spending too much time in the sun. Certain medications and diseases can even cause skin discoloration. Not sure what to do about your skin discoloration? Read on to learn about the various types of skin discoloration, what causes discolored skin patches, and 6 ways to get rid of skin discoloration on face.
What is skin discoloration?
There are two main types of skin discoloration: hyperpigmentation and hypopigmentation. Both are caused by an irregular production of melanin. Melanin is a term that refers to a group of pigments produced by cells called melanocytes in the lower level of the epidermis. There are three main types of melanin: eumelanin, pheomelanin, and neuromelanin. In humans, eumelanin is the most abundant, and along with pheomelanin, it is the pigment that determines the color of skin and hair. People with darker complexions produce higher levels of melanin while people with lighter complexions produce lower levels of melanin. Melanin is said to be the skin’s natural defense mechanism against sun damage because it can effectively absorb light and dissipate over 99.9% of absorbed UV radiation.
The most common type of skin discoloration is hyperpigmentation, which is the darkening of an area of skin due to an excess or irregular production of melanin. Hyperpigmentation can be split into different types, such as freckles, melasma, and age spots.
Hypopigmentation is the opposite of hyperpigmentation; light or white patches appear on the skin as a result of a reduction in melanin production. Types of hypopigmentation include vitiligo (smooth, white patches on the skin) and albinism (complete lack of pigmentation in skin, hair, and eyes).
What causes skin discoloration?
So, what causes skin discoloration? And why are some people born with discolored skin patches and others develop discoloration over time?
Like most traits, skin discoloration is a result of genetic factors combined with environmental factors. For example, hyperpigmentation conditions like freckles or birthmarks are inherited, and the hypopigmentation condition albinism is also an inherited disorder (although it is rare).
However, both types of skin discoloration can be caused by environmental factors. For example, skin damage can lead to either increased or decreased pigment production, known as post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation and post-inflammatory hypopigmentation, respectively. This can occur if you’ve had a skin infection, blisters, burns, acne, or other trauma to your skin. Acne is the primary cause of post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, and burns are the most common cause of post-inflammatory hypopigmentation.
Another environmental factor that can cause skin discoloration on face, neck, chest, and body is excessive exposure to UV light. When skin is exposed to UV light for a prolonged period of time, specific triggers send signals to melanin sites which activate the enzyme tyrosinase. Then, tyrosinase stimulates skin cells called melanocytes to produce excess melanin creating dark pigment. The over production of melanin disperses upward in clumps that appear as dark spots on the surface of the skin. This process is also what causes the skin to visibly tan.
6 Ways to Treat Skin Discoloration on Face
1. Use sunscreen to prevent new discolored skin patches
First things first: It’s imperative to use sun protection every day if you’re trying to get rid of skin discoloration. Whether you have light or dark discolored skin patches, wear a broad spectrum SPF 30 sunscreen on all sun-exposed skin daily to protect against both UVA and UVB rays. This is the easiest way you can prevent the future development of skin discoloration. Wearing sunscreen is especially important if you have hypopigmentation (Remember: melanin is the skin’s natural defense mechanism against sun damage).
2. Incorporate antioxidants into your skin care routine
Another preventative measure you can take is to incorporate antioxidants into your skin care routine. Antioxidants limit oxidative stress caused by environmental free radicals from things like excessive UV exposure, pollution, chemicals, smoking, etc. This is important because the harmful effects of free radicals occur as direct chemical alterations of the cellular DNA, the cell membrane, and important cellular proteins, resulting in premature skin aging, discoloration, and even skin cancer. A few of the best antioxidants you can look for in a skin care product include retinol (vitamin A), ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and derivatives, tocopherol (vitamin E), ferulic acid, polyphenols, and flavonoids.
3. Use a skin discoloration cream or serum
There are many skin discoloration creams and serum on the market that you can use to treat hyperpigmentation. It’s important to purchase a product with ingredients ingredients that are known to brighten the skin and help fade dark spots. These ingredients include hydroquinone, retinoids, alpha arbutin, ALA, AHAs, and more.
Hydroquinone is considered to be the gold standard of skin brightening treatments. According to the American Osteopathic College of Dermatology, hydroquinone lightens the skin by inhibiting the enzymatic conversion of tyrosine to DOPA (dihydroxyphenylalanine) in melanocytes, which results in the desired chemical reduction of melanin. Ultimately, this leads to a decrease in the number of melanocytes and decreased transfer of melanin, which helps to fade dark spots. However, hydroquinone cannot be used long term because of the risk of exogenous ochronosis, a paradoxical hyperpigmentation of the skin. Interestingly, this phenomenon has only been documented in darker-skinned patients.
All topical retinoid products (retinol, retinyl palmitate, all-trans retinoic acid, etc.) are converted to retinoic acid (the active form) after being absorbed by the skin. Retinoic acid can help to fade dark spots by increasing the rate of cell turnover. While retinoids are known to be effective, they also can cause side effects such as skin redness, irritation, stinging, and peeling.
Alpha arbutin is a glycosylated hydroquinone that can be extracted from several different plants, such as bearberry and mulberry root. Alpha arbutin has the ability to inactivate tyrosinase. As we discussed above, tyrosinase is a key enzyme involved in the synthesis of melanin. Therefore, by inhibiting tyrosinase, alpha arbutin may be able to reduce abnormal hyperpigmentation associated with aging and exposure to UV light.
A unique ingredient that can be used to help fade dark spots is alpha linolenic acid (ALA), a polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acid. ALA increases the rate of cell turnover in the stratum corneum and also suppresses melanin production by active melanocytes. Both of these properties make ALA an excellent ingredient to use for skin discoloration like age spots and uneven skin tone.
Lastly, you can look for a skin discoloration cream, serum, or cleanser that contains an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA). AHAs include glycolic acid, lactic acid, mandelic acid, tartaric acid, malic acid, and citric acid. These ingredients exfoliate the skin by targeting corneocytes (dead skin cells that make up the top layers of skin) in a process called corneocyte desquamation. By enhancing their breakdown and increasing the separation of skin cells, the rate of cell turnover is increased. Ultimately, this helps to fade dark spots and promote brighter skin. One of our favorite AHA products is the Formulyst Clarifying AHA Cleanser.
4. Try a chemical peel
An effective way to get rid of skin discoloration on face is to visit your dermatologist’s office for a chemical peel. There are several different types of chemical peels. Mild peels often include a combination of AHAs and BHAs (i.e. salicylic acid). Medium peels use trichloroacetic acid (TCA) in concentrations ranging between 25% and 50%. Deep peels use high concentrations of TCA or phenol to strip away more layers of skin. While chemical peels can permanently get rid of dark spots, they come with many drawbacks. As the name implies, a chemical peel causes the skin to literally peel off, along with redness, stinging, numbness, and burning of the skin. Chemical peels also increase your sensitivity to sunlight, so it’s imperative to wear sunscreen every day for months after the peel to prevent serious damage. Lastly, one complication of a chemical peel is hypopigmentation.
5. Get a laser treatment
Laser treatments are another effective way to get rid of dark spots and other discoloration on face. There are many different lasers that can be used on darks spots, but one of the most common is known as Intense Pulsed Light (IPL). IPL lasers target deep discolored UV damaged hyperpigmented areas by using light-based energy pulse to target blood vessels, as well as to lift and remove dark pigmented areas from the skin. Once again, a laser treatment means making a trip to the dermatologist’s office and will require some time for recovery. Some of the side effects of an IPL treatment include redness, peeling, and swelling of the skin for a few days after the treatment. Similar to chemical peels, a complication of laser treatments is hypopigmentation.
Is it possible to get rid of light discolored skin patches?
As you can see, most of the skin discoloration treatments we discussed above are meant for hyperpigmentation. Unfortunately, there aren’t many available treatment options for hypopigmentation (loss of pigment). According to a 2018 publication in Dermatology News, there are currently no universally accepted treatment that restores skin pigmentation. If you have a hypopigmentation condition, you will likely have to receive a prescription from your doctor for a topical corticosteroid. Other potential treatments include a series of microneedling or subcision treatments.
Best products for discoloration on face
In a previous section, we discussed the best skin brightening ingredients that you should look for in a skin discoloration cream or serum. If you don’t have the time to hunt for products with these ingredients, don’t worry! Check out our two favorite products for discoloration on face below.
One product we recommend for discoloration on face is Formulyst Luminous Skin Serum. Formulated to promote a brighter, more radiant-looking complexion, Formulyst’s Luminous Skin Serum is a lightweight, highly concentrated formula enriched with Triple Brightening Technology – a naturally powerful combination of alpha arbutin, Rumex extract, and a biomimetic peptide.
Another product specifically designed to target the appearance of dark spots and uneven skin tone caused by hyperpigmentation is Formulyst Dark Spot Solutions. It is formulated with HyWhite – an alpha linolenic acid (ALA) that helps to lighten the appearance of dark spots and visibly improve the uniformity of the skin color. This serum also contains a lightweight molecular hyaluronic acid, which instantly helps to improve skin hydration.
References: AOCD.org/page/Hydroquinone, Arch Dermatol Res 1998 Jul;290(7):375-81, Dermatology News “Hypopigmentation” Oct 2018