Hyperpigmentation is a common condition in which patches of skin become darker than the normal surrounding skin. This occurs when an excess of melanin, the brown pigment that produces normal skin colour, forms deposits in the skin.

It’s a term used to describe areas of uneven pigmentation in the skin that appears as darkened patches. People with dark skin are normally more affected by hyperpigmentation than those with a lighter skin tone, because skin pigmentation is stronger in dark skin.


Several different conditions or factors can alter the production of melanin in your body and lead to hyperpigmentation.

Excessive exposure to the sun can cause an increase in melanin production. This is the number one cause of hyperpigmentation as melanin acts as your skin’s natural sunscreen by protecting you from harmful UV rays, which is why people tan in the sun. But too much sun exposure can disrupt this process and lead to hyperpigmentation.

Certain medications can be at fault, as well as chemotherapy drugs which can cause hyperpigmentation as a side effect. Pregnancy changes hormone levels and can also affect melanin production in some women.

Addison’s disease is an endocrine disorder which can produce hyperpigmentation that is most pronounced in areas of sun exposure such as the face, neck and hands as well as areas exposed to friction such as the elbows and knees. This is a direct result of an increased level of a hormone in your body that results in increased melanin synthesis.

Types of hyperpigmentation

There are several types of hyperpigmentation, the most common ones being sunspots, melasma and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.


This is believed to be caused by hormonal changes and may develop during pregnancy. Areas of hyperpigmentation can appear anywhere on the body, but they appear most commonly on the stomach and face. Melasma can also be a side-effect of taking birth control pills and may be worsened by sun exposure.


Also called liver spots or solar lentigines, sunspots are common. They are related to excess sun exposure over time. Usually they appear on areas exposed to the sun, like the hands and face.

Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation

It is often associated with acne as once a pimple heals, a dark spot may be left behind. PIH can occur as a result of any kind of trauma to the skin. Pigment cells can create more pigment in response to any injury. Eczema and lupus are other conditions which can lead to PIH.


Freckles are usually small brown spots caused by sun exposure. They can occur anywhere, at any age, but are most common on the face, chest, neck and hands. These are nothing to worry about in most cases unless irregular borders, asymmetry or changes in colour develop.


These pigmentations are present at birth and can be caused by clusters of pigmented cells or malformed blood vessels. Birthmarks may go away without treatment, stay the same or change over time.


Patchy areas of redness that occur for no apparent reason, and which can flare up for weeks or months and go away. Rosacea can be exacerbated by sunlight, temperature extremes and an increase in blood flow to the skin. Common on the cheeks, nose, chin or forehead, it is characterised by visible blood vessels and an enlarged nose.

The effects of hyperpigmentation

According to a study published in the International Journal of Women’s Dermatology, patients reported that suffering from melasma robbed them of freedom and had a significant negative effect on their self-esteem and self-confidence.

Because of the noticeability of a condition like melasma, people report increased self-consciousness and in particular frustration when it affects the face rather than a more easily concealable part of the body.

In the same study, several patients admitted to self-obsession and negativity over their hyperpigmentation and said they thought about it every single day. Many also expressed feeling inferior to other people.


For home care, sunscreen is the single most important factor in improving most causes of hyperpigmentation. Ideally you look for a physical blocking sunscreen, preferably with zinc oxide as the main active ingredient and at least an SPF of 30 to 50.

There are also skin disorders such as melasma with which visible light may play a role in perpetuating the hyperpigmentation, in which case you should opt for a mineral sunscreen that has iron oxide in it. This can block some visible light and can be crucial to use daily.

Other tips include using a vitamin C serum every morning, to improve sunscreen efficacy and picking up lightening creams which have been proven to reduce the look of all kinds of hyperpigmentation.

Exfoliation also works as a treatment for hyperpigmentation because it uses physical granules to remove the dead layer of skin cells on the surface of the skin. This allows new cells to be revealed underneath which are clearer and brighter. This works well on the outermost layer of the skin, but any deeper discolouration will be unchanged.

How to diagnose and treat hyperpigmentation

 They will first ask for your medical history and offer a physical exam to determine what causes it. In some cases, a skin biopsy may be needed to narrow down the cause. There are many types of treatments depending on the condition, its severity and the individual’s preferences. These range from medications to chemical peels and IPL.


Results are usually seen within 4-6 weeks.

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Topical prescription medication can treat some cases of hyperpigmentation, usually containing hydroquinone which lightens the skin. Also topical retinoids can lighten dark spots of the skin.


Intense pulse light (IPL)can be a long-lasting solution to removing sunspots and combating skin discolouration. It uses high-energy pulses of light applied via a handheld device which are absorbed by the cells and generates heat which can work to break up pigment and melanin.

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