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Hyperpigmentation: what it is and how to get rid of it

Jocelyn Bailey
Article written by Jocelyn Bailey

Date published 29 May 2024

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Age spots, sun spots, liver spots, melasma, and hyperpigmentation are all names for patches of brown pigment that make some areas of skin look darker than the rest. Here's what beauty writer Jocelyn Bailey recommends for a more even skin tone.

🕒 5 min read

What is hyperpigmentation?

Melanin is the pigment that's responsible for our skin colour. It's produced in special cells called melanocytes in the basal layer of the epidermis. We all have about the same number, but if your melanocytes make small amounts, your skin, hair and eyes are probably light in colour. If they make more, the result is darker. (A different type of melanin called pheomelanin provides reddish and yellow shades which create pinker skin, like on the lips, or hair that's blonde or ginger.)

Pigment production does, however, increase when our skin is exposed to sunlight, as part of a multistage process that is part of the skin's way of protecting itself from UV damage. It begins when an enzyme called tyrosinase starts converting an amino acid, tyrosine, into melanin. We usually like the effect of the extra pigment when it forms a nice, even suntan, but not when it results in stubborn, irregular pigmentation patches. These can affect all ethnicities and colourings.

Types of hyperpigmentation and their causes

Just as there are many types of pigmentation, there are also a variety of contributing causes.

Folic acid or vitamin B12 deficiency can play a role, as can some health conditions such as Addison's disease and thyroid problems. Hormone changes (such as pregnancy), and certain types of medication can also be to blame, but the main causes for each type are noted below.

Melasma or chloasma (pregnancy mask)

This type of hyperpigmentation tends to involve large brownish patches, especially on the face. It's most common during pregnancy or when taking the pill, but it can result when oestrogen and progesterone over-stimulate pigment production after sun-exposure.

It usually disappears once the hormones return to normal.

Post inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH)

Post inflammatory hyperpigmentation refers to the dark, discoloured patches that occur after a skin injury or inflammation has healed. Acne spots, burns, dermatitis, local wounds, eczema, and even insect bites can generate the problem.

PIH can improve on its own, but the process can take months or even years.

Genetic factors

Freckles, for example, are small, harmless brown patches that often run in families, especially if we're naturally pale-skinned and/or red-haired. They darken and appear to multiply with sun exposure but, unlike age spots, they often fade when exposure ends.

Age spots

These can also be genetic, so if your parents had age spots, you'll be more likely to develop them too. Also known as sun spots, liver spots, lentigo solaris and lentigo senilis, they occur as we get older, usually in skin areas most exposed to UV-light such as the face, hands and chest.

It happens because over time, and especially after the age of 40, skin can become less able to regulate its melanin production, leading to overproduction in particular areas. The distribution of melanocytes may also change, decreasing in number but becoming more concentrated in patches. Once those patches have developed, sun exposure can then make them darker.

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Hyperpigmentation treatment

How to get rid of hyperpigmentation (especially hyperpigmentation on the face) is the golden question.

There are professional treatments available, such as chemical peels and laser therapy, which treat hyperpigmentation by stimulating growth of fresh new skin cells, but it's always easier (and cheaper) to start with topical skincare.

There are plenty of ingredients from which even sun-damaged skin can benefit.


First off, as the most common single factor is sun exposure, diligent use of sunscreen is essential. Sunscreen helps block not only UV, but also the activity of the tyrosinase enzyme, which means it inhibits melanin production. With little or no melanin being produced, pigmented areas should gradually fade.

If you're prone to age spots, apply UV-protection all year round, including on cloudy days and in winter. However, it's especially important in the summer months and when the sun's UV rays are at their most intense, i.e. between 10am and 4pm. At those times, effective protection also means staying in the shade, wearing a wide-brimmed hat and applying SPF50 sunscreen.

Daily UV Defence SPF50 provides high levels of UVA and UVB protection, plus Vitamin C, to fight different forms of epidermal damage, improve radiance and general skin quality. You can also use it on your hands for maximum insurance, or apply the Replenish Hand Cream, which has SPF15 for defence against age spots and sun damage, and Tyrostat to help improve the appearance of existing liver spots.

Vitamin C

A powerful antioxidant that helps limit UV damage and contributes to brighter, rejuvenated skin, vitamin C is essential for skin of all ages. The Vitamin C Serum contains three different, potent forms for different levels of penetration. Studies show that these can both suppress pigment formation and even the skin tone.


A potent form of vitamin A, retinol speeds up cell turnover for a smoother, fresher-looking, and more even skin tone. The Replenish Intensive Pigmentation Reducing Complex contains both retinol and our proven skin-lightening active ingredient – kojic dipalmitate – to help reduce excess pigment, and is the best serum for hyperpigmentation I have found so far.

Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs)

These include glycolic acid, lactic acid, and citric acid, which work to gradually reduce pigment production through their cell-shedding and exfoliating benefits. Glycolic acid is used by dermatologists for professional chemical peels, although in higher concentrations.

Most of all, be patient...

Finally, it's worth remembering that some areas may respond better than others, so although some hyperpigmentation patches may disappear completely, others may only fade to a degree. Also, improvements take time, so give the products above a fair chance (at least three months) to work.

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Jocelyn Bailey

About Jocelyn Bailey

Jocelyn Bailey has been a health and beauty journalist for over 30 years, including 10 as beauty editor of Woman magazine. She is an expert in top-to-toe beauty, with a particular interest in ingredients.