Hyperpigmentation is a broad term that refers to a very common skin issue: discoloration. Usually, this manifests in the form of dark spots or patches, but hyperpigmentation can take on many different and equally frustrating forms.
If you're noticing newly formed dark spots or hyperpigmentation is something that you've always been prone to, you're far from alone. "Most [people] deal with at least one form of hyperpigmentation at some point in their lives," says Sapna Palep, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. But despite how common it is, it can be very difficult to treat.
To break down everything there is to know about hyperpigmentation, including the different types and treatment options available, we consulted a slew of skin experts.
Symptoms, treatment options, and personal experiences for various physical, mental, and health conditions and concerns.
Whether it's from too much time in the sun, an eczema flare-up, or a particularly bad breakout, the roots of every type of hyperpigmentation all start with melanin, the pigment in our skin. Melanin is produced by cells called melanocytes, which live in the base layer of our epidermis (the outermost layer of our skin).
"Hyperpigmentation is caused by overproduction and irregular distribution of melanin in the skin," explains Nancy Samolitis, a board-certified dermatologist in Long Beach, California. The skin can be triggered to overproduce pigment (melanin) for a variety of different reasons, but, by far, the most common is sun exposure. When our skin is unprotected and exposed to the sun's rays, melanocytes are naturally triggered to produce more melanin — this is actually our body's way of protecting itself.
"When the pigment is evenly distributed, it appears as a 'tan,' but over time and with increasing sun exposure, most of the pigment ends up being distributed unevenly," says Samolitis. This uneven distribution is hyperpigmentation, and it can take form as freckles, age spots, or even melasma, which is a specific type of hyperpigmentation that is believed to also have a hormonal factor.
The sun isn't the only thing that can stimulate an overproduction of melanin. Pimples and rashes can also throw pigment out of whack. The discoloration that lingers after general skin inflammation or trauma, including acne, is called post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.
We touched a little on the different types of discoloration already, but here's a handy guide to understanding the hallmarks of each type of hyperpigmentation.