SKIN SERIES | Managing Post-Inflammatory Hyperpigmentation
Let’s discuss one of life’s greatest annoyances – hyperpigmentation. First, what is it? Hyperpigmentation is a fancy way of referring to spots or areas of the skin that are darker than the rest. Think freckles, sunspots, and post-acne marks. Sunspots and freckles are the result of, you guessed it, sun exposure. UV damage causes melanin to pool in the upper layers of skin. Post-acne marks, or post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, occur when excess melanin is produced and deposited into the cells of the skin in response to acne inflammation. And the worst part? These spots tend to stick around and may not even resolve on their own without a little help.
So what can you do? For starters, you have to think in terms of lifting the excess melanin up and out. By sloughing off dead skin cells through exfoliation, you are kick starting your skin’s renewal process and moving pretty, healthy, perfectly pigmented skin cells to the surface! Reduction or elimination of dark spots can be effectively achieved through many means so don’t feel limited to a certain method. If manual exfoliation is too much for your sensitive skin, try fruit enzymes or Vitamin C (or better yet, both!). The important thing is to find an ingredient or ritual that you like and stick with it! Remember that fading hyperpigmentation is a gradual process.
Now let’s dig in:
I covered the basics of exfoliation above, but to recap – exfoliation removes dead cells on your skin’s surface essentially triggering your skin to start repairing itself. Over time, fresh, new cells make their way to the surface while old, pigmented, dulling cells are exfoliated away. Many individuals advocate a once or twice a week exfoliating ritual, but as you know, I’m not much for hard and fast rules. Your skin is your own so take the time to really figure out what works for you!
A less scrubby alternative to manual exfoliation, alpha hydroxy acids work to break down the bonds that hold dead skin cells together improving cellular turnover. Our skin’s turnover rate slows as we age, which helps to explain why post-acne marks seem to stick around for months on end. Chemical exfoliation speeds this process up. The most commonly used AHAs include glycolic and lactic acids. Glycolic acid has a smaller molecular size so it yields the most dramatic results, but also has the potential to be more irritating. And remember to keep an eye on the pH of the product – the ideal pH is between 3 and 4. Any lower and the product will be incredibly irritating; any higher and you won’t see any results.
Think of fruit enzymes as a form of gentle, non-abrasive exfoliation. Fruit enzymes soften and effectively exfoliate delicate skin helping to fade dark spots and dissolve, dulling dead skin cells. A few to look for include Papaya Seed Oil (rich in Papain), Pineapple Enzyme, Apple Fruit Extract, and Pumpkin Extract.
A dermatologist’s darling, retinol addresses multiple signs of aging, uneven skin tone, and clogged pores. It’s a rock star. An incredibly misunderstood rock star. There are so many “internet truths” related to this Vitamin A derivative so it’s important to do your own research. I consider retinol an indispensable part of any skin care routine, especially if hyperpigmentation is an issue. Remember that flaking isn’t a good sign and typically means that you need to dial it down a bit. Start slowly with this potent ingredient!
Vitamin C is a bit of an overachiever when it comes to hyperpigmentation – Vitamin C’s antioxidant activity helps to prevent dark spots from forming in the first place and it also lightens surface pigmentation caused by UV damage and acne inflammation. A great Vitamin C serum is a must in my book!
Now you might be wondering how to make the most of these ingredients in your skin care ritual. First and foremost, more is not better when it comes to exfoliation. I repeat, DO NOT OVERDO IT. If your skin appears red, irritated, or little bumps start forming under the surface, back off. These are signs of inflammation and inflammation is pro-aging. I think the advice of sticking to one exfoliating product a day is pretty sound (and remember that washcloths and brushing gadgets count!)
Back to the topic at hand. The options for incorporating these ingredients are somewhat endless so I will provide you with an example pore-clearing, hyperpigmentation-busting ritual - in the morning, cleanse your face with a gentle cleanser (my morning pick), apply your Vitamin C serum, smooth on a moisturizer (my pick), and finish with sunscreen (my pick). In the evening, cleanse your face with a gentle cleanser (my evening pick), apply your AHA serum and finish with a moisturizer. Every other night, swap your AHA for your retinol. Once a week, you can apply a deep cleansing, at-home facial type mask (this or this) if your skin feels up to it (don't use your AHA or retinol on mask night). You can follow your AHA with a retinol every night, rather than alternating, but you will likely have to build up to this as the combination can be a little intense. (You’ll note that I left out manual exfoliation. I find it unnecessary when using chemical exfoliants, but if you have particularly oily skin, you might consider including a scrub once or twice per week. Similarly, some people find any and all AHA serums irritating so something with fruit enzymes would be their best bet.)
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The information presented on this web site is not intended to take the place of your personal physician’s advice and is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. All information is intended for your general knowledge only and is not a substitute for medical advice or treatment for specific medical conditions. You should never disregard medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read here.