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Getting Under the Skin of Hyperpigmentation and Dark Spots

September 28, 2013 Reviewed by Marta 34 Comments

There are two key actives required for managing hyperpigmentation (dark spots, age spots, or whatever you want to call them): patience and diligence. A third requirement is to have realistic expectations. I haven’t yet found the killer app for hyperpigmentation, but I have finally come to the breakthrough conclusion that there is a regimen, rather than a single product application, that is required to make any inroads on fading dark spots. If I’m right then I hope to make greater advances in the coming months. But I’ll come back to that in a second.

First, you need to appreciate that hyperpigmentation is stubborn. It has taken years, probably most of your adult life, to form. Mostly it comes down to melanocyte activity. There are typically between 1000 and 2000 melanocytes per square millimeter of skin and make up about 5% to 10% of the cells in the basal layer of epidermis (incidentally, black and white skins possess the same number of melanocytes).

Freckles, for example, are red patches due to hyperactive melanocytes that start in infancy, particularly in fair skins, and on exposed areas of the epidermis. Chloasma, also known as pregnancy mask, is due to excessive melanocyte activity forming symmetrical patches on the face in pregnancy or as a result of oestrone/progesterone therapy. Senile-lentigines or liver spots are brown patches on the forearms, face and hands due to a proliferation of melanocytes.

After doing a fair amount of reading on the subject, I have come to the conclusion that my approach which has been try to tackle dark spots with some kind of melanin or tyrosinase inhibitor is limited. And that’s certainly been my experience. I try fading and brightening creams, successful fading is limited, I get bored and give up. The better approach is a regimen: 1) exfoliate the damaged skin, 2) protect new skin from further sun damage, 3) use a melanin inhibitor and 4) give the regimen a big boost a few times a week with green LED light therapy.

Come to think of it, Lumixyl has a glycolic peel, brightening cream and a sunscreen. I now think all those stages are necessary. However, I do understand that most of us don’t like to feel locked into an entire range and I think its fine to mix and match with your favorite exfoliator (some kind of glycolic peel - Juice Beauty ($45 in the shop) or La Vie Celeste ($60 in the shop) to name a few - or an antioxidant/exfoliator such as Your Best Face Prep would be ideal) and sunscreen.

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Regarding the melanin inhibitor, there are a confusing number of actives to choose from and so here’s a rundown of some of the most common.

Hydroquinone is an effective inhibitor of melanogenesis. But it achieves this by being cytoxic to melanocytes. Concerns about cancer have restricted the use of hydroquinone in Europe and Japan. Generally, these days, people try to find alternatives.

Tyrosinase inhibitors are alternatives to hydroquinone that are considered safer. Melanin forms through a series of oxidative reactions involving the amino acid tyrosine in the presence of the enzyme tyrosinase. Hence, some actives focus on inhibiting tyrosinase.

One such active is decapeptide-12, a synthetic peptide comprising a sequence of amino acids developed by dermatological researchers at Stanford University.

SymWhite 377 (phenylethyl resorcinol) is a synthetic compound partly derived from natural lightening compounds in scotch pine bark. Studies have shown that it is effective at brightening skin without harmful side effects. 

Arbutin (hydroquinone-beta-D-glucopyranoside) A glycosylated hydroquinone found at high concentrations in certain plants and capable of surviving extreme and sustained dehydration, arbutin has been shown to inhibit melanin synthesis by inhibition of tyrosinase activity. A one-month study on 80 Chinese women, using a 1% alpha arbutin concentration, resulted in a “skin lightening effect”. It was faster and more effective than kojic acid (see below).

Glabridin (licorice extract) inhibits tyrosinase activity of melanocytes without cytotoxicity. Having said that, most of the research on licorice extract is on its antioxidant properties.

Magnesium ascorbyl phosphate is a non-irritating, stable form of vitamin C. It can be used at concentrations as low as 10% to suppress melanin formation.

Hexylresorcinol: In vivo studies conducted on .5% hexylresorcinol in 2007 demonstrated lightening results that were just as effective as 2% hydroquinone over an eight-week period. 

Cinnamomum subavenium is one to look out for. As Sarah reported, two chemicals have been isolated from this plant that can block tyrosinase at only a 1% concentration. As far as we know, it hasn’t yet made it into cosmetic products, but we will be excited to try it out when it does.

Some hyperpigmentation actives that, for various reasons, might be best avoided include:

Azelaic acid is a rather weak competitive inhibitor of tyrosinase in vitro. In addition, azelaic acid has an antiproliferative and cytotoxic effect on melanocytes.

Kojic acid decreases melanin content, but it is dose dependent (at 1% or less, it doesn’t work) and at higher doses can be a strong irritant.

Retinoids such as tretinoin and adapalene are derivatives of vitamin A. The mechanisms for reducing pigmentation include inhibition of tyrosinase induction, interference with pigment transfer, and acceleration of epidermal turnover. They also have the ability to disperse pigment granules within keratinocytes. Retinoids may act as penetration enhancers when used with other lightening agents such as hydroquinone and mequinol. The most common adverse effects include burning, stinging, erythema, dryness, and scaling. Although the adverse effects are reversible, retinoid use may result in hyperpigmentation, especially in dark-skinned individuals.

I'm going to be working on my exfoliate, protect, inhibit and light therapy hyperpigmentation regimen and will report back as I find (hopefully) combinations of products that work.

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  • July 1, 2015

    by Susie

    Hi all the beauty experts

    I am new to this website. Do you all know what is Melasma - deeply hypigmentation. Often happens to Asian people. Bad luck or the genes. Spend money on all the products. Eventually come out to be wasting money and did not help at all. Only looking for one miracle cream that fading slowly and sign of improvement. Eventually, ended up full of skin care creams. Stubborn - Melasma - very hard to dig into the under the surface of the dermis not epidermis . Have done with laser and other kind of DERMA pen etc. which is needling - not much help. Expensive but conclusion is Zero achievement.

    BEauty circle - thousands of cream but if really not sure. Do not recommend to customers like myself. Make sure the customers who have or had - melasma , after using the creams ( from whatever source of cream) etc. that recommend. Result prove that it did work and slowly fading but daily routine etc. Then final result pass it to customers like myself. DO not just make a false assumption etc. that it was all about making $ and more orders to meet your skin care or cosmetic target. Internet web site - customers who have been conned by any kind of skin care of their needs such as mine. I will go to website and asking for customer reviews not one but many .

    Yes, given up but to put on foundation and twice the layer to cover up my melasma. Not whole face but certain parts of the face. It affect my self esteem and causing depression. To overcome this issues - to put on foundation to cover the problems. I like to have normal and no pigmetation skin on my face. Just put day cream and sun screen to work. Less the foundation the better. In order to continue my this imperfection issues. i have to use whatever ways of cosmetic items to overcome my issues.


    Please sincerely read my message and give me any hope.

  • October 9, 2014

    by nina

    Hi Lady's. I been struggling with brown spots on my face and I spend a lot money on different creams.i started using NUANCE skin care by selma hayek. I use super concentrated aging serum and smooth and firm elixir. This two creams totaly changed my skin. My brown spots are 85% gone.skin its smooth.and I just also add in my routine ISOMERS all in one line.im happy rght now with my skin. I hope this helps for all of you with skin problems
    All my friends are on this creams and they love it. Good luck NINA

  • July 29, 2014

    by Carmen

    I had horrible results from IPL treatments. Five treatments were $800. I also had
    2 touch up treatments for $50 each. These were performed at the Skin and Laser Center in Grosse Pointe, MI.
    During this process I used a retinol cream (not during treatments), skin cleanser,
    c&e cream, and a broad spectrum sunscreen.

    After all of this, I did not notice a change. I went to my dermatologist who works in conjunction with the Skin and Laser Center.
    I don't know what type of instrument he used, but I look horrible.

    The left side of my face looks like I have acne scars (they look like pick marks),
    and the right side of my face has these large black marks on it. The black marks
    resulted after seeing my dermatologist.

    RIght now I am using the Arcona Youth Serum/Repair, facial cleanser, and suncreen. The youth serum is the only Arcona product I recently bought.

    I read something about green light therapy. Would that help me? What would
    you suggest as a regimen? Should I discontinue the retinol?

    The doctor at the laser center called me, because I made an appointment to discuss getting my money back. He said we don't refund blah, blah, blah, I stand
    behind my work, I don't want anyone to be unhappy, blah,blah,blah.

    Please help me.
    Thank you.

    Carmen
    .

  • April 23, 2013

    by Marta

    Hi Ayaba, Regu Fade is an ingredient and is the name under which trans resveratrol is sometimes marketed. You can find transresveratrol in Your Best Face Products: http://www.truthinaging.com/your-best-face-correct-control-duo

  • April 23, 2013

    by ayaba esteri

    Hello Marta / Darrell,
    Is REGU FADE an otc product or an ingredient in lightening creams?
    I have serious hyperpigmentation and bleach burns around my outer check area up to my temples that have defied solutions for years. I would like to try products with trans resveratrol. I've looked for the brand Regu Fade but can't seem to find any off the counter products.
    Can you point me in the right direction please? Where can I get them to buy? AYABA.

  • March 28, 2013

    by Olokunorobo

    Hi Yolandi,
    You should definitely research the benefits of consuming pomegranate juice, green tea and flax seed oil to protect your skin. Try protecting your skin from the inside out as well as externally. Gesundheit!

  • January 31, 2013

    by lisa

    I can't even trust a review about Rodan and Fields because someone is making a profit from it. On every blog post or review someone mentions how great it is and then posts their website link to buy from them! That doesn't really give me a sense of trust. I think in the long run that type of action will hurt them. just a n opinion...

  • December 18, 2012

    by Yolandi

    Hello Tricia,

    I appreciate it, thank you so much! Might as well give these a try.

  • December 5, 2012

    by Tricia

    Yolandi,
    I use two products on my eyes, both highly effective - the AQ Solutions eye serum and the YBF Correct. I researched feedback from the TIA community prior to purchasing, and both products have performed exceptionally for me.

    If you are having trouble choosing products from among the many options, another option that might help you is joining Discover with Marta. I have found some great products through this service which have become part of my daily routine.

  • November 29, 2012

    by Yolandi

    I am going to "re-comment" my message as I did with one of Mrs. Kay's articles:

    Please would you be able to advise me on some solutions for the following problem areas I have have on my face, especially around the eyes? I feel so de·spond·ent by now.

    Perhaps due to years of high sugar intake that it looks like I am aging prematurely, and the New Zealand sun-rays aren't helping either. Even with sun screen (UVA + UVB), a hat & sunglasses. Nivea makes me break out, they are uncomfortable and terribly greasy, still.
    I have a combination type skin, and it is very yellow toned. My skin have gone somewhat flat on the cheeks and around the eyes, it is unevenly toned/texture, plus sun spots under the eye areas where fine lines are appearing (+fine wrinkles) and I can see that the skin have gotten very thin around there. Also I have a LITTLE bit of acne damage and can't seem to get rid of the few white & black heads, which is mostly concentrated on my nose.

    Since using Lancome- Visionnaire and Genifique, I have areas particularly on the corners of my nose turning reddish with small vanes. I am not a 100% sure whether Lancome is the culprit, as it also happened before I stopped using toners - it also made my skin reddish. Using Natio Aromatherapy gentle skin (rosewater & chamomile) at the moment.

    Struggling with makeup! It never sets well + loves my pores & fine lines. Just keeps on creeping in there! MAC, etc. setting powders, sprays - nothing sits comfortably. Endless touch ups and re-makeups.

    Would you be able to help?

  • March 24, 2012

    by Carolyn

    are there any reports back/further instructions on the acv? TIA, as it were : )

  • January 30, 2012

    by Ana

    Hi Marta,
    Did you try the apple cider vinegar? Curious to find out!
    I dabbed a little on a spot on my cheek and my skin turned bright red ... so not planning to try it again soon until I find out how I'm supposed to do it!

  • November 13, 2011

    by Donna

    I have 2 large dark spots (one on each cheek)
    that I have been working on for months. I will give the applecider vinegar a try.
    Anyone have any luck with this or anything else?

  • October 4, 2011

    by JustD

    After reading your About Us info and purusing many of your very interesting products, I purchased the sampler pkt. to give it a try and see how your products work for me. Thanks for the free ship on this order, very gracious.

  • October 4, 2011

    by JustD

    My mom has large deeply pigmented spots on her cheeks, which we had a dermatologist look at and it was very similar to the mask, which I suspect it was because my Mom wasn't given to HRT and it finally caught up with her in her late 60s. Despite some topical medication she was given, which I doubt she used, it didn't change, but incredulously, aside from that she has beautiful skin still. I don't get it, anyway I'd like to have a go at trying your La Isha’s Natural Age Spot Eraser. Thanks for the post Sharon! Checking out your website and testimonials.

  • October 4, 2011

    by Marta

    Hi Sharon, apologies for the tardy response. I'd love to give it a try.

  • October 1, 2011

    by Sharon Gnatt Epel

    Hi Marta,
    Have you had a chance to try La Isha's Natural Age Spot Eraser? We have had phenomenal results with age spots as well as melasma and the hormonally-induced "mask-of-pregnancy". Our solution to this problem is a blend of clinical-grade essential oils that work to gradually and gently lighten dark spots without irritating the skin. Check out our Testimonials to read what some of our clients have said about it on http://goo.gl/GMCNE

    Wishing you the blessings of good health and timeless beauty,
    Sharon Gnatt Epel
    CEO/Founder La Isha Natural Anti-Aging SkinCare

  • September 30, 2011

    by Marta

    Hi Kim, you are right there isn't much research on the green LED. This is how it theoretically works: green light targets melanocytes, melanin-producing cells located in the bottom layer of the skin’s epidermis. According to Sirius, it inhibits the production of excess melanin, prevents it from traveling to the skin’s surface, and breaks up melanin clusters to diminish existing discoloration. I wrote about it here: http://truthinaging.com/face/green-its-the-new-red

    In practice, I have seen results and a friend also had great results on her hands.

  • September 30, 2011

    by Marta

    Good point Imelda. I would put the sunscreen after the inhibitor - unless I was not putting that on immediately after the glycolic (in which case, I'd put the sunscreen after the peel).

  • September 30, 2011

    by imelda

    Hi, Marta!
    Do you do step 2 (protect with Sun screen) first before applying the melanin inhibitor? I just assumed the sun screen goes last, which I've been doing in the past when I tried the Lumixyl system, following their steps. Please advise. Thanks!

  • September 30, 2011

    by Kim

    Can you point us to anything that explains exactly how the green light diminishes the brown spots from the melanocytes. I've been lemming the Sirius Aurora for some time now, particularly because it has a green light as well. I'm just having trouble understadning- is it killing melanocytes? Deactivating the production of melanin? Dispersing already existing melanin? So far I use exfoliation plus sun protection and have experimented with fading serums without additional effects. The green light seems interesting, but I'd like to know more before I purchase. The Sirius site doesn't cite studies about how it breaks up the visible melanin spots. Thanks so much- this is such a stubborn issue!

  • September 29, 2011

    by Karen

    Hi Martha,

    May you please explain a bit about the green led light therapy?I would like to buy one and have a try..Does it works and which one would you recomend?Much appreciated if you could reply!

    Thanks

  • September 29, 2011

    by Jaysie

    Patrice, I'm right behind Marta going for the apple cider vinegar. Did you use the plain old stuff from the grocery store, or that organic brand, Mrs. Bragg's I think it's called?

  • September 29, 2011

    by Marta

    Patrice, I am heading for the apple cider vinegar right now

  • September 29, 2011

    by Darrell

    Hi JC,
    Thank you -- I've only seen that trans-resveratrol is sourced from Japanese Knotweed, but that's just my context as it has to do with ingredients sourced for topical use. I know that the form of trans-resveratrol we use is sourced from Japanese Knotweed.

    However, you've highlighted a great bit of info about internal use and bio availability of trans vs resveratrol for those taking supplements.

    -Darrell

  • September 29, 2011

    by jc

    sorry darrell, the difference of resveratrol and trans-resveratrol does not lie with the source. my regular resveratrol product uses japanese knotweed as it's source, yet the company sells a trans-res product. my understanding is trans-res(a metabolite of resveratrol) is more 'bio available' meaning more readily accepted and incorporated into our system. it doesn't lose any potency going through whatever processes it takes for our bodies to make resveratrol useful to them. so in essence taking trans resveratrol should give you the full effects of the dose, whereas you would lose some by taking a 'regular' resveratrol product.

  • September 29, 2011

    by Dennis

    I had some faint hyper pigmentation after a TCA peel, which was my fault for not being patient and picking at the scabs. I managed to completely clear it all up in roughly two months by alternating a glycolic cream, retin-a, and a vitamin c (tetrahexlydecyl ascorbate) serum.

  • September 28, 2011

    by patrice

    Well I hate to sound so basic but just plain ole apple cider vinegar is what has tamed my age spots down to barely visible. Then my 88 year old mother who had a large one on her left forearm rubbed vinegar over her arms, she said for 3 days, but I suspect it was a bit longer and she said she could not believe but it just faded away and the others on her arm have lessened. So what's there to lose nothing but saving lots of money.

  • September 28, 2011

    by Carol

    I got a brown spot the size of my fingertip on my cheek below my right eye last summer after being on a sailboat for a few days. It was extremely noticeable in photographs even with makeup on. One night after I washed my face before bed, I dabbed on some glycolic acid cream (15%) and after that dried I dabbed on a mandelic acid 15% serum. It began to sting so I rinsed it off after a few minutes. The next day, it looked like I had burned my skin in that spot but after a few days the skin peeled away and the spot was gone! This summer, the spot reappeared and I repeated the process. It works!!! Yes, it looks ugly for a few days but it is perfectly gone afterwards! It is probably similar to what a dermatologist would do to remove it but it didn't cost me anything.

  • September 28, 2011

    by Cassie Fishbein

    In the REVERSE Regimen of Rodan & Fields Dermatologists products, two of the four products each have 2% Hydroquinone. In three weeks, my sun/dark/age spots began to fade and by eight weeks were significantly faded to my satisfaction. Please peruse my website for more information.
    http://cassieskincare.myrandf.com (Cassie Fishbein)

  • September 28, 2011

    by Darrell

    Hi Howard,
    Trans-resveratrol is produced from another plant (called Japanese Knotweed, which is high in resveratrol) whereas traditional resveratrol comes from grapes.

    Trans-resveratrol is often marketed as free(er) of contaminants, though I have not seen anything that would indicate regular (grape-produced) resveratrol poses any contaminant concern.

    -Darrell

  • September 28, 2011

    by Howard

    Please for
    give my ignorance but how does
    trans-resveratrol compare to resveratrol?

  • September 28, 2011

    by Darrell

    Another natural antioxidant and brightening ingredient that holds good promise, and is worth keeping an eye out for, is trans-resveratrol.

    You'll also sometimes see trans-resveratrol listed in products by the trade name Regu-Fade.

    -Darrell

  • September 28, 2011

    by talia

    One ingredient that also seems to help with hyperpigmentation is myristyl nicotinate and/or niacinimde. The 5% concentration in Nia24 seems to work well at inhibiting brown spots.

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