Pigment formation is a complex process, so to truly manage hyperpigmentation, you need to take a multifaceted approach that works on each step. Below we’ll very simply review how this process works and the products that work best to stop it.
Melanocytes are pigment producing cells found in the deepest layer of the epidermis. Everyone has the same number of melanocytes, but those with lighter skin are less active. When melanocytes are activated, they begin a process called melanogenesis. Hyperpigmentation occurs when melanogenesis gets out of control and too much melanin is produced.
Inside melanocytes, you’ll find the enzyme tyrosinase. Tyrosinase is responsible for producing the melanin pigments. This melanin then travels up the layers of your skin until it is visible on the surface. We can then remove these pigmented cells with exfoliation or retinoids.
In order to prevent and reduce hyperpigmentation, you must prevent melanocyte activation, inhibit tyrosinase from creating melanin, prevent the pigment from traveling and then remove the pigmented cells from the surface. Whew! Once melanogenesis gets underway and tyrosinase is activated, the process is very difficult to interrupt, so your best bet is a routine that addresses each step in the process.
Step 1: Prevent Activation
The best way to interrupt the pigment forming process is to prevent melanocyte activation in the first place.
UV exposure is the leading cause of melanocyte activation, followed by inflammation and hormones. Inflammation from acne triggers melanocytes, causing post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. And of course, UV exposure also exacerbates inflammation. Hormonal changes can also kickstart the process, which is why melasma is common during pregnancy.
The two products you need to prevent activation are sunscreen and antioxidants.
Step 2: Inhibit Tyrosinase and Pigment Transfer
The more tyrosinase, the more pigment, so your next step is slowing down the overactive enzyme and preventing the melanin that does form from traveling up.
Ingredients that can help inhibit tyrosinase: hydroquinone, alpha arbutin, tranexamic acid, licorice root, kojic acid, resveratrol, vitamin C, azelaic acid and retinoids.
Ingredients that can help prevent melanin transfer: retinoids and niacinamide.
The good thing is that many of these ingredients serve multiple functions and are often formulated together. You’ll also usually see the best results from a product that uses more than one. Your daytime antioxidant serum likely has tyrosinase inhibitors and niacinamide can be found in many products. Use pigment inhibitors both morning and night for best results, but be mindful of irritating your skin, as that will just lead to more inflammation and, well, pigment.
Step 3: Remove Pigment on the Surface
When the inevitable unwanted pigment does make it to the surface, you can use exfoliants and retinoids to remove the top layer of skin. Again, be mindful to not over exfoliate or you’ll risk undoing all of the work you just put in! Make sure you’re using plenty of hydrating, soothing and barrier supporting products.
For exfoliants, specifically look for alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), like glycolic, lactic and mandelic acid. Use the retinoid you can best tolerate. Check out these articles for tips on picking an exfoliant and a retinoid.
Many AHA products will also have tyrosinase inhibitors, which can be a good way to streamline a hyperpigmentation focused routine.
Building Your Routine
As mentioned previously, your routine should make sure to address each step of the pigment forming process. While the specific products and steps will look different for everyone, here are some key things to make sure you’re including somehow.
- Pigment Inhibitors
- Antioxidants (most important during the day, but can’t hurt!)
- Pigment Inhibitors