Navigating the world of skincare can feel complex at times – especially if you don't feel part of the conversation. The industry tends to speak directly to those with lighter skin, with this inequality leading to misinformation and confusion for those with darker skin tones. Case in point: dealing with hyperpigmentation in black skin.
One of the easiest ways to understand what’s happening in the skin when hyperpigmentation appears is to break the word into two key parts: hyper and pigment. Sitting in the deeper levels of the skin are cells called melanocytes, which make the melanin that gives our skin its pigment (or colour). Normally they work steadily, providing pigment at a normal rate. But in the case of hyperpigmentation, they essentially go into overdrive, and work at hyper speed, creating far more melanin than is required. The result is areas of skin that are darker in colour than the rest of your complexion, and the category of hyperpigmentation covers everything from sun spots to melasma.
Hyperpigmentation, and this malfunction of the melanocytes, can occur for a number of different reasons, from sun exposure to dryness. It does tend to be more common in over 40s, but the reality is it can occur at any time.
“Hyperpigmentation can present all your life,” says Dija Ayodele, skin expert and author of Black Skin: The Definitive Skincare Guide. “One of the things about black skin and darker skin tones is that there are more active melanin cells, producing more melanin, which is why you keep your colour all year round. Hyperpigmentation can present in various forms, whether it be caused by spots, breakouts and acne, to even things like eczema – having dry skin conditions can also create hyperpigmentation.”
Essentially, it’s all about inflammation.“I tend to advise people that any type of inflammation is going to create hyperpigmentation,” explains Dija. “You can also have things like melasma which tends to come along later in life. It’s very hormonally driven and also sun induced, so you get the whole spectrum here.”
The key to preventing hyperpigmentation is to keep inflammation at bay. First stop? A daily broad spectrum SPF. This will shield skin from both UVB rays, which are responsible for burning, as well as UVA rays, which make the biggest contribution towards premature ageing. “Historically, black women have tended not to use sunscreen for a variety of different reasons so there’s usually some general sun damage for most people,” says Dija. Make the change by wearing yours every single day, even when it’s cloudy, as those pesky UVA rays can still make their way through.
Tyrosinase inhibitors are a family of ingredients that actively prevent the production of melanin. They do so by preventing the enzyme tyrosinase from making the first move towards creating excess pigment. Think of them as a dimmer switch, allowing you to turn the light down when it’s shining much brighter than needed.
The name may sound super scientific, but you are likely to already have come across tyrosinase inhibiting ingredients, and might even have them in your routine. Tyrosinase inhibitors include kojic acid and vitamin C.
We know that dry skin conditions like eczema can create hyperpigmentation, so managing and treating dryness is really important. “Clinically, a lot of research shows that black skin is drier than white skin, with a lower ceramide level.” says Dija. Ceramides are skin lipids that play a key role in skin health, as one of the main components of the mortar that holds skin cells together. Without sufficient levels, moisture can escape.
“Think of ceramides as your umbrella, which is holding a lot of moisture and hydration in. If you have lower ceramides, your umbrella isn’t really that great, and isn’t really holding that much water in.” Make your umbrella watertight by supporting the skin with topical ceramides and fatty acids. Ingredients like poly-hydroxy acids and hyaluronic acid will help prevent dehydration and dryness too.
The best treatment for your hyperpigmentation will depend on the type of hyperpigmentation you have, and its severity. For example, a small, newly formed post-spot mark will be easier to fade than hormone-induced melasma.
“You also have to bear in mind, I always say, that hyperpigmentation can be two things,” explains Dija. “It can be epidermal, which means it’s sitting in the top layer of your skin, and is much easier to deal with. It can also be dermal, which means it's sitting in the second layer of your skin and slightly more challenging. The third thing is it can be both. So melasma for example, can be both. It can sit in both layers of skin which is why we call it a chronic condition – it will always come back.” It’s important for this reason to manage expectations.
In some cases, treatment may be more about management than sending your hyperpigmentation packing forever. “You could in the winter months tackle melasma but it kind of lurks in the background and as soon as the sun comes out, it pops up again,” adds Dija. “It’s chronic, so you’re managing more than you’re solving in a way.”
Ways to improve hyperpigmentation include:
The best starting point for fading the appearance of hyperpigmentation at home is to follow the same advice as for prevention. “Topical products like a vitamin C antioxidant are always going to be great,” advises Dija. “Also pigment inhibitors, things that help to actively quell melanin.” Teaming these ingredients with a good, daily SPF will help tackle prevention, fading and maintenance all at once.
Finding that skincare has its limitations? No problem. There are in-clinic aesthetic treatments that anyone with darker skin tones can explore.
“I get fed up hearing things like “black women can’t have advanced treatments like chemical peels”, like they can’t have laser,” says Dija. “These are the kind of things I do day in, day out. It really bugs me because I think it just creates a division that doesn’t allow black women to participate in, and enjoy, beauty, skincare and aesthetics.” Hear, hear.
Chemical peels work by removing the surface layers of your skin, making them a good way to help remove hyperpigmentation for a clearer, more even skin tone. They come in different strengths, which reflect how deeply they penetrate the skin. Your practitioner will be able to advise how strong a peel you need, as well as which ingredients would best suit your skin.
“Things like glycolic, mandelic peels are great but we also offer things like retinoid based peels at West Room Aesthetics, which are fantastic for deeper skin tones and also great for mature skin,” says Dija. “We can do vitamin C based treatments as well. Those are very good, especially for brightening up the skin and giving a lot of radiance. This is great for a drier skin type because it just helps to make the skin pop. It also helps to start stimulating some collagen in the skin.”
There is a common misconception that because there is a less clear distinction between hyperpigmentation and skin tone on darker skin that it is not possible to have laser treatment. This is partially true for IPL, but doesn’t mean that you cannot undergo laser treatment for pigmentation.
“You’d go more with the Nd:YAG Laser,” advises Dija, which is considered to be the best choice for black and darker skin tones. “IPL is maybe great for very light skin tones, or if you’re doing something like hair removal, but you wouldn’t generally use it in the management of skin of colour.”