In the age of organic intervention, the true power of nature is starting to be realized. The increased popularity of natural skin care can be attributed to the additional benefits of natural formulations, packed with potent antioxidants that provide a powerful defense against the environmental factors that are faced in today’s world.
Hyperpigmentation is one of clients’ leading skin concerns. It is defined by the appearance of dark spots, freckles, scarring or an uneven skin tone, and can affect any skin type. UV rays, stress, hormones, diet and inflammation from any trauma can all cause hyperpigmentation. Regardless of how prevalent, it is still one of the most challenging skin conditions to treat.
The origin of hyperpigmentation
In order to address hyperpigmentation, it is important to understand pigment in the skin. Tyrosine, an amino acid found in the body, plays its role in the skin by helping to produce melanin. Melanin is predetermined by the genes and can range from dark to light, depending on the type and amount that is produced in the melanocytes. With trauma caused from external or internal stresses, such as UV rays and hormonal imbalances, the body naturally creates a protective defense by producing additional pigment that appears as uneven dark areas, known as hyperpigmentation or melasma. This hyperpigmentation is stimulated when an enzyme called tyrosinase signals the production of melanin, which happens in the skin’s melanocytes. Because there are typically between 1,000–2,000 melanocytes per square millimeter of skin, and comprising from 5–10% of the cells in the basal layer of the epidermis, you can understand how challenging it is to deal with this skin condition. When working with pigmentation—regardless of it being caused by external or internal trauma—the skin care professional’s goal is always the same: to inhibit tyrosinase.
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A simple way to understand how pigmentation works is to think about how bananas change color from yellow to brown. If the tyrosine in a banana is responsible for the yellow color of the peel, tyrosinase is responsible for causing that peel to oxidize and turn brown. In turn, if tyrosine is responsible for skin pigmentation, tyrosinase is responsible for hyperpigmentation.
To treat hyperpigmentation in the professional skin care industry, key ingredients can be used to stop the tyronsinase enzyme activity. For many years, a leading treatment to inhibit this chemical reaction and reduce the appearance of hyperpigmentation was hydroquinone. Hydroquinone is indeed an effective skin-lightener, but is it safe? Studies around hydroquinone`s possible carcinogenic activity and its link to cancer are still under investigation, raising doubt about its safety as a skin care ingredient.1 Now classified as a drug with potentially damaging side-effects, hydroquinone has been banned in the EU and Asia. In the United States, over-the-counter products are only permitted to contain 2% hydroquinone and even prescription products are limited to 4% hydroquinone. Many individuals are also allergic to hydroquinone and find the treatment irritating, causing additional skin concerns.
At a glance, hydroquinone has some very attractive qualities. It works by decreasing the production of and increasing the breakdown of melanosomes (melanin pigment granules) in the melanocytes. By reducing the production of melanin, it fades hyperpigmentation, acne marks, sun spots, melasma and other skin discoloration issues, and the effects are fast.
The ban of hydroquinone in some countries and its side effects have caused some in the skin care industry to seek out natural and organic products with few side effects, while looking to incorporate additional proactive actions, such as antioxidant benefits and SPF content for protection and prevention. There are a number of natural alternatives to hydroquinone that have been shown to work for most skin types and most types of hyperpigmentation.
Following is a list of nature’s gifts that can effectively help treat hyperpigmentation.
Alpaflor Gigawhite. From ingredient manufacturer Centerchem, this is a popular formulation used to brighten and lighten skin. Gigawhite is comprised of seven organically grown Swiss alpine plants, including mallow flower, peppermint, eurasian primrose, lady’s mantle, speedwell, lemon balm and yarrow. Each one of these extracts has the ability to inhibit tyrosinase. This combination of natural, plant-based extracts helps dramatically decrease melanocyte action.
Bearberry extract. Bearberry extract is a botanical skin-lightener that contains natural forms of hydroquinone and arbutin, which are melanin-inhibiting agents. Derived from the uva ursi plant, bearberry extract has powerful antioxidant properties that make it very stable, because it does not create oxidative stress when exposed to sunlight. Oxidation plays a contributing factor to melanin formation, meaning that any antioxidant will assist in reducing the presence of hyperpigmentation.
Licorice extract. Licorice extract is shown to be an effective and potent skin-lightener that contains liquiritin and glabridin, which disrupt melanin synthesis of the skin and, in turn, decrease the signs of hyperpigmentation. Reducing inflammation can also impact the appearance of hyperpigmentation; because of this, the anti-inflammatory properties of licorice extract also work to tackle the skin condition.
Tara tree and African potato. The combination of these two ingredients decreases melanin synthesis by reducing tyrosinase activity, as well as inhibiting the development of tyrosinase. With high antioxidant activity, this powerful combination can effectively reduce hyperpigmentation naturally.
Peels and hyperpigmentation
Another way to target hyperpigmentation is through stimulating peel treatments. Drawing upon the added benefits of using natural and organic products, ideally any peel you choose will be naturally derived with botanically sourced acids. Peels can reduce the appearance of hyperpigmentation through deep exfoliation that removes the layers of the skin to initiate clearer, smoother complexions with a more even tone. The regenerated skin after the peel can show reduced signs of blemishes and dark spots because of the removal of melanin-containing corneocytes. Some acids, often present in peels, are also effective in treating hyperpigmentation in other ways. For example, lactic acid has also been shown to inhibit the formation of tyrosinase to reduce the appearance of hyperpigmentation. All in all, peels can offer a slightly different-yet-effective approach for addressing hyperpigmentation.
Patience and persistence
Patience is the key with natural hydroquinone alternatives. Nature’s alternatives can rival hydroquinone and results will come, but they take dedication and diligence. DNA will always play a factor and, once the damage has already occurred, the skin can regress and reproduce the signs of hyperpigmentation. To overcome hyperpigmentation naturally, it is imperative to maintain a strict skin care routine that incorporates these natural skin-lighteners.
Due to the nature and many causes of hyperpigmentation, the condition cannot always be prevented. However, when it is caused by UV exposure, it absolutely can be avoided. Protecting the skin from UV rays with SPF products will reduce the appearance of dark spots caused by sun exposure. It is essential to use sun protection in your daily skin care routine for a number of reasons and avoidance against unwanted hyperpigmentation is certainly one of them. The good news is that you really can lighten up—the natural way!
(Accessed Apr 14, 2014)
Natalie Pergar, a national and international trainer and credited esthetician, plays a supportive role in product development for Éminence Organic Skin Care. She has a passion for education, wellness and natural ingredients. Pergar is also the voice of education within the company, conducting in-depth product training, and has been with Éminence for more than 12 years.