The Link Between Sun Damage and Hyperpigmentation

Woman Shielding Eyes from Sun
Discover how to deliver consistent care to your clients with hyperpigmentation.
Photo courtesy of zolotareva_elina

A clear, even skin tone is highly desirable for clients, regardless of their skin type or concerns. However, lingering hyperpigmentation is a stubborn, consistent barrier to achieving this; it also affects every skin type at every life stage – especially when prolonged sun exposure and UV damage are factors.

The good news is that with the right products and a thoughtful, consistent approach to protection and prevention, you can help clients reduce the appearance of dark spots and avoid future hyperpigmentation. Best of all, there are natural, organic solutions that are both effective and gentle.

What is Hyperpigmentation?

Hyperpigmentation refers to areas of the skin that have an abnormal production of the pigment, resulting in a darker area of the skin than the rest of the complexion.1 These areas are characterized by high levels of melanin (the pigment produced by melanocytes, or pigment-producing cells, that provide the skin’s tone and resulting color of complexion). Hyperpigmentation can be thought of as an umbrella term that includes common skin issues like dark spots, acne scars, age spots, liver spots and sun spots.1
Though there are various causes of hyperpigmentation, they aren’t always harmful to a client’s health. That said, you will want to keep an eye on the evolution of pigmentation on your client’s skin, and take care to note any abnormal or rapid changes in pigment throughout the skin, particularly with moles. Moles need to be examined regularly by a medical practitioner. If you note any suspicious-looking moles during a treatment, please direct your client to seek appropriate medical advice.

What Causes Hyperpigmentation?

The direct action within the skin that produces hyperpigmentation is excess melanin produced by melanocytes (the cells that produce melanin), which are granules of pigment that provide color to the skin’s complexion. Hyperpigmentation is triggered as a protective response, which is why we frequently see it following UV exposure or trauma/injury that induces inflammation.2 There are various triggers that can ramp up its production, and many processes can be happening in the skin to cause or exacerbate hyperpigmentation, including:

  • Skin conditions like acne and melasma
  • Cuts, burns, or lesions
  • Hormonal changes, particularly during puberty, pregnancy and menopause
  • Medications that cause increased UV sensitivity, particularly antibiotics
  • A deficiency in vitamin B12 or B9
  • Sun exposure
  • Inflammation
  • Health conditions, including thyroid and adrenal disorders2

From this litany of causes, hyperpigmentation can take multiple forms including scars with increased pigment, small dark spots, large, darkened patches, freckling and moles.3 As a side note, hypopigmentation, or the loss of pigment, may also occur depending on the level of damage or injury occurring.

Related: The Importance of Retailing Inclusive Sun Care

Hyperpigmentation And Sun

While time in the sun plays a significant role in the development of hyperpigmentation, it’s easy to underestimate its true impact. Since we typically see the results of a day in the sun after we’ve retreated indoors, your clients may not realize that their consistent sun care habits (or lack thereof) are responsible for the formation of hyperpigmentation.

To bring this to your clients’ attention, it’s worth asking clients something like, “Did you know sun exposure is the number one cause of hyperpigmentation?”4 Many clients may not be aware of how critical sun exposure is as a contributing factor to the current state of their skin. Melanin is your skin’s natural protection against the sun and more time outdoors will lead to a spike in its production, particularly if your clients venture out without SPF, and more importantly, don’t regularly reapply their SPF protection.4

One of the most common types of sun-induced hyperpigmentation is solar lentigines.4 Typified as an oval or irregular mark of darkened skin, with colors ranging from tan to nearly black, solar lentigines may also have a rougher texture than the rest of the complexion. Though you should always be mindful of hyperpigmentation resulting from time in the sun, solar lentigines do not adversely affect client health, but that doesn’t mean that your clients will not have concerns.5 And more likely than not, they will want to even out their skin’s tonal appearance. Solar lentigines frequently show up along the face, hands, chest and back, which can age and alter the skin’s overall tone and healthy appearance.

Melasma is another form of hyperpigmentation frequently associated with both sunlight and hormonal changes, such as fluctuations of progesterone and estrogen. Though these hormonal fluctuations are the primary factor causing melasma, sun rays, heat exposure, and injury can deepen the skin’s discoloration associated with melasma and contribute to a worsening of its condition.4

Improving Dark Spots and Hyperpigmentation

With so many potential causes and forms, it may feel like hyperpigmentation is nearly impossible to ward off, but fret not; you can bring natural solutions into the treatment room to help clients fade dark spots and regain their confidence! Look to enzymes, specific exfoliating acids, bakuchiol and niacinamide as gentle-yet-effective solutions.

One of the best ingredients for hyperpigmentation is papain — an enzyme found in juicy papaya. You may have seen papaya included in various professional peels and face masks, and that’s for good reason. This tropical fruit is chock full of papain, a skin-friendly enzyme known to slough away dead skin cells, impurities and other components lingering on the skin’s surface. But, how exactly does this help with hyperpigmentation? Exfoliation helps to encourage your skin cells’ natural turnover rate, which not only leaves skin smoother, but also fades any excess melanin in your skin to clear away dark spots over time.6

You can also try a few trending acids in the treatment room to help brighten hyperpigmentation. Mandelic acid is a water-soluble exfoliating alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) derived from bitter almonds that is tolerated well on virtually all skin types. This is generally due to its larger molecule size, which slows how rapidly it’s absorbed into the skin, and as a result, reduces potential irritation or injury to the skin.7

Tranexamic acid is another effective brightening option. Studies have found that tranexamic acid evens out hyperpigmentation, especially when melanin density is linked to sun damage.8 It’s also safe for all skin types including sensitive and for use through pregnancy, which isn’t the case for all available treatments.8

Hyperpigmentation may also clear up when treated with pyruvic acid. While mandelic acid is a water-soluble acid, pyruvic acid is an acid (derived from hibiscus) that is both oil and water-soluble and has the ability to brighten hyperpigmentation by encouraging faster cell regeneration, which is particularly helpful in areas where melanin deposits are dense.9

Niacinamide is another ingredient that your clients with hyperpigmentation will appreciate. This vitamin B3 derivative inhibits the production of melanin as it’s happening.6 It’s beneficial for sun damage, including dark spots, due to its ability to decrease the visible signs of photoaging.

One final ingredient your clients will love is bakuchiol. A retinol alternative derived from botanical sources, bakuchiol supports skin cell renewal, and when applied topically encourages the sloughing of overly pigmented cells, leaving skin looking renewed and more even.

Hyperpigmentation Prevention

Prevention is key! After all, there’s no need to reach for products that will help fade away dark spots if hyperpigmentation never develops in the first place. While some of the common triggers like acne, hormonal shifts and injuries are unavoidable, there is good news: sun damage, the most common source and aggravator of hyperpigmentation, is in your hands.

Advise clients to layer on the SPF as a part of their daily routine. The best sunscreens for hyperpigmentation are typically all-mineral formulas. While chemical SPFs neutralize UVA and UVB rays, the active ingredients in mineral SPFs create a barrier on top of the skin that blocks these factors and protects from infrared and visible light damage, all while keeping the skin cool and less inflamed.10 When facing hyperpigmentation, be sure to educate your clients on the importance of SPF in their daily routine, especially the need to reapply their SPF protection regularly. You can also advise them to protect their complexions with large hats and sunglasses when they head into the sunshine.

An Even Complexion

Regardless of hyperpigmentation’s cause, hyperpigmentation will affect all clients at some point. The associated uneven tone and dark spots can last long after the initial trigger has already been resolved. However, coming to the treatment room prepared with natural solutions like fruit enzymes, gentle exfoliating acids, niacinamide and bakuchiol, is essential to preventing and improving any uneven tone, unwanted marks and dark spots clients are concerned with.


  8. National Center for Biotechnology Information, "Hyperpigmentation Disorders: A Review of Epidemiology, Clinical Features, and Treatment Options."
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