Skin can be a sensitive thing. Whether you've had too many late nights or sat in the sun for too long, skin will start to show signs of distress when it's not taken care of properly.
We've all woken up with big black bags under our eyes after one too many late nights, but if you start to notice dark spots appearing on the face and hands, you could be suffering from hyperpigmentation — a skin condition that affects the colour of the skin.
Skin gets its colour from a pigment called melanin — this is what gives our hair and skin its colour. But if you start to notice discolouration in the skin — which can include dark or white patches — it means the cells that produce melanin have become damaged or unhealthy. This affects the overall production and can lead to a number of skin pigmentation disorders. These are quite common as we age. Some pigmentation disorders affect just patches of skin. Others can affect the entire body.
If your body makes too much melanin, your skin gets darker. If your body makes too little melanin, your skin gets lighter.
What is hyperpigmentation?
Hyperpigmentation — or skin pigmentation — is caused when melanin starts to overproduce in certain areas on the skin, causing little spots on the skin to look darker than its natural skin tone.
The common causes include age spots on skin that is often over-exposed to the sun; melasma — which can often occur during pregnancy or from using a hormone-based contraceptive; and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, which can develop after a pimple, bug bite, or other trauma to the skin heals, and then leaves a mark behind.
The result leaves patches of darkened skin, that are usually brown to black in colour, and they can vary in size and shape. Freckles also fit under this umbrella.
There are varying forms of skin pigmentation disorders, so here's a round-up of the most common, and what to look out for.
5 most common forms of skin pigmentation
Pigment spots and age spots are a result of spending too much time in the sun. They usually appear on the parts of the body that are frequently exposed to the sun, such as the face, hands and arms. They tend to be small, darkened patches of skin and are more common in older women.
Melasma or chloasma
Affecting 90% of pregnant women, this type of hyperpigmentation is caused by hormonal changes such as pregnancy or hormone-based contraceptives pills. It causes dark and irregularly shaped areas on the face or arms that can spread aggressively and can often be quite large.
Freckles are caused by overexposure to the sun, and commonly appear on the face, but they can appear on any part of the body that has been exposed to the sun.
This type of hyperpigmentation usually occurs when a skin injury heals and leaves a flat area of discolouration behind. It's quite common among acne sufferers, and can also be caused by cosmetic procedures such as dermabrasion, laser treatment and chemical peels.
There are other factors that can cause patches of skin to become darker – such as moles, scarring, birthmarks, solar or actinic keratoses and skin cancers – but these aren't considered to be forms of hyperpigmentation.
If you're concerned about any of your dark spots, or if they are new, start to bleed, itch, or change in size or colour, you should seek advice from your doctor as soon as possible.
Vitiligo is a condition that causes patches of light skin to develop on the skin. This occurs when there is a lack of melanoma production. The condition varies from person to person — some people can have small patches, others can develop large patches all over the body.
Unfortunately more often than not, vitiligo is a permanent and irreversible condition, although certain treatments can help restore the skin back to its natural colour. Due to the lack of pigment in the skin, it means the white patches will burn badly, so be extremely careful to cover up and protect those sensitive areas when exposed to the sun.
Worried you could be suffering with skin pigmentation? We give the lowdown on how to take care of damaged skin.