Struggling with dark spots? To treat them, you first have to know the kind of pigmentation you have.
Melasma is characterized by irregular brown patches on the skin and can typically be found on the forehead, upper lip, nose and the chin. Melasma is the result of an overproduction of melanin (the pigment that gives colour to our skin, hair and eyes).
Excessive sun exposure is one of the greatest contributors to melasma as melanin-producing cells are easily stimulated by UVA and UVB rays. Pregnancy, hormone treatments and genetic predisposition are other causes.
Postinflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH)
PIH is the result of your skin’s melanin-inducing response to inflammation or injury, and appears at the injured site as a dark brown macule or patch. Such markings usually fade within a few months with appropriate treatment. However, the brown spots may darken or spread if not addressed. Sun exposure may also worsen PIH.
Skin conditions that can cause the above inflammation include acne vulgaris, atopic dermatitis (eczema) and psoriasis (red, flaky skin patches).
Freckles, also known as ephelides, are harmless small pigmented spots that are frequently found on the face, arms, neck and chest. Freckles are brown due to a diffusion of melanin into skin cells.
In winter, the activity of melanin-producing cells slows down. When exposed to UV radiation in sunlight, melanin-producing cells pick-up. As a result, freckles fade slight in the winter and darken in summer. Often, freckles partially disappear with age.
Genetics contribute to the formation of freckles. They are frequently observed in fair-skinned individuals, especially those with red hair.
Solar lentigines are harmless patches of darkened skin that are generally larger than freckles and have well-defined edges. They are caused by an accumulation of sun damage that leads to an increase in the number of melanin-producing cells and subsequent accumulation of melanin.
Solar lentigines are also associated with increased age. While freckles generally disappear over time, untreated solar lentigines are likely to persist indefinitely.
For all dark spots, start by avoiding the sun and applying a sufficient amount of sunscreen every two hours. Use a lightweight sunscreen like Dr. TWL’s SunProtector™, which is dermatologist-formulated for the humid climate.
For melasma, consider a combination of topical therapies (outlined below) and chemical peels. Lasers should be considered last.
For PIH, first treat and prevent the skin condition triggering the inflammation. Then use topical treatments followed by chemical peels and lastly, laser and light treatments.
For freckles, use topical or laser/light therapies.
For solar lentigines, use ablative therapy with cryotherapy. Subsequent treatment options include topical agents and laser therapy.
Bleaching agents are often used to inhibit melanin synthesis. The most commonly prescribed ones are hydroquinone, azelaic acid and kojic acid.
Hydroquinone inhibits the production of melanin by binding to tyrosinase, the enzyme responsible for the first step in melanin production.
Azelaic acid acts on abnormal melanin-producing cells but leaves the healthy ones untouched, ensuring optimal melanin levels.
Kojic acid binds to copper, which is required by melanin-producing cells.
Topical retinoids are often used in combination with bleaching agents. Retinoids target pigmentation issues by inducing the death of melanin-producing cells, accelerating turnover of new skin cells and inhibiting the enzyme tyrosinase.
Chemical peels refer to the process of applying acids to the skin to destroy the outer skin layers. They accelerate the process of exfoliation by sloughing off dead layers of older skin and promoting smoother layers of new skin.
Superficial and medium depth peels are effective in treating pigmentation concerns. These peels differ in the depth of skin resurfaced. Superficial peels target only the surface skin layer while medium peels target the next layer.
To successfully achieve significant depigmentation, a patient needs to undergo at least 3 to 4 repeated peels. Common acids employed are glycolic acid, salicylic acid and lactic acid.
Laser and light treatments
Lasers are notably successful with solar lentigines, but less so with melasma and PIH. Such treatments damage the skin to stimulate growth of new skin cells.
To treat solar lentigo and freckles, use IPL, Q-switched lasers and fractional lasers.
To treat melasma and PIH (and only after topical therapy and chemical peels), try fractional radiofrequency, Q-switched or picosecond lasers, high-fluence/high-density non-ablative lasers, pulsed dye lasers, IPL, microneedling, and spot liquid nitrogen treatment.
If you are considering laser or light treatment, be sure to first consult an accredited dermatologist to recommend suitable treatments for the skin condition you are experiencing.
Patients who are not ready to commit to laser treatments can consider cosmeceuticals. These are cosmetic products with bioactive ingredients that are scientifically proven to deliver results to the skin. Active ingredients that fight dark spots include vitamin C and niacinamide. As a powerful antioxidant, Vita C GOLD™ Serum can help fade dark spots on your face and neutralise some of the free radicals that damage your skin. Niacinamide, found in Radiance Fluide™ Hydrating Emulsion, helps to brighten skin by reducing the amount of melanin.