Whether it’s the result of sun damage, post-acne marks, or hormonal changes, the term ‘hyperpigmentation’ refers to patches of darker skin due to an overproduction of melanin. While no two hyperpigmentation cases are the same, it’s unifying in so far as it is something that so many of us deal with.
From a medical perspective, increased pigmentation is not usually cause for concern — though you must keep up with your annual skin cancer screenings with your dermatologist. From an aesthetic perspective, however, uneven skin tone is not always welcome. For those who are bothered by their hyperpigmentation, makeup can neutralize its effects — but it’s just a method of concealment. And, if ‘beauty’ is a skincare-only thing for you (like it is for many men), color cosmetics aren’t even a quick fix.
To truly enjoy a more even skin tone, professional intervention is required, and it can be an ongoing project to find the right combination of in-office treatments, prescription topicals, and over-the-counter solutions to even out the skin. Here, we caught up with top dermatologists to find out whether hyperpigmentation differs for men, what causes it, how to address it, and more.
What Causes Hyperpigmentation?
As it relates to hyperpigmentation, one thing that differs between men and women is the cause. Generally speaking, dark spots crop up as a result of sun damage, certain types of hormone imbalances, and post-inflammatory pigmentation (PIH). “Men get a lot of hyperpigmentation from their beard as a result of shaving and ingrown hairs,” says Paul Jarrod Frank, MD, a board certified celebrity dermatologist in New York City. “This is the type of post-inflammatory pigmentation that is very significant and common in men, probably the most common.”
In the case of ingrowns, there are two issues to address. “We not only have to treat the problem with the ingrown hair but the side effect of the pigmentation,” Dr. Frank adds. The most effective treatment plan usually involves a combination of in-office treatments and at-home topicals. No matter the cause, this multi-modality approach is often the key to success.
While there are plenty of products in the skincare aisle that promise to brighten the skin, hyperpigmentation can be difficult to treat purely with at-home and over-the-counter remedies, says Blair Murphy-Rose, MD, a board certified dermatologist in NYC. This is especially true for patients with stubborn and extensive cases. Professional treatments, meanwhile, pack a more serious punch, but even those tend to need reinforcement. “Hyperpigmentation can be an ongoing condition that may not be resolved with one treatment and at-home care is often necessary as well,” she adds.
How Does Hyperpigmentation Differ for Men?
“Hyperpigmentation is fundamentally the same in both men and women,” Dr. Murphy-Rose shares. The exception is melasma, a common hyperpigmentation disorder that is believed to be caused by some combination of sun exposure, hormonal changes, and genetic predisposition. It is seen more frequently in women (especially after pregnancy), but, even so, it can affect men as well.
Rather than be differentiated by sex, hyperpigmentation is moreso differentiated by where it exists in the skin. “The biology of the skin is not that much different,” Dr. Frank says of the comparison between men and women. “It's less of a gender issue and more of a skin type issue.” For example, darker skin tones are more likely to get deeper, darker pigmentation, he notes. As such, patients with melanin-rich skin tend to have more of an issue with hyperpigmentation.
Another factor to consider is the layer of the skin the pigment is in. As Dr. Frank explains, most sunspots are “very superficial,” as the pigment is located at the base of the epidermis. Age spots and even melasma, meanwhile, may sit deeper in the dermis and require different treatment.
In-Office Hyperpigmentation Treatments
We’ll give it to you straight: Treating hyperpigmentation takes patience, but there are a host of in-office treatments that, over time, can even out the tone and texture of the skin. “Which is best for you will depend on the type of hyperpigmentation you have, the depth of that pigment in the skin, as well as your skin tone,” Dr. Murphy-Rose explains. “Often, a combination of multiple modalities may be most effective.” Below, a few of the most effective:
1. Chemical Peels
Chemical peels exfoliate outer skin layers, helping to lighten darkened areas. They come in different potencies — superficial, medium, and deep — based on the concentration of the solution (usually a combination of acids). In any case, the solution is applied to clean skin and denatures the outer layers of skin. As a result, the skin peels or sheds off, Dr. Murphy-Rose says.
The depth of the peel will determine how much peeling there is. A light glycolic acid peel or salicylic acid peel, for example, may only have a bit of mild flaking for a few days, while a deep phenol peel or croton oil peel can have weeks of downtime, with some swelling and redness hanging around even longer. Once the dead skin is sloughed off, brighter, smoother skin is revealed. Depending on the type of peel, an initial series of treatments may be recommended to achieve results, followed by less frequent maintenance appointments.
Laser skin resurfacing is another tried-and-true treatment for hyperpigmentation. Fractional laser resurfacing treatments like Fraxel® and Clear + Brilliant® (a.k.a. ‘baby Fraxel’) can be effective for reducing hyperpigmentation. Dr. Murphy-Rose often combines laser resurfacing with topical medications massaged into the treated skin to reduce and prevent hyperpigmentation. “These are very helpful for both men and women, and your dermatologist can help to determine if you are a good candidate for treatment,” she advises. Darker skin types must exercise caution with Fraxel®, but Clear + Brilliant® is generally safe for most skin tones, she adds.
In his PFRANKMD Pigment Protocol, Dr. Frank uses the Clear + Brilliant® laser and a pico laser. “We get this one plus one equals three synergistic response where we’re combining two lasers — one superficial, one deep — to get the full thickness of improvement of hyperpigmentation,” he explains. There are also deeper treatments, such as tattoo removal lasers like pico or Aerolase®. “These are often combined because it’s rare that someone has just one type of pigmentation,” Dr. Frank says. Again, a series of treatments will likely be needed for best results.
Microneedling (also known as collagen induction therapy) has been enjoying a meteoric rise in popularity thanks to its ability to treat a multitude of skin tone and texture concerns. “Both manual microneedling and microneedling with radiofrequency (RF) are available and are safe for most skin types,” Dr. Murphy-Rose says. All microneedling treatments involve puncturing the skin with tiny needles, creating micro-injuries that stimulate the body's natural healing process.
In the case of RF microneedling, radiofrequency energy waves gently heat the dermis to encourage collagen and elastin growth and skin tightening. Like lasers and chemical peels, multiple microneedling appointments are needed in order to enjoy the benefits.
4. Prescription Topicals
Topical skincare can also address hyperpigmentation concerns. Prescription-strength retinoids, tranexamic acid, and cysteamine can all improve skin tone. Dr. Frank likes to use prescription topicals and medical-grade skincare, like his own compounded Vanishing Stick. Formulated with arbutin, kojic acid, and vitamin C, “the ingredients work synergistically to help visibly brighten, lighten, and tighten skin for a more even appearance,” he says.
At-Home Products for Treating Hyperpigmentation
As we’ve mentioned, successful hyperpigmentation treatments usually involve a combination of in-office and at-home treatments. The single most vital part of your skincare regimen? Sunscreen. “Excellent photoprotection is most important for treating and preventing hyperpigmentation,” Dr. Murphy-Rose notes. She recommends using a mineral sunscreen with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide to create a physical shield between your skin and the sun. “At the end of the day, hyperpigmentation is easier to prevent than treat, so daily sunscreen with reapplication every two-three hours is important,” Dr. Frank adds.
Once you’ve got your sun care routine down pat, it’s time to introduce some brightening active ingredients. Some of Dr. Murphy-Rose’s favorite topical ingredients for hyperpigmentation include kojic acid, tranexamic acid, cysteamine, and vitamin C, all of which interfere with melanin synthesis in the skin. Exfoliation is also key. “Retinol (a form of vitamin A) and alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) increase exfoliation to help shed darkened areas faster,” she adds. When using these ingredients, be extra diligent with your sunscreen. “Just note that they increase sun sensitivity, so excellent sun protection is even more essential,” she cautions.
The great things about these ingredients is that they are easily found in an array of at-home skincare products — from cleansers and toners to serums and treatment masks. Below, some of the products we love for treating hyperpigmentation at home:
Cleanser & Toner
- Featuring plant-derived growth factors Obaji Kinetin+ Exfoliating Cleansing Gel, this exfoliating cleanser that helps dissolve dirt, oil, makeup, and dead skin.
- There is no wrong way to use the Glytone Enhance Brightening Cleansing Powder. This non-abrasive daily exfoliator features a 10 percent AHA complex to brighten, niacinamide to improve the appearance of pores, and glutathione to ward-off premature signs of aging.
- Developed by a board certified plastic surgeon to help maintain the skin in-between appointments, the Theraderm Fruit Acid Exfoliant is a lactic acid-based toner minimizes the appearance of pores, evens skin tone, and helps improves the absorption of other skin care products.
- Created by a former KPop star (!) Matter of Fact Skincare Ascorbic Acid 20 Brightening C Serum features a patent-pending, waterless formula that combines 20 percent vitamin C with antioxidants to improve dullness, discoloration, and wrinkles. Best of all, it doesn’t feature that hotdog-water smell that so often accompanies vitamin C serums.
- Josh Rosebrook’s new C Bright Complex is a lightweight, moisturizing vitamin C with dual biomimetic complexes. It stimulates collagen synthesis, visibly reduces dark spots, and protects against signs of oxidative stress.
- Mila Moursi Refining Lotion is more of a serum than a lotion. It brightens, clarifies, and evens skin tone, thanks to a blend of fruit acids and botanicals, plus glycolic acid exfoliates. Antioxidant vitamin C fights environmental aggressors.
- It Cosmetics Bye Bye Dullness Vitamin C Serum helps brighten skin in just 10 days thanks to a blend of 15 percent vitamin C and vitamin E.
- Peter Thomas Roth Potent-C Vitamin C Power Serum works for all skin types and features 20 percent THD ascorbate, a potent, ultra-stable ingredient that visibly brightens skin.
- Alpyn Beauty Triple C Brightening Bounce Cream is an aloe-based moisturizer with a springy texture that delivers long-lasting moisture in a brightening, breathable formula. Packed with vitamins and antioxidants, humectants and hydrators, it helps smooth and diminish the appearance of fine lines.
- A rich, hydrating formula, the REN Overnight Glow Dark Spot Sleeping Cream is designed to target dark spots and reinvigorate skin’s appearance as you sleep.
Masks & Treatments
- Tracie Martyn Enzyme Exfoliant is a two-in-one mask and exfoliator with pineapple enzymes, in addition to kocjic, malic, and lactic acids. Hailed as a ‘facial in a pot,’ it softens fine lines and minimizes pores while imparting glow.
- One way to avoid post-acne PIH is to prevent breakouts in the first place. The Renée Rouleau Rapid Response Detox Masque blends antimicrobial tea tree oil with 2 percent salicylic acid to clear pores and gently exfoliate.
- A little goes a long way (think: 10 to 15 minutes every one to two weeks) with the Goodhabit Bright Bright Baby Glow On Enzyme Mask Extend. A blend of vitamin C, AHAs, and fruit enzymes brightens, replenishing oils (think: avocado, apricot, prickly pear) nourish, and the brand’s proprietary Blu5 Technology protects against visible light damage.
- The potent Ambari Beauty Gold Profection22 Mask treatment features adaptogenic reishi, naturally derived AHAs (i.e. glycolic, lactic, malic, and tartaric), and 100 milligrams of soothing CBD to remove dead skin cells, improve skin tone and texture, and reduce premature signs of aging. Oh, and all you need is five to 10 minutes once a week to see results.
Treating hyperpigmentation is a marathon not a sprint. For the best results, a combination of in-office treatments, a well-curated skincare regimen, and vigilant sun care is required. “People need to be willing to subscribe to an at-home treatment regimen because we can’t just get rid of things permanently,” Dr. Frank says. In that sense, he compares dermatology to dentistry. Just because you go to the dentist to get your teeth cleaned doesn’t mean you don’t have to brush your teeth at home. Caring for your skin — especially if you are dealing with hyperpigmentation — works the same way.
All products featured are independently selected by our editors, however, AEDIT may receive a commission on items purchased through our links.
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