6 Surprising Facts About Dark Spots

Hyperpigmentation, dark spots, manchas — there are many names for those unfortunate, darkened patches that pop up on your face and body. Latin women are particularly prone to dark spots, which is why it has become the No. 1 skin care issue among Latinas. Not only is this skin issue difficult to treat in darker skin tones, there are also many ways that women unintentionally make their spots even worse. (Uh, super-manchas?) That’s why it’s crucial to understand why you get dark spots — how they form, why they stick around, and how you can start to knock ‘em out.

There’s no such thing as an “age” spot

how-to-treat-dark-spotsThere are many indignities associated with aging. (Reading fine print and forgetting the name of the movie you just watched, among them.) But “age spots” don’t crop up simply because you’ve gotten older.

According to Dr. Elson Lai, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist, the causes of what we call age spots are hormonal changes and sun exposure. “When [women] are pregnant, that’s when they get a lot of ‘age spots’ or ‘liver spots,” he explains. (This condition is more precisely referred to as melasma, and can also occur as a side effect of taking birth control pills.)

If hormones aren’t to blame, dark spots on the face are typically the result of sun damage. Dr. Paul Jarrod Frank, M.D., a board-certified cosmetic dermatologist based in New York, explains, “Radiation from the sun causes pigmentation on the skin, which is the body’s defense mechanism to protect the skin from further damage.” Older people have accumulated more sun damage than younger folk, which is why these patchy discolorations are associated with aging.

Another important thing to remember, says Lai: Dark spots, brown spots, liver spots, age spots and melasma are essentially the same thing, which is hyperpigmentation, or the presence of excess melanin in the skin.

Don’t treat a spot on your face like a spot on your sofa

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When you’re dealing with spots — whether they’re on your face or on your expensive upholstered couch — it’s human nature to want to scrub the heck out of it. So if you have dark spots, you might be going to town with your face scrub in an effort to minimize their appearance. Skin care foul! Although routine exfoliation is healthy for most skin types, Frank notes that over-exfoliation can actually darken existing spots. Why? Over-exfoliation can trigger inflammation, and hyperpigmentation is a response to inflammation. Think of the dark mark that you get from picking a pimple — that scar is a result of the trauma of inflammation.

Try switching from products containing manual exfoliants — like apricot kernels, whose uneven granules can be too abrasive for delicate facial skin — to those with chemical exfoliants like retinol or glycolic acid. Chemical exfoliants speed cell turnover to reveal brighter skin — no elbow grease necessary.

Think you can handle those harsh scrubs? Keep in mind that the pigment in dark spots is buried deep in the skin’s layers. So when you’re pawing away at your face trying to fade those dark spots, “You’re just touching a superficial part of your skin,” Lai explains. “Dark spots are usually farther underneath the skin.”

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how-to-treat-dark-spots-2
When you’re dealing with spots — whether they’re on your face or on your expensive upholstered couch — it’s human nature to want to scrub the heck out of it. So if you have dark spots, you might be going to town with your face scrub in an effort to minimize their appearance. Skin care foul! Although routine exfoliation is healthy for most skin types, Frank notes that over-exfoliation can actually darken existing spots. Why? Over-exfoliation can trigger inflammation, and hyperpigmentation is a response to inflammation. Think of the dark mark that you get from picking a pimple — that scar is a result of the trauma of inflammation.

Try switching from products containing manual exfoliants — like apricot kernels, whose uneven granules can be too abrasive for delicate facial skin — to those with chemical exfoliants like retinol or glycolic acid. Chemical exfoliants speed cell turnover to reveal brighter skin — no elbow grease necessary.

Think you can handle those harsh scrubs? Keep in mind that the pigment in dark spots is buried deep in the skin’s layers. So when you’re pawing away at your face trying to fade those dark spots, “You’re just touching a superficial part of your skin,” Lai explains. “Dark spots are usually farther underneath the skin.”

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Dark spots can be different colors, as long as they don’t change color

Names can be misleading. Age spots? Not caused by aging. Lady Gaga? She’s as much a noble as Sir Mix-a-Lot. And “brown” spots? They’re not just brown. Spots can appear to be light or dark brown, gray or even black, and the color of the spot isn’t necessarily an indicator of something more pernicious.

However, spots that change color or shape over time can be indicative of skin cancer. This is where that derm appointment is not optional — it’s a must. “Irregular borders, [whether the spot is] raised, color changes, how long has it been there — all these are questions that they ask,” Lai says. So if any of those attributes apply to one or more of your spots, or if you haven’t had a routine skin check in awhile, hit up your derm.

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Your genetic makeup matters

So you have a darker complexion? Lucky you. While your fair-skinned sisters are much more susceptible to dark spots, those with darker skin tones possess more melanin — “natural sunblock,” as Lai calls it. If by now you think melanin is a bad thing, don’t. “More melanin in the skin … protects the skin from sun damage,” Frank says.

But there’s a downside to having a darker complexion: You’re more susceptible to worsening your dark marks with improper treatment, says Frank. “Overuse of lightening products or the misuse of a laser can over-pigment the area and have the reverse affect if not used carefully and as directed,” he warns.

SPF 70 won’t save you from dark spots

protecting_against_dark_spotsSo you’re going on a tropical vacation. You pack a tube of SPF 70 sunscreen, and you feel smug. Who cares if it goes on like glue? No one can touch your sunscreen game, amiright!?

Wrong. You’d be better off packing two bottles of SPF 30 sunscreen with physical UV blocks than that crazy-thick, SPF-infinity stuff. Studies have shown that SPF 30 blocks 97 percent of UV rays; SPF 50 is only marginally better, blocking 98 percent of rays. Wearing sunscreen with super-high SPF isn’t harmful in itself, but it can lull you into a false sense of security and thus make you less careful about reapplication.

For lighter skin tones, Lai recommends using sunscreen with an SPF of 30 and reapplying every two to three hours. “If you have a darker skin type, all you really need to use is a 15,” he advises. Frank emphasizes quality of ingredients when choosing a sunscreen. “A [sunscreen] should have zinc or titanium oxide, which is a total UV block.” If you’re worried about tweaking your makeup, Frank recommends carrying a tinted moisturizer with SPF for reapplication. Hats and sunglasses also come in handy, Lai says.

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Scared of hydroquinone? Sake and mushrooms can help

If you’ve looked at the ingredient lists on skin-lightening products, you’ve probably seen hydroquinone, which has been used as a skin-lightening treatment for decades. But, oh, is she a fickle mistress. “Hydroquinone, although effective for dark spots, can only be used in limited amounts and does nothing for wrinkles,” Dr. Frank says. “Over-the-counter products usually have about two percent, [which] is not sufficient to make a difference.” In addition to increasing skin’s sensitivity to the sun, he explains, hydroquinone “can have the reverse effect and make the area darker if misused.”

Dr. Frank likes two other ingredients for treating hyperpigmentation: arbutin, which is derived from bearberry, mushrooms and certain fruits; and kojic acid, which is produced in the fermentation process of sake. Arbutin and kojic acid don’t make skin as photosensitive as hydroquinone does, he says.

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