- Hyperpigmentation is a condition characterized by scattered dark patches of skin, caused by clusters of excess melanin.
- Retinol is a type of retinoid, a vitamin A derivative, that can treat hyperpigmentation by speeding up the natural skin cell turnover rate.
- Retinol can cause side effects such as skin dryness, irritation and sun sensitivity.
Retinol can be applied topically to lighten the skin and reduce the appearance of hyperpigmentation. This over-the-counter (OTC) retinoid can help minimize the appearance of hyperpigmentation in under six months when applied correctly and consistently.
Hyperpigmentation is the appearance of brown patches of skin that are darker in color than the surrounding tissue. These patches are caused by the buildup and clustering of melanin, the natural pigment that determines skin tone.
There are three main types of dark spots, each with their own triggers and characteristics: melasma, sunspots and postinflammatory hyperpigmentation.
Melasma is a type of hyperpigmentation that appears as blotchy brown or gray-brown patches of skin. It most often occurs on the face, and is more common in women than men.
Melasma is usually triggered by hormonal changes; estrogen and progesterone can trigger an increase in melanin production. This explains why melasma often occurs during pregnancy, when these hormones can fluctuate dramatically.
Sunspots—also known as age spots or liver spots—appear as flat brown patches that often resemble freckles. They occur as a result of UV exposure, typically after spending extended periods of time in the sun without adequate protection. Sunspots are a form of natural defense against UV damage, as melanin absorbs ultraviolet (UV) rays.
Postinflammatory hyperpigmentation consists of dark spots appearing where an injury or blemish has healed following skin inflammation. Postinflammatory hyperpigmentation most often occurs as a result of acne breakouts.
Breakouts result when excess oil, grime and dead skin cells accumulate within pores. Bacteria proliferates in and around these clogged pores; in response, the body sends white blood cells to fight infection, causing skin inflammation.
This immune response increases the activity of the cells that produce melanin and causes an excess of melanin production in the affected area, resulting in hyperpigmentation.
How Can Retinol Treat Hyperpigmentation?
Retinol can have a number of positive effects on the skin, as it encourages skin cell turnover. When new skin cells are formed, they will be more evenly pigmented.
Retinol also reduces the appearance of sun-induced dark spots by inhibiting the activity of tyrosinase, an enzyme that stimulates melanin production in the skin. It thickens and lightens the skin, and can help treat signs of aging skin.
Retinol requires more time to take effect than other retinoids, as the skin must convert it into retinoic acid before it can be processed. It may take up to six months for noticeable results to appear. Due to its low potency, it is available for purchase OTC, however this makes it an accessible, affordable treatment for anyone seeking treatment.
Retinoid creams and serums are among the most promising agents for treating symptoms of aging, including hyperpigmentation. They fade age spots and increase the production of collagen and elastin in the skin.
Retinol can also be effective in softening the appearance of scars, however scars and hyperpigmentation are fundamentally different. It is a common myth that dark spots are scars, but this is not true.
Dark spots are flush with the skin, which distinguishes them from scars that are either raised or sunken. However, because dark spots often occur alongside acne, and acne often causes scarring, the two may coincide.
Hyperpigmentation on dark skin
Retinol is less likely to cause irritation than prescription-strength retinoids. Retinoids, including retinol, are well tolerated in more pigmented skin such as the darker skin tones of Fitzpatrick skin types IV–VI. Those with dark skin are no more likely to suffer side effects from retinol than those with light skin.
How to Use Retinol to Treat Hyperpigmentation
Wash your face with a mild cleanser. To protect your eyes, apply eye cream to the surrounding area. Ensure your skin is dry, then apply a pea-sized amount of retinol cream to your skin. Lastly, be sure to apply sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher when going outdoors to prevent potential irritation, as retinol can increase sun sensitivity.
Safety and side effects
Although it is less of an irritant than other retinoids, retinol can still cause irritation. Possible side effects include:
- Dryness and irritation
- Skin lightening
- Sun sensitivity
- Redness and blistering
With these side effects in mind, it is important to ensure you apply retinol correctly, especially if you have sensitive skin.
Some products and treatments should not be used in combination with retinol. Vitamin C serums function in different pH environments than retinol topicals, and the two may interfere resulting in reduced efficacy.
Powerful exfoliants such as glycolic chemical peels should also be avoided as they may exacerbate irritation and dryness when combined with retinol treatments.
Dermatologist prescribed retinoids
When retinol and other OTC options are not successfully treating your hyperpigmentation, it is advised to consult a dermatologist to discuss prescription treatments.
Prescription retinoids are more potent than retinol and are more likely to effectively address your hyperpigmentation. However, a prescription retinoid’s increased strength can cause more severe side effects. It is therefore important to take proper precautions in your skin care routine, ensuring your moisturize your skin and protect it from the sun.
Retinol can be effective in lightening the skin and reducing the appearance of dark spots. It does so by promoting skin shedding, which improves cell turnover rate and hinders the activity of the enzyme tyrosinase, which encourages the production of melanin.
Retinol carries a risk of side effects such as skin dryness, irritation and sun sensitivity. However, due to its low potency, these side effects are usually mild when they do occur.
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