- Hyperpigmentation, or dark spots, is a common dermatologic disorder described as uneven pigmentation of the skin, and varying in size in color, and caused by sun exposure, aging, hormonal fluctuation and various skin conditions.
- Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) effectively treats hyperpigmentation because of its powerful antioxidant properties and also works as an effective anti-pigmentation agent by decreasing melanin formation.
- Treatments for hyperpigmentation include serums and supplements with high vitamin C concentration.
- Over-the-counter (OTC) topicals may also be effective as alternative treatments for dark spots.
Vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid, has many benefits for your skin, ranging from improving hydration to fighting signs of aging. Among those, it is considerably effective at addressing hyperpigmentation conditions such as dark spots, melasma, age spots and sunspots, when applied topically. If you’re looking to even out your skin tone using a simple option, here’s some helpful direction on vitamin C serums, supplements and other alternatives.
What Is Hyperpigmentation?
Hyperpigmentation is the third most common dermatologic disorder. It is best described as uneven pigmentation on the skin in areas of the face, which appear as black-blue dark circles. These darkened patches can vary in size and color.
Hyperpigmentation is generally caused by an increase in melanin, the natural pigment that colors skin. Many factors can cause melanin production to fluctuate, but the main ones are sun exposure, age and hormonal fluctuation.
Pigment spots, known as sunspots, can be caused by sun exposure. They appear when melanin is overly produced and deposited in different areas of the skin due to UV overexposure. That’s why they are so common to the face, which is generally more exposed to UV rays.
Vitamin C improves excessive pigment formation, propagation and synthesis of melanocytes in the epidermis due to UV exposure. It also significantly improves signs of photoaging by contributing to collagen formation.
When aging, there is a decrease in the number of melanocytes, the melanin-producing skin cells. Although melanocytes decrease in number, the remaining melanocytes increase in size and their distribution becomes more focused, causing dark spots or age spots. Vitamin C decreases such dermal layer changes, thinning, loss of muscle tone as well as deterioration of collagen and loss of elastin due to natural and environmental aging.
Skin conditions: melasma and postinflammatory hyperpigmentation
Skin conditions such as melasma and postinflammatory hyperpigmentation both have hyperpigmentation as common symptom.
Melasma, a form of hormone-induced hyperpigmentation, is a condition where larger patches of hyperpigmentation develop, mainly on the face. Although it can affect both men and women, it is most common in women because it is triggered by changes in hormone levels such as during pregnancy, where estrogen and progesterone stimulate the overproduction of melanin. In fact, melasma occurs in 10–15% of pregnant women and in 10–25% of women taking oral contraceptives.
Vitamin C can act as a depigmenting agent by interrupting the key steps melanin formation, thus decreasing significantly the degree of pigmentation of skin prone to melasma.
Once a wound has healed following skin injuries, acne, chemical exposure or dermatitis, the skin may be left darkened and discoloured. This is because the inflammation triggers melanocytes melanin-producing cells to release excessive pigment. This is called postinflammatory hyperpigmentation (also known as PIH). This type of hyperpigmentation may also be caused by cosmetic procedures such as chemical peels and dermabrasion.
Sun exposure can also aggravate hyperpigmentation, darkening the spots or prolonging the time for spots to fade. Vitamin C may provide significant protection against these pigment changes and the regeneration of healthy skin by enhancing production of barrier lipids and improving wound healing.
How Does Vitamin C Treat Hyperpigmentation?
Those coping with hyperpigmentation and uneven tone benefit from vitamin C. Vitamin C works as an effective anti-pigmentation agent. Without altering the skin’s natural skin, vitamin C reduces the effects of hyperpigmentation by decreasing melatonin formation and fading dark spots. It works by targeting the key regulatory steps in melanin synthesis, thus decreasing melanin pigment formation and lightening skin hyperpigmentation. As vitamin C is an unstable compound, it is therefore often combined with other depigmenting agents such as retinoids, soy proteins and vitamin E, for better depigmenting effect.
Vitamin C’s antioxidant properties also make it a powerful tool in maintaining smooth and even skin. Antioxidants are necessary for neutralizing the reactive oxygen species (or free radicals) formed due to solar radiation or pollution. Vitamin C protects the skin from these oxidative stresses by neutralizing them and by preventing the skin damage they cause, such as the destruction of elastin and skin inflammation. This anti-inflammatory action of vitamin C can prevent postinflammatory hyperpigmentation and increases collagen production.
Does it work on dark or black skin?
Because skin pigmentation is stronger in darker skin, it is generally more affected by hyperpigmentation marks than lighter skin. As for the efficacy of vitamin C in the treatment of dark spots on black skin, not much recent clinical research has been done to attest it, although there have been observations of a general skin lightening of age spots and discolouration with the combination of vitamin C on subjects with medium to dark skin. Clinical study also has shown that vitamin C may be effective in the treatment of hyperpigmentation on Asian patient’s skin.
There is considerable evidence that vitamin C, which is widely used in cosmetic and therapeutic markets, has a significant whitening effect on the skin, working as an anti-aging agent. Its natural molecules have shown to affect melanin synthesis, as well as counteract the effects of free radicals and prevent UV-induced skin damage.
Anti-aging and anti-inflammatory
Because of its high acidity, vitamin C, when applied to the skin, triggers cell regeneration and its production of collagen and elastin. It leaves the skin smoother and brighter and fades dark circles by interfering with abnormal pigmentation through the inhibition of the melanin pigment pathway.
By regularly and consistently applying Vitamin C topically through a skincare routine, the skin’s hyperpigmentation is corrected and tone is evened. Vitamin C then significantly lightens dark pigmentation without changing the natural skin tone.
Repeated sun exposures induce skin pigmentation by helping to inhibit the enzyme tyrosinase, which helps to prevent melanin production, and by oxidizing pre-existing melanin. This leads to skin color heterogeneity such as hyperpigmented spots.
Vitamin C is effective in reducing pigmentation induced by UV daylight expositions, mostly preventing pigmentation rather than depigmenting the skin. That’s why, when it’s at a 7–10% concentration, it has such strong action on preventing dark circles caused by photo-aging and is suitable for the long-term management of hyperpigmentation and skin heterogeneity.
Vitamin C Treatments for Hyperpigmentation
Topical vitamin C treatments for hyperpigmentation range from serums and oral supplements to powders, creams and other skin care products. These vitamin C treatments promotes collagen synthesis that promote elasticity and reduce hyperpigmentation due to increased melanin production. They also inhibit activation of proinflammatory cells found in the skin, thus preventing postinflammatory hyperpigmentation, as well as neutralize free radicals generated by environmental factors such as photodamage due to sun exposure.
Vitamin C serums for hyperpigmentation
Vitamin C serums, when used for the improvement of dark spots, take up to twelve weeks for visible improvement results to be noticeable clinically, as well as microscopically. But some users notice the effects after 40 days of treatment, and these were even more pronounced at the 60-day mark.
Delivery of vitamin C into the skin via topical application such as serums remains challenging. Although some human studies have suggested a beneficial effect with respect to UV irradiation protection, most effective formulations contain both vitamins C and E, plus a delivery vehicle.
While vitamin C serums are often presented as an anti-aging treatment, the best time to prevent aging is before it occurs. That way, vitamin C serums will be protecting skin from sun damage and signs of aging, while also helping in promoting natural collagen formation.
When selecting the best vitamin C serum, such as L-ascorbic acid, ascorbyl-6-palmitate, and magnesium ascorbyl phosphate, L-ascorbic acid is found to be the most biologically active.
Because vitamin C serums have benefits with sun exposure, it is suggested to apply it in the morning, after exfoliating and on a clean and dry face, after which moisturizer and SPF sunscreen can be applied. Although after-effects are rare, the application of vitamin C serums on dry skin or sensitive skin types may result in skin itchiness, stinging and dryness, due to the acidity of vitamin C.
Vitamin C supplements for hyperpigmentation
Taking oral dietary supplements of vitamin C results in more of the mineral in the skin. This might however not be as effective as topical treatments since the body only uses what it requires and discards the excess.
Alternatives to Vitamin C for Treating Dark Spots
Cosmeceuticals, which are a bridge between personal-care products and pharmaceuticals, may provide natural, safe and efficacious alternative treatment to vitamin C in treating dark spots. Most of these alternative cosmeceutical agents inhibit key regulatory steps in melanin synthesis.
Of these agents which possess constituents that have additional skin-related benefits that are used for hyperpigmentation, such as hyaluronic acid, ferulic acid, glycolic acid, vitamin B3 and a host of botanical extracts, most of them lack in literature regarding their efficacy and side effect profile.
Certain procedures can also be effective in the treatment of dark spots. Chemical peeling, laser therapy, dermal fillers, fat transfers are proven to be effective.
Hyperpigmentation is a common problem that can’t always be corrected with lifestyle changes. If looking for a natural skin care solution to treat and improve dark circles, vitamin C has been well-studied and is well worth exploring.
With some patience and consistent care, vitamin C treatments will have a brightening effect on the skin and reduce the appearance of dark circles in the eye area. If you are concerned about any skin hyperpigmentation or discoloration, and are uncertain of the best alternative to use, or
if you want to know more about treatments other than over the counter and at-home solutions because you are experiencing more severe dark circles, consult with a dermatologist or a plastic surgeon to determine which treatment or procedure would be best suited for treating your hyperpigmentation.