When Spanish fashion retailer Zara recently featured a freckled Chinese model as the face of its new ad campaign, it sparked a social media storm. In China, where flawless porcelain skin remains the beauty ideal, thousands engaged in a heated debate over the freckles of Jing Wen, 25. Are they ‘ugly’ or ‘beautiful’?
The line between cute sun-kissed cheeks and annoying age spots is thin, even in the Western world. Millions of people worship freckles and moles as nature’s beauty marks. They underpin the fame of Marilyn Monroe, Cindy Crawford and Her Royal Highness Meghan Markle. But when dark blotches creep up in every corner of our faces as we get older, we’d rather stop the sprawl.
This condition is called hyperpigmentation: patches of skin suddenly turn significantly darker than the rest of our body. Why do we develop these brown spots? Do they stay forever or fade away? Read on to learn:
- Just what causes the unsightly brown spots (sun damage and road traffic are high on the list),
- How to reverse skin damage once it’s done, and
- How to beat the odds of getting dark spots (hint: using the right skincare helps).
Fifty shades of brown.
Pigment is just a fancy word for colour. Everybody’s skin naturally produces the colour brown, also known as melanin. It’s the pigment that decides whether our complexion glows golden or bronze, and whether our body is coffee-coloured or olive.
Our genes define our personal shade of brown. However, our skin colour also changes throughout the year. It depends on where we live and what we eat, how old and how healthy we are.
If you spend a week of bikini beach life drinking carrot juice, your skin’s melanin manufacture will shift into high gear. You could also move to Iceland in winter, where the sun disappears for up to 20 hours a day, and most likely greet summer as pale as a polar bear.
What’s that spot? The main types of hyperpigmentation.
An even skin tone is commonly associated with health, youth and beauty. As children, we used to get an even suntan or freckles as a souvenir from our summer holidays. With the years, however, the cells that produce melanin – the melanocytes – slow down their work.
As we reach our 30s, our skin begins to look patchier. We tan more unevenly. We grow more moles, sun spots and pale patches. Nature running its course. Sure, we’re ageing. But do we need to look old?
Experts distinguish between four types of hyperpigmentation:
Freckles and moles.
Love them or loathe them, freckles are part of your DNA. If your parents have them, there is a good chance you do, too.
Freckles are triggered by the sun. Ultraviolet light gets melanocytes excited enough to make more melanin. In this natural and harmless case of hyperpigmentation freckles then appear as small tan or light brown spots, most often on your cheeks, nose and forehead. They can also be found on other areas exposed to the sun, such as your neck and shoulders.
Moles are small, round, brown spots that appear when several melanocytes clump together. Some moles are flat and smooth, others stand out from your skin in a slight bump. Moles can come and go. It’s hard to keep track. Still, we tend to get more moles as we get older.
Sun spots/liver spots/age spots:
When melanocytes are stressed, they go into overdrive and produce a lot of brown. The result is an age spot, also called ‘sun spot’ or ‘liver spot’. Age spots are milkier in colour than moles and generally flat in profile. They can grow to the size of a small coin.
As the name suggests, age spots occur as part of the normal ageing process. Older skin cells simply don’t function as well anymore. Some manufacture too much melanin, others too little, and we end up with colour patches on our skin.
Sun and pollution
Our modern lifestyle makes things worse. Sun and air pollution are putting extra stress on melanocytes. We’ve long known that the sun’s harmful UV rays are speeding along skin ageing. Now scientists know that tiny toxic dirt particles from road traffic, industrial fumes and smog are also responsible for wrinkles and hyperpigmentation.
Research mapping the fallout from air pollution – see here and here and here – shows that dirty air causes skin to age faster, dry out more quickly and develop dark spots. For example, people who are exposed to soot – a hazardous mix of carbon particles laced with chemicals – develop 20% more pigment spots on their foreheads and cheeks. Other chemicals, including in medication, can also increase our hyperpigmentation risk.
Dark spots from inflamed skin.
Sometimes a botched leg shave is enough to traumatise your skin. Small wounds, cuts, pimples or bigger skin inflammations such as acne can set off a chain of healing responses in your body. As the skin repairs itself, it develops dark spots that can look like small bruises, with colours ranging from pink to red, brown and black. Doctors have labelled these spots ‘post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation’, and they can bother people with dark skin just as much as fair-skinned folk. Cells produce more melanin than normal. It’s part of the way the skin gets over injuries.
They call it ‘the mask of pregnancy’, or melasma, and it’s the living proof that hormones and UV radiation aren’t a great match. Pregnant women and those taking the anti-baby pill suddenly find large areas of their faces covered in brown to grey-brown patches. These spots are usually symmetrical and affect the forehead, chin and cheeks. They can also appear on other sun-exposed parts of the body, such as forearms and neck. Due to hormonal changes, women are far more likely to get melasma than men.
Some abracadabra (and chemical treatments) to fade the spots.
Our skin is pretty cooperative if we treat it the right way. The dark spots dotting your skin might feel like someone gave you an unwanted tattoo. However, most types of hyperpigmentation can be treated. Some, like acne scars, even lighten up by themselves over time. Scientists are continuously working on new methods to lighten, brighten and banish most unruly brown spots. From chemical peels to eating your greens, here’s an overview of what you can do to reverse the worst skin damage.
The skincare industry has been busy in recent years inventing all sorts of new brightening and bleaching creams. Even supermodel Cindy Crawford has launched her own range of serums with whitening and anti-ageing effect. Typically, these topical treatments employ chemical agents to take the dark factor out of your facial glow. Remember the following buzzwords:
Hydroquinone. A skin-bleaching chemical that tells cells to curb their melanin production. It also helps to break down the brown pigments. The result: freckles, melasma, age spots, and acne scars fade as early as four weeks after treatment. It’s not suitable for pregnant women, though. Experts also recommend staying out of the sun as much as possible, as sunshine can render hydroquinone’s powers useless.
Chemical peels. These solutions reboot your skin cells like pressing ctr+alt+del on your laptop. Not for the weak at heart, chemical peels come in form of a solution that makes your skin ‘blister’ and eventually peel off to reveal a fresh layer of smooth, less blemished skin. Doctors offer peels in various strengths. Many contain lactic acid – the active ingredient in milk that already worked its magic in Cleopatra’s beauty baths.
Retinoic acid. This anti-ageing classic, also known as tretinoin, is a form of vitamin A. Dermatologists consider it the ‘gold standard’ in fighting wrinkles, pigmentation and other sun damage. It prompts skin cells on the surface to die more quickly, making way for new cell growth underneath. Clinical tests (there’s a big fat pile of research out there) prove that retinoic acid lightens pigment spots. It also boosts the production of collagen – the glue that keeps your skin firm and elastic.
Kojic acid. This natural, non-toxic substance has gained popularity as a bleaching agent. It’s made from different types of fungi and has proven to slow down the skin’s melanin production, lightening dark spots and preventing new ones from appearing.
- Dimethylmethoxy Chromanyl Palmitate. This synthetic chemical also works to inhibit the amount of brown colour your skin cells produce, giving you an overall lighter, brighter, more radiant complexion.
For more severe cases of skin spotting doctors have high-tech machinery at hand.
Microdermabrasion. Uses a combination of chemicals and power tools that brush, scrub and vacuum-clean your skin to chisel away the top layer and reveal fresh baby skin below. Multiple sessions may be required.
Laser. Uses heat to peel off the skin’s surface – and with it the melanocytes that produce coloured spots. Doctors warn, however, that laser treatments can overheat cells and spark a post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, which makes the damage worse, not better. Laser treatments also work differently on different people. While European skin tends to respond well to lasering, hyperpigmented Asian skin is more difficult to treat, says Dr Paul Nola, a medical professional at the Ponsonby Cosmetic Medical Clinic in Auckland, New Zealand. ‘You need to find the sweet spot. It means heating up the cells at just the right temperature to destroy them without overheating the surrounding tissue,’ says Dr Nola.
- Cryotherapy. Freezes off old skin tissue with the help of ice-cold liquid nitrogen. It can work a treat to get rid of single moles or liver spots. But give it your cold shoulder if you’re looking to treat large patches of brown on your face.
We are what we eat. Nutritionists swear by a nutritious diet for brighter, youthful skin. They recommend eating a healthy dose of anti-inflammatory food to get over acne scars and post-injury spots. Try to add more leafy greens and green juice, fresh fruit and salmon to your diet. While the scientific verdict on the benefits of these ingredients to treat hyperpigmentation is inconclusive, there’s no harm in eating healthy and de-stressing your life.
Natural ingredients are also increasingly popular in beauty products. Look for these healing agents in your skincare range:
Turmeric. This type of ginger has anti-inflammatory power. Mix it into a facial mask a few times per week and you might find it lifts the dark stains on your skin.
Lemon. One of nature’s best brightening agents. It’s high citric acid content acts as a natural exfoliant. Fans of all things organic say rubbing it on dark spots can lighten their appearance after a few weeks.
- Manuka honey. A natural anti-inflammatory, hospitals and doctors use manuka honey from New Zealand to treat wounds, scars, skin redness and eczema.
The best cure against brown spots? Don’t let them sprout.
Your skin ages faster in polluted cities and under the sun. Why wait until the damage is done? Love your skin and follow these no-brainer rules to prevent sun spots, melasma and post-acne bruising from showing up in the first place.
Ditch unhealthy habits.
We can’t all achieve perfect skin overnight. But we can change some of our habits that are known to aggravate skin inflammation and hyperpigmentation. ‘Prevention is far better than cure,’ says Dr Nolan. His advice: if you are already suffering from excess pigment spots and take the anti-baby pill, consider switching to other forms of contraception to lower your hormone intake. Also, stay away from cigarettes. Thousands of studies show that smoking makes your skin age faster and causes cancer, including skin cancer.
Seek shade, not sun.
Avoiding the sun, especially its harsh midday rays, is the most effective way to prevent wrinkles, pigment spots and other signs of ageing. If you can’t avoid the outdoors, make sure you wear a wide-brimmed hat, long sleeves and a decent layer of sunscreen. Choose a formula with a high Sun Protection Factor (SPF) rating – the larger the number, the better it filters harmful UVB rays out of the sunlight.
Protect against pollution.
Time for a reality check: we live in a polluted world. While we can’t just blow away the trillions of miniscule particles that cloud the air around us, we can protect ourselves against them. Anti-pollution skincare has evolved a lot in recent years, and a growing number of scientific studies and clinical tests are backing its effectiveness. Arné uses natural ingredients to form an invisible shield on your face. It means your skin gets the air it deserves, while all the nasties stay out. Anti-pollution skincare helps builds an armour against new dark spots. What about the freckles you already have? You may as well decide to wear them with grace – let Jing Wen be a model… for us all.
Tired of marketing fluff? Look for skincare backed by science. The new global Pollution Protection Factor (PPF) rating only labels products whose efficacy was proven in labs.