Pigmentation Protocol: From Treatment to Prevention & Everything In-Between

One of the most asked questions from clients is, “How do I treat discoloration?” From freckles to dark spots, sun damage, and more, practitioners have seen it all and that is because pigmentation is one of the most common skin conditions in the world. 


Hyperpigmentation happens when melanin is overproduced in certain area of the skin, causing discoloration in the skin complexion. Whenever the body feels like it’s in danger, the skin produces discoloration, as a form of a defense mechanism. 


First, skin care professionals need to understand melanocytes. Melanocytes lives in the basal layer of the skin and are responsible for making pigmentation. A converted amino acid, tyrosine then gets converted in the melanin (pigment). Think of the melanocyte as a factory that produces pigment; the skin utilizes melanocytes for protection. Then keratinocytes deliver pigment to the upper layers of the skin. 

Skin cells are constantly moving up to the surface of the skin, so dead proteins and melanin are constantly building up on the surface of the skin. 


The following are common causes of hyperpigmentation: overexposure to the sun, birth control, hormonal changes from pregnancy or menopause, medications that cause liver damage, medications that cause light sensitivity, heat, stress, inflammation, acne, and picking at acne.


There are four types of hyperpigmentation. The first is melasma. This appears as large dark brown patches that usually show up on the forehead, cheeks, or around the mouth. The second type is post-inflammatory pigmentation, which appears in smaller, individual dark spots. Spots can appear red, brown, or dark brown, leftover from trauma to the skin. This could be a blemish, bug bite, cut, or scratch. The third type of hyperpigmentation is age or sunspots that are flat spots ranging from light to dark brown in color. These are mainly caused by sun exposure over time. Lastly, the fourth type is freckles, small brown spots brought on during childhood – a genetic condition.


While clients can get rid of pigmentation in some cases, it is not always possible. Pigmentation is very complex and occurs deeply within the skin, making it difficult to treat. The success of the treatment is based on an individual’s skin type and tolerance, and most importantly, how dedicated they are to improving it by sticking to a regimen. What is important to know is that even if a client does get rid of their pigmentation completely, there’s a good chance they will have to continue with a pigment brightener and preventative skin care regimen. Pigmentation can easily creep back if the client is not staying on top of their regimen because pigmentation has memory.


When treating pigmented skin, there are a couple of things the skin care professional must do. This includes exfoliation – creating cellular turnover to slough off damaged surface skin cells, treat skin by brightening and removing existing pigmentation, prevent by using melanin suppressants, and protect with sunscreen.


Look for products with ingredients that will block tyrosinase (pigmentation). This will help interrupt signals being sent to melanocytes. These ingredients include mandelic acid, black cohosh, arbutin, licorice extract, niacinamide, and vitamin C serum. 


Hydroquinone is great at removing pigmentation; However, it has a bad rebounding effect. Once the client stops using this skin lightener, the pigmentation will come back darker than what the pigmentation was before the use of hydroquinone. Another side effect if used too long, the client can develop ochronosis, a dark, blue-black pigmentation that is hard to get rid of. Another ingredient to avoid is kojic acid. This is a skin lightening ingredient that commonly causes skin irritations. There are tons of great skin lightening ingredients that do not cause skin irritation that work just as good. 


Exfoliation is important because it helps lift visible pigmentation off the skin. As far as acids, mandelic (superhero of skin care) or lactic works best. Fruit enzymes, such as papaya or pineapple, are also great options and are gentler than acids. Even though it is not technically an exfoliant, retinol or vitamin A are also great for pigmentation because it increases cell turnover. Pigmentation will come to the surface (where it can be sloughed off by exfoliants) more quickly. Enzymatic or chemical-based exfoliants are preferred because physical exfoliants tend to be too harsh on the skin and will create broken capillaries.


When managing pigmentation, recommend and plan treatments that involve both spa services and at-home products. How often a client gets professional treatments will vary from person to person. It is important to provide consultation, in order to tailor the treatment plan. There is no one answer for everyone on how long it takes to get rid of pigmentation, but if a client is diligently treating it at home with a good skin care regimen and with professional treatments, they can expect to have noticeable improvements in one month. 


Pigmentation is an incredibly complex and challenging condition that requires constant care. It cannot always be eliminated, but there are many things clients can do both at home and with professional treatments. Remember, patience is key. The pigment was forming in the skin long before it made its way to the surface, so it is not just going to disappear overnight. But remember to tell the client to stay dedicated to their routine, and they will see results.

Holly Tanella is an international award-winning aesthetician and business owner with over 10 years of experience in the aesthetics industry. She was named the 2019 Top International Holistic Esthetician at the Skin Games and has owned BOHO Alternative Med Spa in Allen, Texas since 2015. Tanella is a wife, mother of five, and a skin fanatic whose personal mission is to help her clients create healthy, glowing skin through alternative methods.


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