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 Skincare

Anti-Pigmentation Serums

Written by: Becki Murray

Last Updated: 13 February 2024

Anti-pigmentation serums are a diverse category of skincare products, just like the conditions they are aiming to treat. For example, you may have found yourself here because you want to treat the pigmentation spots that have built up on your skin over time – one of the most maddening and predictable signs of ageing. Then there is melasma, or ‘pregnancy mask’, a kind of pigmentation which is driven by hormones and which builds up in the lower layers of the skin. Or, you might be suffering with post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation; the kind of darker marks that crop up where the skin has been damaged, for example by acne scarring, which is especially common in Black skin.

Anti-pigmentation serums aim to counteract all that, by either slowing down the rate at which pigment is made by pigment-producing cells or by reducing the transfer of pigment into the surrounding skin cells. They also often use a wide range of ingredients to help do so. Read on to discover how you can attack unwanted pigmentation with anti-pigmentation serums.

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What is skin pigmentation and hyperpigmentation?

Really, ‘pigmentation’ is just the colour or tone of your skin, and this depends on how much melanin, the brown pigment that gives skin its colour, you have in your skin cells. When our skin is evenly pigmented, it looks great – the problems usually come with ‘hyperpigmentation’ where some areas of the skin end up noticeably darker than others. As clearness and an even tone of skin are two of the strongest factors in what makes a face look young, it’s understandable that you might be frustrated by patchy pigmentation on your skin.

What causes skin pigmentation?

Pigmentation in your skin is mostly caused by the pigment called melanin. Your skin has a baseline amount of melanin determined by your genes. That’s what gives your skin its regular colour.

Your skin includes cells called melanocytes that contain structures called melanosomes that produce melanin as a protective response when exposed to ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun. The melanin is protective because it absorbs some of the UV rays and disperses other rays, reducing the risk of the rays damaging your DNA.

Once the melanosomes contain melanin, the melanocytes transfer them to cells called keratinocytes in the outer layer of your skin. So after you spend time in the sun and catch a dose of UV rays, your keratinocytes get extra melanin, and you develop a tan.

What causes skin pigmentation to change?

Ultimately, the causes differ. But the main reasons are:

Ageing: A main cause of hyperpigmentation is your skin cells accumulating damage done by ultraviolet light over a lifetime. Your skin cells produce melanin to protect themselves against this light-induced damage, and when the clusters of cells with excess melanin in them start to show up together, you get dark patches, aka age spots.

Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation: Inflammation in the epidermis, either resulting from acne or something else like a thermal burn, causes your melanocytes (the pigment-producing cells) to increase their production of melanin (pigment) and transfer it to the surrounding keratinocytes (skin cells). Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation is a much bigger problem for people with darker skin, for whom inflamed spots very usually lead to PiH and dark marks.

Melasma: The third type of hyperpigmentation is melasma, and this is trickier to treat as it’s less well understood. What is known about it, however, is that it has hormonal causes. It can be caused or exacerbated by hormonal birth control pills, hormone replacement therapy or pregnancy. It can also be made worse by sun exposure, so wearing sunscreen is really important for melasma. Some skincare experts are very particular about the types of sunscreen that they think should be worn by those suffering from melasma, but they all agree that sunscreen is very important for anyone with hyperpigmentation of any sort. This is because wearing sunscreen will reduce the production of new pigmentation, and will also stop existing pigmentation becoming worse.

How do anti-pigmentation serums work?

Anti-pigmentation serums work by slowing down the production process of pigment in your skin in two ways:

  • By using ingredients that reduce the rate at which the melanosomes create melanin.
  • By slowing down the rate at which the melanosomes are transferred into the skin cells.

Are there any side effects of using anti-pigmentation serums?

Yes, you may experience various side effects when using anti-pigmentation serums, depending on the ingredients in a particular serum, their strength, and your skin type and sensitivity.

The most likely side effect is mild irritation to your skin, but your skin may also become dry and flaky in response to ingredients such as retinoids and alpha hydroxy acids. A rare side effect is paradoxical hyperpigmentation, a condition in which the hyperpigmentation actually gets worse in response to the treatment.

Whichever anti-pigmentation serum you use, you absolutely must follow it with sunscreen, because nothing stirs up your melanosomes into a frenzy of pigment-creating activity like UV light — any daylight, not just bright sunlight. So make sure you protect your skin with sunscreen every day.

How long does it take to see results with anti-pigmentation serums?

How long it takes to see results from applying an anti-pigmentation serum depends on the type of pigmentation, the strength of the ingredients in the serum, and how your skin responds to the serum.

Assuming you apply the serum consistently following its instructions, you should see results in approximately 4–6 weeks for potent serums that contain ingredients such as hydroquinone or azelaic acid, 6–8 weeks for serums that contain vitamin C or niacinamide, or 8–12 weeks for gentler formulations.

If you’re applying the serum regularly per instructions but don’t see any results after three months, it’s probably time to consult a dermatologist.

Do anti-pigmentation serums work for sun damage?

Anti-pigmentation serums can reduce the visibility of pigmentation caused by exposure to UV rays from the sun. For example, serums can lighten the appearance of dark spots, improve your skin tone by evening out pigmentation, and nourish your skin with antioxidants to protect against free radicals. However, serums cannot repair damage to your collagen or remove wrinkles caused by UV exposure, nor can they protect you against future sunburn.

What are the main ingredients in anti-pigmentation serums?

The main ingredients that you’ll find in anti-pigmentation serums include melanin inhibitors, niacinamide, tranexamic acid, retinol, and alpha hydroxy acids:

  • Melanin inhibitors. Melanin inhibitors stop your melanosomes creating so much melanin. This category of ingredients includes vitamin C, azelaic acid, liquorice extract, kojic acid, and arbutin.
  • Niacinamide. Niacinamide helps reduce pigmentation by blocking the transfer of melanosomes from the melanocytes to the keratinocytes, the skin cells where it sits and shows up.
  • Alpha hydroxy acids. Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), such as lactic acid and glycolic acid, have a peeling action on the skin, encouraging the shedding of outer, pigmented layers so that fresher, clearer skin grows through from underneath.
  • PHAs: A gentler option to AHAs, PHAs can provide a sensitive skin-safe alternative to slowly but surely reveal brighter, newer skin through exfoliation.
  • Retinol and other retinoids. Vitamin A derivatives stimulate cell turnover by encouraging your skin to shed pigmented keratinocytes, which are then replaced by new keratinocytes that contain less pigmentation. Retinol also slows down your skin’s production and transfer of melanin.
  • Hydroquinone: If you go to see a dermatologist about hyperpigmentation, they may prescribe a cream containing hydroquinone which is a prescription-only ingredient that fades pigmentation.
  • Tranexamic acid. This acid reduces both melanin production and melanin transfer.

What is the difference between vitamin C and retinol for pigmentation?

Both vitamin C and retinol are powerful weapons to use against pigmentation, but they have significantly different effects:

  • Vitamin C. Vitamin C is an antioxidant that can protect your skin, reduce its melanin production, and gradually brighten it. Vitamin C is suitable for most skin types, including sensitive skin.
  • Retinol. Retinol is a vitamin A derivative that accelerates cell turnover, helping your skin get rid of pigmented cells to reveal fresher, brighter skin underneath. Retinol typically gives results faster than vitamin C but may cause initial irritation and is more likely to make your skin sensitive to the sunlight.

Can anti-pigmentation serums treat melasma?

Yes, anti-pigmentation serums can help treat melasma, an especially troublesome type of hyperpigmentation. Ingredients in anti-pigmentation serums can slow down the production of melanin and the transfer of melanin to the skin’s surface, promote cell turnover and exfoliation, and brighten the skin tone. How successfully anti-pigmentation serums work on melasma varies widely among individuals. If your melasma doesn’t respond to a serum, or if it recurs, consult a dermatologist who can recommend a treatment plan tailored to your needs.

Can I use multiple anti-pigmentation serums together?

If by “use together” you mean layering the serums one on top of another — yes, you can use multiple anti-pigmentation serums together, but you must be careful when doing so.

First, you need to choose serums that will have complementary actions rather than conflicting actions. For example, if you apply a vitamin C serum and a retinol serum at the same time, the retinol could conflict with the vitamin C and make it less effective.

Second, perform a separate patch test for each individual serum to make sure your skin can tolerate it before using that serum.

Third, add one serum at a time to your skincare routine, giving your skin plenty of time to adjust before adding the next serum. This way, if you get an adverse reaction, you’ll find it easier to pin down the culprit.

Fourth, once you’re layering the serums, apply them by thinnest to thickest consistency, waiting a few minutes for each serum to be fully absorbed before applying the next serum. If some serums are water based while others are oil based, apply the water-based serums first.

Another way of using multiple anti-pigmentation serums together is by using each on a separate area of your face without mixing the serums. For example, you might use a vitamin C serum on most of your face for overall brightening but put a retinol serum on stubborn dark spots.

 

Are there natural remedies for skin hyperpigmentation?

Yes, there are various natural remedies which are used to deal with skin hyperpigmentation. These natural remedies include the following five ingredients:

  • Aloe vera may reduce melanin production in your skin.
  • Liquorice root extract inhibits melanin production and may lighten skin.
  • Vitamin C helps reduce melanin production.
  • Niacinamide improves your skin’s barrier function and can reduce hyperpigmentation.
  • Green tea, either drunk conventionally or applied as a compress (for example, in tea bags), can reduce melanin production.

Bear in mind that natural remedies such as these tend to be less powerful than clinical-grade serums and will take longer to show results. Remember also that no matter how natural a remedy is, it can still irritate your skin or cause an allergic reaction.

 

Can pregnant women use anti-pigmentation serums?

Some anti-pigmentation serums are fine to still use during pregnancy and while breastfeeding, but others are off the cards completely because of their potential to affect the health of your foetus or newborn.

Vitamin C serums remain safe throughout your pregnancy – this makes sense when you think about it because of how we naturally encounter vitamin C in our diets. Niacinamide and azelaic acid are also safe to use.

Retinol, however, is a no-go. This is because it is derived from vitamin A which, in high enough doses, is a teratogen (meaning that it can create fetal deformities). Even though you are unlikely to use topical retinoids in high enough levels for this to happen, all skincare professionals advise against using  retinoids during pregnancy and while breast-feeding.

When you are pregnant you should also avoid using hydroquinone, which is a prescription-only pigment-busting cream that I mentioned earlier. This is because there have been adverse effects on animal fetuses in studies of pregnant animals, but there is no high-quality research on humans (for obvious ethical reasons) – because of this, and because hydroquinone is generally prescribed for cosmetic reasons, it’s best to avoid using hydroquinone while pregnant or breastfeeding.

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