How to deal with pigmentation

Age spots, melasma, freckles – whatever you want to call them, a new speckling of pigmentation after summer isn’t pleasant. Thankfully our expert guide is full of treatments and tricks to help fade and prevent future spots – and will have your skin clear in no time.

It’s the end of Summer and a spattering of new freckles, some darker than before, have cropped up all over your body, your cheeks look uneven and wait, is that an age spot? Whether or not you spent time outdoors the effects of summer will leave their mark on your skin long after the warm days and evening swims. One minute you’ve got Georgia Fowler-esque freckles and the next they’ve turned into full-blown pigmentation.

But don’t panic. We’ve got a game plan for preventing, fading and down-right dealing with pigmentation once and for all.

First things first, what is pigmentation?

It’s the broad term used for discolouration in the skin. Think: freckles, sun spots, dark spots and uneven skin tone, all of which are triggered by sun exposure (regardless of getting burnt). The sun’s UVA and UVB rays have a cumulative effect on our complexion and pigmentation is the result of the long-term changes the skin makes in distributing the production of melanin.

Without getting too techy, our skin’s pigment is made up of varying shades of melanin (cells called melanocytes) which is naturally produced to protect our skin from UV damage. But when it’s exposed to too much sun it can create uneven patches. Hormones can also play a big part, especially around pregnancy.

“When the melanocyte cell is being overly stimulated it creates more pigment than our skin actually needs,” says Robyn McAlpine, founder of Skintifix and author of Skinside Out ($69.10, at Booktopia). “The overproduction of pigment granules can’t be absorbed or distributed to the surrounding skin cells, which leaves a heavy deposit of colour with no exit strategy. Loaded skin cells take melanin to the surface to shed away with our skin’s natural exfoliating ability, but without a cell to transport it up and out it embeds itself in the deeper layers of our skin.”

What about spots?

Age spots or sun spots look like oversized freckles and will usually appear on the face, chest and hands. “They’re non-invasive and simply a discolouration of skin arising as we age. The melanocyte is no longer able to regulate its production, so an overproduction of melanin is distributed in the same spot leading to a darker patch of pigment,” explains McAlpine. “This cellular ageing has occurred over the course of a lifetime but the visible signs often don’t often surface until our 30’s and 40’s,” she says.

It’s important to remember that while most spots are harmless, others can be an indication of skin cancer. Be sure to stay on top of regular check-ups with your GP or skin specialist to keep an eye on any changes.

Prevention is your best defence

Like most things, prevention is better than cure and the best way to skip out on pigmentation is through proper sun protection. “Avoidance and protection is the best way to reduce the risk,” says McAlpine. “For someone prone to pigmentation, even the slightest amount of sun exposure can be enough to trigger the pigmentation cascade. The general health of our skin overall will determine how our skin’s pigment is distributed. Healthy skin cells mean healthier dispersion of melanin granules within the epidermis.”

Try these:

Ultraceuticals Ultra UV Protective Daily Moisturiser SPF 50+ ($84, at Ultraceuticals)

Mecca Cosmetics To Save Face SPF50+ Superscreen ($40, at Mecca)

What about treatment?

A multi-faceted and consistent approach is not only going to be the ideal option for your skin, but for your wallet, too. If your pigmentation is severe or you have had no luck with at-home care it’s worth investing your time and money in seeing a dermatologist or skin expert who can put you on a targeted program with long-term, permanent results.

Start with over the counter ingredients

There’s a plethora of products and ingredients aimed at keeping pigmentation at bay but do your research for what suits you and your pigmentation best. Go for ingredients that act as melanin disruptors by either disrupting the amount of melanin that’s produced or interrupting the absorption of released melanin into surrounding cells. Niacinamide, or vitamin B3, is an effective anti-inflammatory and regulator and it can also help reduce the absorption and uptake of melanin in the cells.

There’s also vitamin C, a powerful antioxidant that works to both brighten and exfoliate skin to help prevent and treat photodamage caused by UV exposure. Exfoliators such as alpha hydroxy acids like lactic and glycolic as well as salicylic acids such as willow bark help to speed cell turn over, which helps to brighten skin, too.

Try these:

Hero ingredient: niacinamide
Olay Regenerist Luminous Tone Perfecting Treatment Serum ($31.69, at Chemist Warehouse)

Hero ingredient: vitamin C
Trilogy Vitamin C Booster Serum ($39.99, at Priceline)

Hero ingredient: glycolic acid
Alpha H Liquid Gold ($59.95, at Myer)

Step it up to treatments

If topical products aren’t cutting it, turn to technology. A skin specialist or dermatologist will devise a treatment or a combination of treatments for you depending on the type and severity of your pigmentation.

Treatments include laser therapy like Fraxel and IPL (intense pulsed light), skin-needling and peels. Costs vary from clinic to clinic and depend on the surface area or section of skin, but Fraxel costs around $1500 per treatment, other laser options are about $250, IPL is between $200-$400 and skin-needling can be about $300.

IPL and LED light therapy work well for surface pigmentation like freckling. For deeper or more resistant pigment like melasma, a course of gentle resurfacing peels combined with LED treatments performed every few weeks can help. Skin-needling can also be effective as the regeneration of new cells rejuvenates the skin.

McApline’s treatment of choice is collagen induction therapy, a.k.a. micro-needling. “It helps to create a very healthy skin that can better disperse pigment,” she says. “Unlike laser, collagen induction therapy doesn’t use heat, which can also be a trigger for pigment production.”

Robyn McAlpine is the founder of Newcastle based Skintifix , author of Skinside Out ($69.10, at Booktopia) and a Dermaviduals Ambassador. Follow her on Instagram here: @expert_skin_therapist