Hyperpigmentation is the technical term for dark spots that appear on the skin as we age. Skin gets its color from a pigment called melanin, and when melanin production in one part of the skin gets out of control, dark spots appear.
There are many potential causes of hyperpigmentation, but the most common is sun exposure. UV rays from the sun stimulate melanin production, causing the ever-popular tan. However, if the skin gets too many UV rays, “solar lengintines” appear, commonly known as “age spots.” This is a particular problem for light-skinned individuals over 60, and those who cannot tan are at the greatest risk. The best way to prevent these dark spots is therefore to spend less time in the sun, and ensure that you wear sunscreen, sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat when you do go outside.
Recent research has also suggested that hyperpigmentation can be caused by foods that contain psolarens, such as parsley and lime. These foods make your skin more sensitive to the sun, increasing the chance that dark spots will develop.
Another major cause of dark spots is post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. This is most likely to affect individuals with darker skin and those who suffer from acne or eczema. If the skin is damaged by a bad cut, a burn, chemical exposure or a bad bout of eczema, it becomes inflamed and can become hyperpigmented as it heals. These dark spots can last for months or years after the injury itself or can even be permanent. Ways to prevent post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation are avoiding picking at acne and wearing a good sunscreen. Once these marks have appeared, they can be helped by topical retinoids, professionally applied skin peels, or by home applications of cocoa butter and aloe vera.
Hormones can also wreak havoc on the skin, especially during pregnancy, causing a pigmentation disorder known as melasma. This condition, where dark spots appear on the cheeks, nose and forehead, affects 50-70% of pregnant women and is most common in women who have darker skin. Melasma can also be caused by birth control pills. You can try to prevent melasma by avoiding the sun and wearing a good sunscreen. Once melasma appears, it can be difficult to get rid of, especially as you may want to avoid any strong skin products until after the end of your pregnancy. Be sure to drink plenty of water and exfoliate your skin two or three times a week to minimize the problem. However, this type of hyperpigmentation usually fades after the pregnancy ends or after you stop taking birth control pills.
Hyperpigmentation can be caused by various illnesses, including autoimmune diseases, metabolic disorders and vitamin deficiencies. Even certain medications can cause dark spots, such as antibiotics and anti-malarial drugs, and hyperpigmentation is also a reported (but usually temporary) side effect of chemotherapy. If you have concerns, contact your doctor.