Beyond the Sunspots - The Science Behind & What You Can Do About It

While hyperpigmentation can cast shadows on your confidence, it doesn't define your beauty. This guide unveils the science behind dark spots and empowers you to combat them. We'll explore powerful ingredients like Vitamin C and AHAs, delve into advanced solutions like peels and lasers, and share essential tips for a radiant complexion. Embrace your unique journey and embark on a path to unveil your luminous, even-toned skin.
Beyond the Sunspots - The Science Behind & What You Can Do About It - The Sabi

By Hilary Metcalfe

Flawless skin is a myth. Every face tells a story with sun-kissed memories, laughter and frown lines earned with joy or tribulations, and perhaps a sprinkle of hyperpigmentation from birth, sun damage, or hormonal disturbances like those that occur postpartum or in (perimenopause). It's these imperfections that make us unique.

However, that doesn't mean we can't embrace a journey of improvement or change, especially if those dark spots or “pregnancy mask” make you feel less than your best self. This isn't a quest for perfection; it's a journey of self-discovery and experimentation. In this article, we'll delve into the science behind hyperpigmentation, the fascinating relationship between sun and skin and the exposure that can lead to skin unevenness. Let’s explore the powerful ingredients and treatments that can help!

Unveiling the Melanin Process – From Sun Exposure to Dark Spots

Hyperpigmentation arises from an overzealous production of melanin, the pigment responsible for our skin's colour.  The production of melanin is regulated by various factors, including genetic makeup, exposure to sunlight, and certain hormones like melanocyte-stimulating hormone (MSH). However, melanin itself is not a hormone; it is a pigment responsible for coloration in skin, hair, and eyes, and it provides protection against UV radiation.

For most people, UV exposure is the prime instigator, triggering a chain reaction within the skin's lower layers. The melanin production process is a cascade of cellular communication. When UV rays penetrate the skin, they reach the melanocytes. These melanocytes are equipped with special receptors that recognize UV radiation.

Upon detection, a signal is relayed within the cell, triggering the production of enzymes that initiate melanin synthesis. Melanin comes in two main varieties: pheomelanin, a light-coloured pigment responsible for reddish hues, and eumelanin, a darker pigment that contributes to brown and black tones. The ratio of these two types of melanin determines our overall skin colour. In response to UV exposure, melanocytes primarily produce eumelanin, as it offers superior protection against sun damage. However, sometimes this process goes awry.

Genetics, hormonal fluctuations, and inflammation can disrupt the delicate balance of melanin production, leading to hyperpigmented patches. Several conditions, many of which are hormonal, can impact MSH  levels and production (or overproduction):

  1. Addison's Disease: This is a disorder of the adrenal glands, leading to insufficient production of cortisol. The pituitary gland compensates by increasing the production of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which shares a precursor with MSH. This increase can lead to hyperpigmentation of the skin.

  2. Cushing's Disease: An overproduction of ACTH, often due to a pituitary tumor, can also increase MSH levels, potentially causing changes in skin pigmentation.

  3. Exposure to UV Radiation: Sunlight stimulates the production of MSH as part of the body's response to UV radiation, increasing melanin production to protect against DNA damage.

  4. Pregnancy: Hormonal changes during pregnancy can elevate MSH levels, contributing to conditions like melasma, where dark patches appear on the skin.

  5. Inflammation and Stress: Stress and inflammatory conditions can influence the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, potentially affecting MSH production.

  6. Pituitary Disorders: Any condition that affects the pituitary gland's function can impact MSH levels. This includes tumours, infections, or trauma affecting the pituitary.

  7. Genetic Factors: Certain genetic mutations can affect the production and activity of MSH. For instance, mutations in the melanocortin 1 receptor (MC1R) can influence how effectively MSH stimulates melanin production.

  8. Obesity: There is some evidence suggesting that obesity can influence MSH levels, although the exact mechanisms and implications are still being studied.

  9. Medications: Certain medications can affect MSH levels. For example, drugs that influence the HPA axis or those used in the treatment of adrenal gland disorders can alter MSH production.

  10. Seasonal Changes: Some studies suggest that MSH levels can fluctuate with seasonal changes, potentially due to variations in sunlight exposure and its effect on the hypothalamus and pituitary gland.

A Multi-Faceted Approach to Battling Hyperpigmentation: Your Arsenal for Brighter Skin

The quest for an even complexion may seem like a solitary battle, but fret no more! Here, we unveil a multi-pronged approach to combat hyperpigmentation, a veritable arsenal at your disposal to help you achieve a radiant visage.

The Shield: Sunscreen – Your Unwavering Defence Against Hyperpigmentation's Onslaught

Consider SPF 30+ sunscreen your knight in shining armour. Daily application (and re-application) of non-endocrine disrupting, ideally mineral-based (like zinc-oxide) is an important tool in preventing hyperpigmentation since sun exposure is the leading culprit behind hyperpigmentation. The UV rays from the sun trigger melanin production and also worsen existing hyperpigmentation.

Consistent sunscreen use acts as a shield, deflecting these harmful rays and preventing further melanin stimulation. Broad-spectrum protection is vital, so ensure your sunscreen guards against both UVA rays (which penetrate deep into the skin) and UVB rays (responsible for sunburn). Look for lightweight, oil-free formulas that won't clog pores and can be seamlessly integrated into your daily routine.

The Serums: Science-Backed Brigades for Fading Dark Spots

The world of serums offers potent allies in the fight against hyperpigmentation. Here are some key players:

  • Vitamin C: The Antioxidant Beacon Against Dullness

A revered antioxidant, vitamin C serums brighten and even skin tone, acting like a beacon against dullness and hyperpigmentation. Vitamin C works by inhibiting the enzyme tyrosinase, a key player in melanin production. However, vitamin C is a finicky ingredient, sensitive to heat and light exposure. For optimal effectiveness, choose serums formulated at a low pH (around 3.5) and packaged in airtight, dark and preferably glass containers to prevent degradation.

  • Niacinamide: The Multi-Tasking Marvel for Fading and Refining

This multi-tasking marvel not only fades dark spots but also refines skin texture. Studies have shown niacinamide effectively reduces hyperpigmentation when used at concentrations of 3-5%. It's believed to work by inhibiting melanosome transfer (the process by which melanin granules are delivered to skin cells) and reducing inflammation, which can also trigger melanin production.

  • Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs): The Gentle Exfoliators for Cellular Renewal

AHAs, like glycolic acid and lactic acid, are gentle exfoliators that work their magic by promoting cell turnover. This process helps to remove the surface layer of skin cells, which can be hyperpigmented, revealing a brighter, more even complexion beneath. AHAs are particularly useful for diminishing hyperpigmentation caused by sun damage and age spots. However, it's important to introduce AHAs gradually into your routine and moisturise well, as they can cause dryness in some individuals.

  • Emerging Allies: Seaweed Ferments and Adaptogens

The world of skincare is constantly evolving, and new ingredients are emerging to join the fight against hyperpigmentation.

Seaweed ferments: rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, seaweed ferments are generating interest for their potential skin-brightening properties. Early studies suggest that certain seaweed ferment extracts may help reduce hyperpigmentation by inhibiting tyrosinase activity and can strengthen the skin’s own UV defences as well as have the early studied potential of increasing the effectiveness of your sunscreen!

Adaptogens: these botanical powerhouses are known for their ability to help the body adapt to stress. Some adaptogens, like licorice root and Rhodiola, are being explored for their potential to reduce inflammation and support healthy skin function, which may indirectly help with hyperpigmentation.

You can find both of these brightening ingredients in our Active Nutrient Serum

Advanced Tactics: Laser Light and Chemical Peels for Stubborn Hyperpigmentation

For stubborn hyperpigmentation that resists the efforts of your skincare routine, consider these in-clinic options:

Chemical Peels: A Controlled Exfoliation for Deeper Renewal

Chemical peels utilise controlled acids (often AHAs) to remove the topmost layer of skin, revealing a brighter, more even complexion beneath. The strength of the peel will determine the depth of penetration and the downtime required. A consultation with a dermatologist is essential to determine the appropriate peel for your specific needs and skin type. There are various types of chemical peels, each with its own strengths and weaknesses:

  • Alpha Hydroxy Acid (AHA) Peels: these gentle peels are a good starting point for mild hyperpigmentation. They work by dissolving the bonds between dead skin cells, allowing them to be easily shed. 
  • Beta Hydroxy Acid (BHA) Peels: salicylic acid, a BHA, is particularly effective for oily and acne-prone skin. It can help to decongest pores and reduce hyperpigmentation caused by post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) from breakouts. 
  • Trichloroacetic Acid (TCA) Peels: these medium-depth peels offer more dramatic results for moderate hyperpigmentation. They can target deeper layers of the skin and stimulate collagen production. However, TCA peels come with a longer recovery time and a greater risk of side effects, so consulting a qualified dermatologist is crucial.

Lasers: Precise Targeting for Hyperpigmentation

Laser treatments offer a highly targeted approach to hyperpigmentation. Different types of lasers are used for various pigmentation concerns. Here are a couple of examples:

  • Fractional Lasers: these lasers deliver microscopic beams of light that penetrate the skin, creating controlled columns of injury. This triggers the skin's natural healing response, which helps to reduce hyperpigmentation and stimulate collagen production. Fractional lasers are a popular choice for treating melasma, a type of hyperpigmentation that often affects pregnant women and those on birth control. 
  • Picosecond Lasers: these innovative lasers use ultra-short pulses of light to shatter pigment particles in the skin. This fragmentation allows the body to more easily eliminate the pigment, resulting in a lightening of hyperpigmentation. Picosecond lasers are a good option for treating a variety of pigmentation concerns, including sunspots and age spots.

Important Considerations for Advanced Treatments:

While both chemical peels and lasers offer effective solutions for stubborn hyperpigmentation, they are not without risks. Here are some important considerations:

  • Consultation is Key: always consult with a dermatologist to determine the best course of treatment for your specific needs and skin type. A dermatologist can assess the severity of your hyperpigmentation and recommend the safest and most effective treatment option.
  • Downtime and Potential Side Effects: chemical peels and laser treatments can cause temporary side effects like redness, flaking, and crusting. In some cases, there is also a risk of scarring or hyperpigmentation worsening. Be sure to discuss potential side effects and downtime with your dermatologist before undergoing any treatment.
  • Sun Protection is Paramount: after any in-clinic treatment for hyperpigmentation, diligent sun protection is essential. Sun exposure can worsen hyperpigmentation and negate the results of your treatment. Always wear a broad-spectrum SPF 30 or higher daily, and reapply every two hours, or more often if sweating or swimming.

The Path to Radiance: Patience and Consistency are Key

Remember, treating hyperpigmentation is a marathon, not a sprint. It can take decades for sun damage you incur as a child to show up on your face, so it won’t be treated overnight either. While some lightening may occur relatively quickly, significant improvement often takes weeks or even months of consistent use of the right products and sun protection. Here are some additional tips for a radiant complexion:

  • Consult a Dermatologist for Complex Concerns: if you have concerns about the type or severity of your hyperpigmentation, or if you're not seeing results with at-home treatments, consulting a dermatologist is always recommended. They can provide a personalised diagnosis and treatment plan to help you achieve your skincare goals.
  • Embrace a Holistic Approach: a healthy lifestyle can also contribute to a radiant complexion. Aim for a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Manage stress levels with practices like yoga or meditation, and get adequate sleep for optimal skin health.
  • Celebrate Your Unique Beauty: while hyperpigmentation can be a concern, it's important to remember that it doesn't define your beauty. Embrace the uniqueness of your skin and focus on enhancing your natural radiance.

With dedication, the right approach, and some patience, you can banish the shadows of hyperpigmentation and unveil a luminous, even-toned complexion. The journey towards a more even complexion shouldn’t be the pursuit of flawlessness, our flaws make us unique and remind us of our body’s inner and outer resilience. Hyperpigmentation may dim your confidence, but it doesn't define your face or the beautiful story it tells.


Hilary is the Co-Founder of the SABI, a Holistic Nutritionist, natural, whole foods Chef, product developer and advocate for women getting to know their bodies, cycles and selves better. Born in Los Angeles, California and raised in Baja California, Mexico, she now lives in Amsterdam, The Netherlands with her partner Kees, a curly-tailed rescue dog, Flint and her rainbow baby, Paloma. 
Created as a brand to help women navigate the toughest moments in pregnancy, childbirth, postpartum — and practically every stage of life –– The SABI aims to change the narrative around our hormones from one of taboo, embarrassment, and loneliness to awareness and pride. As more than a wellness brand, The SABI offers a carefully-crafted line of products to carry you through your hormonal journey, including rituals, supportive tools, and ancient herbal remedies that have been tested time and time again by women and now come backed by medicine. The SABI is a blend of science and nature conceived by women who have experienced the joys and deep struggles of bringing a child into the world, the pains of a heavy, difficult period, miscarriage, and difficulty conceiving.
We offer you an invitation to get to know your body and its cycles better –– an invitation to really understand what is going on inside. Learn to use your hormonal cycle to your advantage no matter your stage of life, and know that you can support and balance your hormone levels. Look for the right sources of information. Know that there is help, and know that you’re supported.
The SABI blog and articles are not meant to instruct or advise on medical or health conditions, but to inform. The information and opinions presented here do not substitute professional medical advice or consultations with healthcare professionals for your unique situation. 
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