Actives that Fade Dark Spots

post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation

So you want to learn how to fade post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH)? 

Before I tell you or you scroll down to jump to the how-to, I think it's best you know why these actives work. The dark spots I'm referencing are due to post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) NOT acne-scarring. (Don't stop reading, chances are yours are PIH, too! But there's enough people who misidentify PIH with acne scarring that it's worth mentioning.) 

PIH may look like a large freckle, a dark discolored spot or area, and sometimes it may even look like new skin.  Acne scars can be recognized for their texture ± discoloration, whereas PIH is more about discoloration. Therefore, PIH is not a true acne scar. For acne sufferers, PIH can follow both severe cysts and relatively minor pimples and papules, but it's due to inflammation not actual scarring of the tissue.

Inflammation is what triggers the skin cell to produce excess melanin or PIH. Inflammation occurs when we irritate the skin which is precisely why we shouldn't go picking, squeezing or popping our pimples; it'll only increase the chances of developing post inflammatory hyperpigmentation.

You: So wait Jadel, are you saying that when I pop my pimples I'm [indirectly] the cause of my dark spots?
Jadel: Yes, yes you are. 

You: But don't you have scars?
Jadel: Yes, I can't stop popping those mountains, either! 

But popping pimples aren't the only cause for PIH. PIH forms when a wound, rash, pimple, or other skin damage causes skin inflammation, which triggers the skin to produce too much melanin. It is very common among acne sufferers, both men and women, and people of color. It can occur in all skin types, although it is more common with darker skin complexions. 

You: Okay, I have identified my spots as PIH and I understand what I can do to prevent them.
You: Can you just tell me what to use to get rid of the ones I already have?!?!
Jadel: Okay, jeez, hold your horses young grasshopper.

skin anatomy and physiology

Let's take a quick look at a representative image of hyperpigmentation.

Hyperpigmentation usually fades as keratinocytes with excess melanin reach the stratum corneum layer and slough off. As old cells slough off the stratum corneum layer of the skin, new cells are produced by the stratum basale layer. The stratum basale layer holds skin stem cells that are responsible for producing new cells and melanocytes that release melanin that protects skin cell's DNA from sun exposure. The key is to balance shedding enough dead skin cells to stimulate new cell growth whilst still maintain enough dead skin cells in the stratum corneum to help aid your skin's ability to retain water.

Hyperpigmentation usually fades as keratinocytes with excess melanin reach the stratum corneum layer and slough off. As old cells slough off the stratum corneum layer of the skin, new cells are produced by the stratum basale layer. The stratum basale layer holds skin stem cells that are responsible for producing new cells and melanocytes that release melanin that protects skin cell's DNA from sun exposure. The key is to balance shedding enough dead skin cells to stimulate new cell growth whilst still maintain enough dead skin cells in the stratum corneum to help aid your skin's ability to retain water.

You: Jadel... So are you saying that I don't have to do anything to get rid of my PIH?
Jadel: Exactly, you don't really have to do anything to get rid of PIH. As your skin sloughs off you'll reveal 'newer' skin that is hyperpigmentation free. Therefore, it usually fades on its own within 2-24 months. Some will fade more than others, but most fade to some degree without you doing anything special. 

You: What if I can't wait that long? 
Jadel: Well you're in luck, there are, at least, four ways to help accelerate the fading of your hyperpigmentation and all of them pretty much involve accelerating your skin's ability to produce new skin cells and slough off old ones:

actives / methods for fading dark spots

exfoliants

Physical. Physical exfoliants accelerate the sloughing off of dead skin cells from the stratum corneum layer of the skin through scrubbing. Some physical exfoliants include facial brushes, charcoal, well-ground nuts or fruit pits, such as walnuts or apricot pits. I prefer using facial brushes since physical exfoliants can be harsh and can cause microtears, leading to more freaking scarring! so be weary of using exfoliants with large particle sizes. Remember, just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s better! (I’ll be posting more about this later).

Chemical. Chemical exfoliants remove the top layers of the skin by weakening the lipids that bond them together, enabling uniform shedding of dull and dead skin cells. There are two classes of chemical exfoliants: Alpha-Hydroxy Acids (AHAs) and Beta-Hydroxy Acids (BHAs). You can find BHAs and AHAs in cleansers, peels, serums, and moisturizers and are most effective in products that stay on the face for more than a few seconds. Chemical exfoliants are not as effective at high pH (optimum pH < 4) and you can usually google the pH of the product. 

1. AHAs are known as fruit acids and are better for dry skin types. The most common AHAs are glycolic, lactic and malic acids. Glycolic acid molecules are pretty small, which increases its ability to penetrate into deeper layers of the stratum corneum faster.

2. BHAs are great for oily/combination skin types. Salicylic acid is the most common BHA used in skincare products. It works by breaking up dead skin accumulated in pores. This also helps aid in fighting against acne, since the build of dead skin in pores can trap dirt and excess oils.

My Two Cents: Look for chemical exfoliants in your serums and overnight treatments. I use AHAs in one of my cleansers for mild exfoliation, but don't expect drastic results from AHAs in your cleanser. Also, note that chemical exfoliants can be drying and taking breaks between is beneficial to maintain your skin's ability to retain moisture (example: use 1-2 times per week). 

antioxidants

Vitamin C acts as a mild chemical exfoliant as well as a brightening agent through suppressing melanin production. Vitamin A, also known as Retinol works to stimulate cell production and mild exfoliation.

Extracts

Two common extracts used in skincare products are Kojic Acid and Licorice Extracts. Kojic acid is usually derived from mushrooms or rice. It works by penetrating the skin and stopping the production of melanin. Licorice is a natural skin lightening agent that also inhibits the production of melanin through inhibiting tyrosinase, an enzyme that causes pigmentation.

To see my night regimen, I posted a video here to show you what I do to fade my dark spots...Please remember, I am not advocating one brand over another. I'm advocating having a system, actives backed-by-science. Don't let the labels distract you, the main message is find products that work for you with these actives, not who the products are made by :) 

"With so many influencers on youtube saying buy this, do that, you could end up hella confused or with a cabinet full of products that worked for them but not for you." 

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