Treatments for Skin Discoloration

Unsightly skin discoloration can occur as a complication from other skin conditions, genetic predisposition, or hormonal imbalance. Regardless of the source, however, a number of skin treatments and beauty regimens exist which can alleviate skin discoloration and prevent its recurrence while supporting the care of many associated conditions. Using skin lightening agents, exfoliates, and chemical peels in combination is the best method for alleviating local skin discoloration, regardless of cause.

Causes of Skin Discoloration
The three most common causes of skin discoloration are post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH), sun damage, and melasma. Individuals with specific skin types or a history of skin damage or inflammatory conditions are at greater risk, but these remain the most typical causes of localized skin discoloration.

PIH typically presents as a consequence of trauma or inflammatory skin conditions. Individuals who experience regular mechanical injury to the skin (such as scratching or abrasion), suffer from chronic acne, or sustain burn injuries, may find that the skin heals with an uneven distribution of melanocytes in the lower layers of the epidermis. These are the specialized cells which produce melanin, the chemical pigment which colors skin, hair, and eyes. The resulting concentration of melanocytes yields uneven skin tone or a localized, “blotchy” appearance.

With age, as well, the body is less able to control the activity or concentration of melanocytes. Concentrations of melanocytes one of the causes of age spots and uneven complexion in older skin care patients.

Hormonal activity can create the same conditions through disruption of the body's control over melanin production. Known as melasma, these irregular patches of pigmentation are caused by an upset or sudden shift in the body's hormonal balance. Pregnancy, birth control pills, or hormone replacement therapy can trigger melasma in sensitive patients, leading to uneven concentrations of melanin and localized skin discoloration.

Finally, sun damage can cause a patient's skin to react by increasing the concentration and activity of melanocytes, darkening the area to better protect against further damage. When this occurs evenly, it's a tan; when the process occurs imperfectly, or the damage is severe, the result can be unsightly and unpleasant discoloration.

Skin Discoloration Risk Factors
While aging, injury, and temporary hormonal imbalance are common experiences, not all people develop localized skin discoloration as a result. The presence of one or more common risk factors can increase the likelihood of melanocyte disruption in the upper layers of the skin.


Patients with one or more of the following risk factors are much more likely to suffer skin discoloration:

  • Fair skin with sun damage
       •    African, Mediterranean, or darker Asian skin tones
       •    Acne-prone skin
       •    Women experiencing hormonal changes
       •    Individuals with skin damage, either mechanical (scrapes, burns, abrasions) or inflammatory (acne, rosacea, or infection)

Individuals meeting any of these conditions should be aware of the need for a regimen of supportive skin care products to prevent the occurrence of discoloration. Should they suffer a mechanical injury, inflammation, or be subject to hormonal fluctuations, awareness of their risk factors will better prepare them to seek early treatment for discoloration, should it occur.

Common Treatments for Skin Discoloration
A treatment regimen for occurrences of skin discoloration will typically involve either exfoliation, topical skin lightening, or chemical peeling. The most successful procedures involve balanced application of all three, to both address underlying conditions and promote the growth of new, healthier skin. As these products and treatments have skin care benefits beyond the specific treatment of discoloration, there's little argument against incorporating all three approaches into a unified skin care regimen.

Exfoliating Agents
New skin cells generate in the dermal layer and are gradually pushed forward, onto the surface of your skin. The process takes approximately thirty days, over which the cells die and become saturated with keratin. In the right balance, these dead, hardened skin cells provide an armored layer to the epidermis. Should too much dead skin accumulate, however, the result can be clogged pores, increased risk of acne, and dry, roughened skin. Exfoliating agents remove some or all of this layer, exposing still-healthy cells and increasing the rate at which your body “turns over” fresh skin cells from the dermal layer.

For individuals suffering from skin discoloration, exfoliation can speed the return of a more even complexion by more rapidly cycling out damaged melanocytes.

Topical Lightening Agents
Skin discoloration by lightening the affect area with topical treatment, such as hydroquinone or tretinoin. These agents don't remove pigment from the skin, as would a “bleaching” treatment, so much as disrupt melanin synthesis; this prevents skin from darkening and gradually lightens the complexion.

Careful use of topical lightening agents can effectively treat localized skin discoloration by gradually reducing the level of available pigment in the area. Care must be taken to apply these agents carefully and in controlled doses, however, should melanin synthesis be temporarily disrupted to the point of hyperpigmentation.

Many Rx formulations of these agents include cortisone. High concentrations of hydroquinone (at or above 4%) can cause irritation, which is mitigated by the addition of cortisone to the preparation.

Chemical Peels
Chemical peeling is a powerful component to treatment regimens for skin discoloration. Not only do chemical peels remove unhealthy, abnormal epidermal layers, but the lactic and glycolic alpha-hydroxy acids (AHA) have been shown to inhibit melanin concentration in a fashion similar to topical skin lightening products. Lower concentrations of AHA chemical peels – between 4% and 15% – will not often be effective on their own, though higher concentrations, administered under supervision, are notably effective.

Results and Conclusion
Perhaps the most compelling argument for the inclusion of chemical peels into a skin care regimen is that they increase the effectiveness of other treatments. While removing the superficial layers of skin and increasing turnover, chemical peels make it easier for lightening agents to penetrate the skin and disrupt melanin synthesis. This addresses the problem rapidly, while stimulating the growth of new, healthy cells and increasing collagen production. The latter doubles as an anti-aging treatment by restoring elasticity to the epidermis, resulting in younger, firmer skin with a more even complexion.