8 Must-Know Rules For Healing Melasma and Hyperpigmentation

The following is a guest post from Sara Sumic

A while ago, I met one of my best friends for coffee. Right when I saw her, I noticed a big hyper-pigmentation patch on her forehead.

Before I could even ask: "Have you recently had any peels or other treatments done?", she said: "I had a chemical peel, and this is what happened!"

You might think that she didn't wear a sunscreen afterwards. She did!

The truth is, sunscreen alone cannot protect your skin enough to prevent hyper pigmentation at times like that. Take it from someone who has spent more than half of her life in one of the sunniest places in Europe!

Luckily, I am still without visible sun damage, and today I am sharing with you all of my tips to ensure your skin stays spotless, too!

What exactly is hyper pigmentation/melasma?

Hyper pigmentation occurs due to overproduction of pigment melanin in the skin. Melanin gives your skin color, also protecting it from damaging UV rays.

Get access to my entire melasma-healing skincare routine below:

There are several types of hyper pigmentation:

  • Sunspots/sun damage — These are very common, and they develop on parts of the skin that are exposed to sun the most, such as the face, chest, neck and hands. Freckles are also one type of sunspots.

  • Melasma — This is a skin discoloration that turns patches of skin light-to-medium brown. Melasma is caused by changes in hormones and tends to occur during pregnancy, when taking birth control pills, or during times of hormonal imbalance. It increases with sun exposure.

  • Post-Inflammatory Hyper pigmentation (PIH) — You are perhaps most likely to have experienced PIH, especially if you struggle with acne or have naturally darker skin tone.

This kind of spotting or discoloration is due to inflammation caused by damage or trauma to the skin, including:

  • acne

  • cosmetic procedures – lasers, IPL, microdermabrasion

  • chemical peels

  • chemical exfoliants – AHA’s and other acids

  • overuse of certain ingredients (e.g. benzoyl peroxide)

  • mechanical trauma – a wound that leads to a scar or discoloration

  • anything that causes excessive irritation

Funnily enough, some of the treatments above are very effective for reducing existing hyper pigmentation, but can cause new one if you are not careful with sun exposure!

So why would "trauma" or irritation to the skin cause those annoying hyperpigmentation marks?

The answer is inflammation - whether it is visible to you or not.

Inflammation is tightly linked to hyper pigmentation

All types of hyperpigmentation are caused or worsened by inflammation. The most common cause of hyperpigmentation (sun spots) is actually a post-inflammatory response to UV damage to the skin (Gilchrest et al., 1998; Abdel-Malek and Kadekaro, 2006).

Even when there is no visible redness (erythema) due to too much sun, such skin has elevated inflammatory cell content, resulting in an inflammatory process.

Inflammation can result in hyper pigmentation through several mechanisms:

- via direct stimulation of melanocytes (melanin-producing cells) by inflammatory cytokines such as IL-1-α (this one is also involved in acne formation!)

- Reactive oxygen species, such as superoxide and nitric oxide, generated in damaged skin (for example, from UV exposure) or released from inflammatory cells can also stimulate melanocytes to produce excess melanin

- damage to epidermal cells (acne, scratches, cuts, etc) can lead to a release of endocrine inducers of pigmentation, such as α-melanocyte-stimulating hormone. When melanocytes are stimulated, they will produce extra melanin.

So why does your skin tries to produce all this excess melanin after inflammatory incidents?

It's because melanin provides protection against UV-induced damage by scattering UV rays and acting as an antioxidant. Your skin is just trying to protect itself from any subsequent insults!

This leads me to the my point: we need to eliminate all sources of irritation and inflammation to truly protect our skin from hyper pigmentation. Especially in the summertime, when the sun is unforgiving!

 Don’t just rely on your sunscreen to prevent hyper pigmentation. You also need to reduce or eliminate sources of irritation and inflammation.

Golden rules to prevent hyper pigmentation

1. No exfoliation in the morning

Exfoliating removes a layer of dead skin cells from the surface of your skin, leaving your skin instantly brighter. Sounds harmless, right?

Not when done in the morning!

Dead skin cells, together with a lipid matrix that surrounds them, make up skin barrier. Skin barrier looks and acts like a brick wall - the cells are bricks and lipids are the mortar that holds these cells together. This amazing structure protects the living skin cells beneath, locks the moisture into your skin, and so much more.

Without a robust skin barrier, your skin is much more exposed to the harsh environment, pollution, toxins, pathogens, oxidative damage and inflammation.

So, no acids, no retinols, no scrubs, no enzyme masks, and other exfoliating products in the morning. Leave those treatments for evenings only, and when you know you won't be exposed to a lot of sun the following day!

2. No aggressive professional treatments (peels, lasers, dermapen, etc) at all

Professional treatments, including chemical peels and dermapen, can be awesome, but they also make your skin sensitive to the sun, and not just on the day you do it. Even if you were to apply enough sunscreen, and frequently enough (every 2 hours), your skin still isn't as protected as it should be.

Simply reserve these treatments for months with less sun, especially if you are prone to hyper pigmentation!

3. Avoid artificial fragrances

Certain chemicals can trigger melanocytes to produce excess melanin, and artificial fragrance is a big one! Sadly, it is not found just in perfumes, but also moisturizers, serums and toners! Check all your skincare for fragrances and and find safe alternatives.

4. No citrus oils in daylight

Certain substances found in citrus oils are phototoxic, causing damage to the skin when exposed to the sun.

Phototoxic skin damage, or even burns, can show up anywhere from 1-24 hours after UV exposure (including tanning beds). Sadly, the resulting discoloration can last for months!

One of the substances causing such reaction in citrus oils is bergaptene. Also, fresh lemon or lime juice are phototoxic due to substances they contain - furocoumarins. Lemon juice also contains some other potentially irritating substances, such as limonene and citral.

Vitamin C serums and various oil-based serums sometimes contain citrus essential oils. These include:

  • Angelica

  • Bergamot

  • Grapefruit

  • Lemon

  • Lemon verbena

  • Lime

  • Orange

  • Wild Orange

  • Mandarin

  • Tangerine

By some claims, lavender essential oil is also phototoxic. Check all your skincare products for these ingredients, and avoid applying them in the morning.

5. Use antioxidants to reduce oxidative damage and inflammation

Combination of topical antioxidants together with a sunscreen showed a better protection against the sun radiation (Photochem Photobiol. 2015 Jan-Feb;91[1]:248-50).

Those same authors published a article (Photodermatol Photoimmunol Photomed. 2014;30:167-74) suggesting that another antioxidant mixture (ferulic acid, vitamin E, and vitamin C) was similarly effective.

Get access to my entire melasma-healing skincare routine below:

Why are antioxidants helpful? Because UV radiation leads to oxidative damage and inflammation, and the role of antioxidants is to stop oxidative damage from happening.

Oxidative damage (can be reduced by antioxidants) -> inflammation -> hyperpigmentation!

Layer your antioxidant-rich serum under a sunscreen every day for best protection.

6. Use only gentle skincare that respects the skin’s pH and skin barrier integrity

Skin's optimal pH (4.5-5.5) is absolutely essential for protecting against the negative external influences.

It helps your skin ward off infections, stay optimally moisturized, and it even helps the skin's natural exfoliation process, called desquamation. This not only keeps your skin healthy and smooth naturally, but it also minimizes the chances of hyper pigmentation!

7. Load up on omega-3s for extra photo protection

Omega-3s are one of those miracle substances that provide an added layer of photoprotection - from the inside!

The three main types of omega-3 fatty acids are α-Linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

EPA can reduce the collagen damage associated with photoaging, slowing down skin aging.

Omega-3s may also be able to speed up wound healing (a.k.a. after picking your skin and healing the acne scars, which often leave hyperpigmentation marks).

Eating sustainably caught fatty fish, like sardines or salmon, can help keep your skin moisturized and hyperpigmentation-free. In case of taking a supplement, make sure that it also contains EPA and DHA, not just ALA.

8. Wear a hat and a well-formulated non-toxic mineral sunscreen

This is the part where I tell you that the type of sunscreen you use is of crucial importance for preventing hyperpigmentation!

It has been shown that people with hyperpigmentation disorders are susceptible to longer wavelengths that "chemical" sunscreens don't protect from, according to Dr. Arellano-Mendoza.

Longer wavelengths, including infrared light and visible light, are shown to increase expression of matrix metalloproteinase (MMP) -1 and -9, which triggers melanocytes to produce excess melanin.

Mineral-based sunscreens, however – like those with titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, and iron oxide – scatter all wavelengths and also absorb UV radiation!

A 2015 study showed that a sunscreen with iron oxides prevented melasma relapse during the summer months. Patients were randomized to the same ultraviolet filter topical sunscreen, but for one group, micronized iron oxide was added to it. After 6 months, the melasma severity was significantly improved in the group using the iron oxide compound (J Am Acad Dermatol. 2015 Jan;72[1]:189-90.e1).

This is the sunscreen I recommend! (And it's ocean-safe!)

Finally, I can offer a piece of advice from personal experience.

Avoid sun when it's the strongest, between 10am - 16pm, and always wear a hat. If you feel your skin burning, don't just apply more sunscreen! Cover your skin with clothes that reflect the UV rays, or find some shade.

Respect your skin and the signals it gives you. When it’s time to get out of the sun, get out of the sun!

Get access to my entire melasma-healing skincare routine below:


Sara Sumic, MSc, is a molecular biologist, mom, and a Croatian gal living in Norway. She is an advocate of gentle natural skincare that helps to establish the skin’s optimal pH, healthy microbiome and a strong skin barrier. Being a former acne sufferer of many years, she started Healthy Skin Glows to share science-based skincare tips and help women heal their skin from the inside out.