Chemical Peel for Hyperpigmentation
Most of us would love to have the skin we had in our youth. Smooth and firm, we didn’t have to do much to keep it looking healthy. With age, the skin changes, and one of the biggest dermatology concerns I see with my clients is uneven skin tone.
“When you’re dealing with pigmentation issues, chemical peels can help you achieve fresher, more even-looking skin.”
Shani Darden, Esthetician
Hyperpigmentation can make your skin look uneven, which can make even the best of us feel uncomfortable about our appearance. Don’t worry — plenty of solutions are available for addressing these variations in your skin tone, including chemical peels.
I’ll explain what hyperpigmentation is and what chemical peels are available to help you tame your dark spots. I’ll also explain how to work on resurfacing your skin at home.
First, I want you to understand how your skin works so you can fully understand why hyperpigmentation happens.
What Should I Know About Hyperpigmentation?
What I like to tell my clients is that some hyperpigmentation is normal with age. Years of sun exposure will catch up with you and can show up as age spots on the skin. That said, there are several different types of hyperpigmentation and different ways of treating them.
What Is Hyperpigmentation?
Put simply, hyperpigmentation is a collection of melanin. Melanin is what gives your skin its natural color. It’s also a compound used by your skin to protect itself. When your skin is exposed to the sun, for instance, the skin produces extra melanin to prevent the skin from burning immediately.
Obviously, it’s not enough protection because your skin can burn when exposed to sunlight without sunscreen and sun exposure has cumulative effects over a lifetime.
When melanin is produced excessively by the skin, it can collect in clusters that create dark, flat spots that affect the evenness of your skin tone. Melanin is also responsible for darker spots like freckles or age spots.
What Contributes to Hyperpigmentation?
Factors like age and sun exposure can contribute to the appearance of dark spots. Two of the most important proteins that make up your skin are collagen and elastin:
- Collagen is a protein that plumps the skin, keeps it firm, and prevents fine lines and wrinkles.
- Elastin. Elastin affects the way the skin behaves when it’s stretched. Elastin helps skin stretch and move and snap back into place.
After the age of 20, a person begins losing collagen at a rate of about 1% per year. Elastin loss is similar. Over time, this can make your skin look hollow and can eventually lead to wrinkles and loss of elasticity (aka sagging). This loss of collagen may also contribute to or exacerbate the look of dark spots on your face.
Your skin cell turnover rate is also key when it comes to dark spots. The skin is constantly renewing itself, creating new skin cells deep inside the epidermis and pushing older skin cells to the surface. New skin is important because it replaces damaged skin, resists early signs of aging, and looks radiant.
Cell turnover rates begin to decline with age. It takes about 45-50 days for your skin to renew itself after age 30, compared to just three weeks in younger people. When skin cell renewal rates slow down, your skin doesn’t heal as fast, and stubborn areas of darker pigmentation may take longer to fade.
What Are the Different Types of Hyperpigmentation?
There are three different types of hyperpigmentation. I’ll explain each and discuss the chemical peels that are typically effective for each type.
Sometimes also called a “pregnancy mask,” these areas of pigmentation can appear on your skin in individual spots or large patches, usually on the cheeks and chest. This condition is also known as melasma, which can result from pregnancy-related hormonal changes or sun exposure.
Hormonal changes during pregnancy and even certain stages of the menstrual cycle can cause melanin in your skin to act differently, producing these spots and patches. Taking hormonal birth control can also trigger hyperpigmentation.
If you have dark skin, you’re more likely to get hormonal dark spots than someone with really fair skin because you naturally have more melanin in your skin.
Hormonal hyperpigmentation will usually fade on its own after the hormonal shift is over (like after you stop taking birth control or once you have a baby). If not, a chemical peel may help.
Sun-damaged skin is skin that has lost its elasticity prematurely and has visible signs of sun damage, like sun spots.
Even if you currently wear sunscreen with a high SPF, sun damage from your childhood can appear on your skin in adulthood. This is why one of the best skincare habits you can pass on to your children is to always include a moisturizing sunscreen in their skincare routine. One of my go-to sunscreens is Play Everyday Lotion SPF50 by Supergoop.
The last type of hyperpigmentation I want to cover is breakout-related hyperpigmentation. This is most often associated with acne scars and blemishes. These hyperpigmented acne scars can affect both your skin tone and texture by leaving divots or pocks on the surface of your skin.
This type of hyperpigmentation is the result of an injury to the skin. If you get breakouts and tend to pick at them, you might notice that there are small dots of discoloration left behind. That’s a type of post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.
Skin discoloration is also common from trauma like cuts, wounds, or infections. You may also end up with hyperpigmentation if you’ve had certain types of skin procedures, like a mole removal.
How Can Chemical Peels Benefit Hyperpigmentation?
If you’ve never had one, the term “chemical peel” can sound a little aggressive. I like to talk about peels in terms of the chemicals (or acids) that are used. Most of these acids are naturally occurring and range from light to deep.
Peels use ingredients that remove layers of skin. When the skin regrows afterward, it is typically smoother, healthier-looking, and more radiant.
Peels work well for skin concerns like:
- Signs of aging. Removing layers of skin can reveal younger, more youthful-looking skin.
- Scars. A scar can affect the tone and texture of your skin. By removing damaged skin, you can reveal healthier-looking skin.
- Discoloration. The top layers of skin that are discolored can be removed with a peel, revealing a more even skin tone.
The type of peel you’ll want depends on the type of hyperpigmentation you have and how quickly you want to see results.
The least invasive chemical peel available is categorized as a light peel. These are superficial peels that only remove the uppermost layer of your skin (the epidermis). This layer of skin is usually made up of dead skin cells that need to be exfoliated from the surface of the skin.
Acids that are commonly used for this type of peel include glycolic acid, salicylic acid, lactic acid, malic acid, and mandelic acid. You can also find some of these same acids in topical products for use at home.
Light peels are usually effective, have fewer side effects than deeper peels, and require less downtime. To get the smoother, more even skin texture and tone you want, you may need to repeat these peels on a regular basis until you achieve your desired results. In fact, many of my clients get light peels once or twice a month to keep their skin looking fresh.
Another type of chemical peel you can get is a medium peel. These peels remove the epidermis and a portion of the dermis, which makes them extremely effective in producing fast and noticeable results.
Glycolic acid peels can also be used for medium peels, with a higher level of glycolic acid reaching deeper into the skin. Other acids that are commonly used in medium-depth peels are trichloroacetic acid (TCA peels) and Jessner’s solution, which is a combination of several different acids.
Medium peels are more invasive and require more downtime. Your skin will be red (or brown if you have darker skin), and it’s going to peel for about a week. I always tell my clients this isn’t the time to plan a vacation or special event, and it’s a good idea to lay low if at all possible. You want to avoid the sun, and make sure you focus on hydration to facilitate healthy new skin growth.
A deep peel is sometimes used for scars and deep hyperpigmentation issues.
Normally, regular light peels or a series of medium peels can help fade the skin concerns you have, and they’re more convenient options because you don’t have to be sidelined from life during the process.
Deep peels are different. Using a higher concentration of trichloroacetic acid or carbolic acid (phenol), these types of chemical peels are usually reserved for deep scars and more significant skin rejuvenation. Because deep peels are so intense, you can only have one in your lifetime. While this treatment attracts lots of buzz, we don’t suggest trying it due to its intensity.
How Can I Fade Dark Spots at Home?
You don’t have to have a peel to help fade the appearance of dark spots and achieve a smooth tone. There are ingredients you can use at home to help fade these areas over time.
The Triple Acid Signature Peel
Fading dark spots is easier than ever with my Triple Acid Signature Peel, which is carefully formulated with glycolic acid, bentonite clay, and more to help you get smoother skin and refined pores. This peel also features another key ingredient that works great for helping fade the appearance of dark spots and restoring an even skin tone: lactic acid.
Not only can lactic acid help address uneven tone through gentle exfoliation, but it’s also well-known for helping to restore a natural glow to dull or aging skin. Lactic acid provides a chemical exfoliation by breaking the bonds between dead skin cells and living skin cells on the surface of the skin so that you can gently remove them.
I love using retinol in my skincare routine because it’s scientifically proven to be powerful and effective at supporting an even skin tone. It has so many beneficial properties for your skin, like:
- Supporting proper skin cell turnover
- Softening the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles
- Improving the look and feel of your skin’s texture and tone
Some skin types can be sensitive to retinol, so it's important to use a formula that is safe for sensitive skin, like my Retinol Reform.
One of nature’s most powerful antioxidants, vitamin C can also work as a skin brightener. I like to double down on dark spots by using ingredients to fade their appearance while simultaneously using ingredients that can naturally brighten the skin and keep it looking healthy.
Can You Prevent Pigmentation Issues?
This isn’t really a yes or no answer. A lot of the pigmentation issues we see now are the result of sun exposure or skin conditions we experienced as children. You can take steps to prevent as much further damage as possible by:
- Wearing a sunscreen or tinted moisturizer with an SPF of 30 or above every day
- Taking care of your skin and using products to help balance your microbiome to avoid breakouts
- Using products with antioxidants
- Never popping your blemishes
Even then, you’re still going to end up with spots sometimes. When that happens, get the ingredients that work or treat yourself to a chemical peel. The health and beauty of your skin is worth it.
Healthy, Radiant Skin
Hyperpigmentation is very normal and very common. Not only can it change the way your skin looks, but it can also cause you stress.
Take care of your dark spots with chemical peels and ingredients that can help reduce the appearance of skin discoloration at home.
Why does skin wrinkle with age? What is the best way to slow or prevent this process? | Scientific American
Light Chemical Peel | American Society of Plastic Surgeons
Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatments | PMC