What to do about pigmentation
Pigmentation is the coloring of the skin. Melanin is a type of pigment in the skin. The skin cells create melanin to protect from damage that UV light causes.
People have different levels of melanin in their skin, which accounts for their skin's overall color. However, the skin may create too much melanin in a specific area, causing the skin to darken. This is hyperpigmentation.
Hyperpigmentation tends only to affect patches of skin, though in some cases it may affect the whole body.
Home remedies may not work in every case, and there are also times when an individual should see a doctor for a full diagnosis and medical treatment.
Types of pigmentation
Age spots may appear on skin frequently exposed to the sun.
Image credit: Beyond My Ken, 2018
Common forms of hyperpigmentation include what people often call age spots, which typically occur on areas of the body with frequent exposure to the sun.
Many forms of hyperpigmentation are harmless and are nothing more than overproduction of melanin.
However, in some cases, hyperpigmentation may be a sign of an underlying condition.
These conditions can include the following:
- direct trauma from an accident or skin condition
- hormonal imbalances
- insulin resistance
- issues with the endocrine system, which produces hormones
- hormonal changes due to pregnancy
- cancer and cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy drugs
In all cases, hyperpigmentation itself is not an issue and does not pose any risk to the body. However, an underlying condition may require proper treatment.
Home remedies for pigmentation
In many cases, hyperpigmentation may respond well to simple home remedies.
Home remedies aim to either replenish and protect the cells or replace hyperpigmented cells with fresh, new cells.
Most home remedies involve acids and antioxidants in certain household products, which may protect and balance the skin.
- lactic acid
- citric acid
- glycolic acid
- salicylic acid
Household products do not expose the skin to as much of these acids as a chemical peel in the dermatologist's office. However, they may still have mild effects and help improve the appearance of hyperpigmentation.
Apple cider vinegar
Apple cider vinegar contains polyphenols, which may protect skin cells.
Many people use apple cider vinegar on the skin to try and lighten unwanted pigmentation. Apple cider vinegar contains acetic acid, which may act as a mild chemical peel in some cases.
As a study in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine notes, apple cider vinegar also contains polyphenols. These act as antioxidants and may protect skin cells.
However, there is little direct evidence about the use of apple cider vinegar for hyperpigmentation. Some people may find it helpful, but they must be sure to use the product correctly.
To use this remedy, apply 1 part apple cider vinegar and 1 part water to the pigmented area for a few minutes, twice daily. Rinse the area thoroughly afterward. Keep an eye out for any signs of irritation, and stop using the vinegar if irritation appears in the area.
Yogurt or milk
Yogurt and milk both contain lactic acid, which is a common ingredient in chemical peels for the skin. The small quantities in these foods may help with mild hyperpigmentation as well.
Applying yogurt or milk directly to the pigmented area or soaking a cotton ball in milk and applying it to the area may both be helpful home remedies.
People should let the yogurt or milk sit for a few minutes, and then rinse the area thoroughly and apply moisturizer. Repeating this process two times a day may help some people improve their skin spots.
Green tea and its main active ingredient, epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG), may help alter pigmentation of the skin in some cases.
As a review in the Journal of Cutaneous and Aesthetic Surgery notes, EGCG is an antioxidant compound that could help block the processes in cells that lead to over pigmentation. The green tea leaves themselves also contain gallic acid and ellagic acid, which may help improve skin.
However, the authors note that more research in people is necessary to support these theories.
For people who want to use this remedy, taking an oral EGCG supplement or applying a wet green tea bag to the pigmented area for a few minutes each day may help.
The review in the Journal of Cutaneous and Aesthetic Surgery highlights potential home remedies for hyperpigmentation, including vitamin C. In forms such as ascorbic acid or citric acid, vitamin C may help alter the appearance of the skin.
However, the review also notes that the varying levels of vitamin C in foods make it very difficult to quantify its effects. However, the researchers also observed that vitamin C has virtually no side effects and that combining it with other options may increase its effectiveness.
Applying accessible sources of vitamin C, such as grapefruit, lemon, or papaya, to the skin may help increase the antioxidants on the surface and lighten the cells over time.
People can use these sources along with other home remedies for pigmentation to achieve better results. It is worth noting that vitamin C does not penetrate the skin very well, however.
Red onions, or Allium cepa, may also be a helpful skin whitening agent for some people.
A 2011 study in the journal Natural Product Research notes that isolates from red onion blocked the cell actions that lead to excess pigmentation.
Importantly, researchers were looking at isolated compounds, rather than the onion itself. More research in humans is necessary to see if onion itself is effective, but many people still use the onion as a home remedy for pigmentation.
A simple way to use red onion is by grinding the onion up and adding it to an empty tea bag. Apply the bag to the area of hyperpigmentation, using medical tape to hold it on the skin if necessary.
Applying aloe vera gel directly to the pigmented skin may also be a good way to reduce pigmentation over time.
A study in the journal Planta Medica, which involved tadpole cells, notes that aloe vera's active ingredient, called aloesin or aloin, could help reduce pigmentation of the skin.
While more studies on human skin might help give better support to these results, the initial evidence in animal models looks promising.
Licorice extract may also help reduce pigmentation naturally.
The review in the Journal of Cutaneous and Aesthetic Surgery notes that glabridin, which is the main active ingredient in licorice, protects the skin from pigmentation due to UVB rays. Again, the authors call for more human studies to prove this action.
Many topical creams containing licorice or its extract may be available over the counter and will have their own directions for use.
Mulberry leaves and their extracts may also be natural treatments for pigmentation.
As a review in the The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology notes, the active ingredient in mulberry leaf blocks factors that cause pigmentation and disperses melanin.
Research around the plant uses highly purified forms of the extract. However, soaking dried mulberry leaves and applying them to the skin each day may also expose the body to smaller amounts of these same ingredients, which might provide mild results over time.
When to see a doctor
A person may want to speak to a doctor if hyperpigmentation does not respond to home remedies.
If hyperpigmentation does not respond to these home remedies, people may wish to see a doctor for a full diagnosis and treatment.
Treatment will depend on the underlying medical cause if any. Doctors can refer the person to a dermatologist who may perform treatments, including:
- laser resurfacing
- chemical peels
These processes help resurface the skin and replace the damaged cells, which may reduce hyperpigmentation.
Most of the time, hyperpigmentation is a cosmetic issue that does not pose any real threat to health, other than perhaps feeling unsightly to the individual.
Several home remedies or therapies may help reduce the signs of hyperpigmentation in the skin. However, there is not a lot of research in humans, studying the effects of many of these products.
If home remedies for pigmentation do not work, people can consult a doctor to discuss medical options. Anyone with concerns about their skin issues or who suspects there is an underlying problem should also make an appointment to be sure.
A full diagnosis and necessary medical treatment may help set the mind at ease and avoid complications.
Some of the home remedies listed in this article are available for purchase online.