Freckles may look cute when you’re young, but for an adult, hyperpigmentation issues and uneven skin tone are key markers of age. Dr. Frances Jang, a dermatologist based in Vancouver, cites a 2006 study in which people of different ages with varying degrees of pigmentation were graded in terms of attractiveness. “The more pigmentation and redness they had, the older and less attractive and healthy the person was perceived to be,” she says.
Whenever we go outside, cells create melanin to protect our skin from UV rays — it’s the overproduction of melanin that causes spots. Aging and hormonal changes can also result in discoloration. “Pigment stimulation simply becomes more erratic as time goes on,” says Jang. The cells that produce pigment and spread it to surrounding skin cells are called melanocytes. These cells contain enzymes (including tyrosinase) that are needed to produce melanin. The key to solving pigmentation issues is to decrease the excessive metabolism of melanin, explains Dr. Sandy Skotnicki, an associate professor of dermatology at the University of Toronto and owner and director of Bay Dermatology Centre in Toronto. “Many skin-lightening products decrease the melanin in the skin by blocking tyrosinase activity,” she says. While some creams are labelled “whitening,” these over-the-counter products are relatively mild and won’t bleach the skin. “They don’t actually whiten,” says Dr. Daniel Maes, senior vice-president of research and development worldwide for Estée Lauder Companies. “They reduce abnormal pigmentation to make skin colour more even.”
skin-bleaching agent hydroquinone was once the ingredient of choice for combatting dark spots. (Even though it can cause an allergic reaction in some people, dermatologists still prescribe it because of its tyrosinase-blocking abilities.) But there are more over-the-counter products being formulated to combat spots
without irritating skin. The latest combine ingredients that decrease melanin and remove pigment. The ChromaWhite TRx line from Dermalogica uses botanical extracts to combat uneven skin tone. Its star ingredient is oligopeptide34, a peptide that inhibits melanin transfer to skin cells. To brighten the skin, ingredients like lactic acid and pumpkin fruit ferment help slough away dead skin cells and stimulate cell turnover. “When you exfoliate, you remove pigment,” says Holly Sherrard, education manager for Dermalogica Canada and the International Dermal Institute.
Plant extracts have always played a lead role in Shu Uemura’s skin care. Its new White Recovery Ex line combines prune and sakura leaf extracts to block the synthesis of pigment and exfoliating agents to even out skin tone.
View some skin brightening products here!
Recognizing that some spots are deeper than others,
Estée Lauder developed Cyber WhiteExtra Concentrated Brightening Essence to target varying degrees of pigmentation. “You have to treat the skin when you observe light discoloration, before it becomes a stubborn age spot,” says Maes. The first line of defence is turmeric extract, an antihistamine that calms the skin. “One of the key factors that activates the production of melanin is inflammation,” explains Maes. “And inflammation leads to discoloration.” Glucosamine, a sugar derivative, helps slough off dead cells to diminish surface spots, while yeast bio-fermentation targets deeper age spots by breaking apart melanin clusters. Maes doesn’t promise complete elimination of spots — only lasers can do that — but he says that using these products regularly can make abnormal pigmentation up to 50 percent less visible. Keep in mind that these products aren’t “wonder drugs,” says Rivers, but they may be an option for those who can’t afford or don’t want to undergo laser treatments or peels. (Laser treatments have proven to be quite effective in getting rid of sun spots, but treatments can take months and cost up to $2,000.)
Regardless of your plan of attack, a certain amount of commitment is required for long-lasting results. If you stop using the products and go into the sun without protection, the pigmentation will come back.
View some skin brightening products here!
Get glowing skin at any age
Test the latest celebrity hair and makeup trends with our Virtual
For the latest in fashion, beauty and culture, sign up to receive ELLE's daily newsletter.