Complete Guide to Brown Spots
Have you ever gotten a pesky breakout only to have it heal and leave behind a brown spot? Or have you ever burned yourself on a frying pan and several weeks later found a brown line in place of the burn? If you’ve experienced either, you’ve suffered from hyperpigmentation. However, there are steps you can take to diminish the appearance of these marks. From identifying different types of discoloration, to treating brown spots with skin care products, to treating brown spots at the dermatologist, and identifying those conditions often confused with brown spots, we've got you covered (or uncovered when it comes to brown spots).
Different Types of Discoloration
Hyperpigmentation is any discrete or blotchy brown discoloration and is most often caused by an injury to the skin. When the skin is injured, whether by the sun or from an acne breakout, it reacts by creating extra brown melanin pigment. For example, when you sit out in the sun without sunscreen for too long, you may get a tan regardless of whether you developed a sun burn – or even get sunspots after repeated sun exposues.
Age Spots, Sun Spots, Liver Spots
You may have heard people talk about developing age spots, sun spots and liver spots as they age. What’s the difference? There is none. As people age and thereby have had the opportunity to spend more time in the sun, many develop age spots due to prolonged and repeated unprotected sun exposure, so both age spots and sun spots are an accurate name for them. These dark marks were dubbed liver spots from the misconception that they were a manifestation of liver disease. In reality, these spots have absolutely nothing to do with the condition of your liver.
Brown Spots from Acne
Those who suffer from acne may not just be suffering from active breakouts. Many people have a leftover hyperpigmented mark on their face weeks or even months after the breakout has healed. Since acne is an injury to the skin, hyperpigmentation often occurs as a result. This is why it is important not to pick at or pop active breakouts as that is more likely to result in hyperpigmention. Those who are prone to acne breakouts should add an oil-free exfoliant, such as the BeautyRx Essential 8% Exfoliating Serum, to their nightly routine. Not only will this help reduce your breakouts, but it will also lighten any hyperpigmentation marks already on the skin.
Brown Spots from Bug Bites
Another common injury to the skin that often results in hyperpigmentation is bug bites, such as mosquito bites. Like acne, even after these bites have cleared up, the dark spot can remain. Also similar to acne, it is important not to scratch the bite which then increases both the injury to the skin and the resulting localized hyperpigmentation. If you do have the urge to scratch, use a menthol-based product to relieve the itching and and thereby avoid the need to scratch.
Dark Patches After Burns
Not all brown spots are small, round spots. For example, if you burn yourself, you may see a darker pigmented mark in the shape of your burn after your burn heals. If you do burn yourself, be sure to treat the burn, with skim milk and water compresses and an antibiotic ointment. If it still results in a dark patch after it heals, use a bleaching product in combination with a glycolic exfoliant to lighten the dark discoloration. If the burn occurred on your body, you may need to use a stronger exfoliant since the skin is thicker than on your face. The BeautyRx Daily Exfoliating Body Lotion is a great option for thicker body skin.
Hormonal Hyperpigmentation: Melasma & Chloasma
Hormonal induced hyperpigmentation is another cause of dark discolorations on the skin . Many women, who either recently started birth control pills or who are pregnant, will experience Melasma, also called Chloasma, a blotchy pattern of hyperpigmentation causing patches of brown discoloration on the forehead, the cheeks, and often above the top lip. Since the pattern almost looks like a mask, it is often referred to as the “mask of pregnancy." Since the pigment forming cells (melanocytes) in melasma are very sensitive to the injury induced by UV (ultraviolet) stimulation, it is critically important that you are diligent with your sun protection. Use a chemical-free sunscreen, since chem-free sunscreens reflect the sun’s rays rather than absorbing them, as do traditional carbon-based sunscreens. When (traditional) sunscreens protect the skin by absorbing the UV light, they convert the damaging UV energy into heat, which can activate the ultra sensitive pigment cells resulting in the production of more brown melanin pigment causing further discoloration.
Brown Discoloration from Thickened Skin
When the skin is rubbed repeatedly it often develops hyperpigmentation. This is particularly common under the arms and on the upper inner thighs where skin rubs against skin in people who are overweight, even as little as five to ten extra pounds, depending on the shape of your body and thereby whether the skin rubs against the opposing skin. Here the cause of the discoloration is both injury to the skin from repeated mild rubbing and the obligatory thickening of the skin that occurs whenever skin is repeatedly rubbed (you are probably familiar with calluses which are thickenings strictly from rubbing). Since the rubbed skin makes more brown pigment, and the thickened skin contains more layers of skin cells with brown pigment, it’s a double whammy with two causes of hyperpigmentation. Treatment here requires a bleach to reduce melanin production and a glycolic exfoliant to remove the extra layers of melanin filled cells.
Treating Brown Spots with Skin Care Products
Three things need to happen when treating your brown discoloration: you have to tell your body to stop producing the excess brown pigment, you have to remove the excess brown pigment that is already on and in your facial or body skin and you have to protect your skin from any additional damage that can cause hyperpigmentation. That is why it takes a combination of products to treat brown discolorations. To treat most types of hyperpigmentation there are three products that should be used together, (1) a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15-30, (2) an exfoliant, preferably with glycolic acid, and (3) a skin lightener, also called a bleach. Used in conjunction, these three products should effectively lighten your brown spots in only a few months, or less.
Protecting Your Skin Against Further Damage
Perhaps the most important step when treating brown discoloration is protecting your skin from additional hyperpigmentation. The sun’s UV can both darken the spots you already have and cause new ones faster than you can treat them. So if you don’t protect against new hyperpigmentation, following the following two steps to treat the brown discoloration you already have is destined to be a losing battle. As a result, for hyperpigmentation alone, diligent sunscreen use 365 days a year is critically important. Use sunscreen, such as the BeautyRx Maximum Solar Defense Sheer Cream SPF 50, daily.
Remove Your Brown Spots
Use an exfoliant to help lighten the pigment you already do have. Exfoliants such as the BeautyRx Advanced Exfoliating Therapy Pads gently and invisibly remove the top dead layers of skin, containing much of the excess brown pigment causing the problem. While exfoliating these layers will remove much of the trapped excess pigment and therefore lighten the spots, there is one additional product that you need to use for the best results: a bleach.
Lighten Your Brown Spots
Use a skin lightener or skin bleach to signal the skin to stop producing excess pigment and “turn off” the over active pigment-forming cells. So while the exfoliant rids your skin of the dark pigment you already have, the skin lightener ensures that you don’t produce more. One of the most common ingredients used in these types of products is hydroquinone. While this ingredient is safe in small doses, if applied beyond just the affected areas, it can lighten even normal colored skin, giving the area around your dark spots an unnaturally light-looking “halo” effect. This is particularly apparent in people who have darker skin tones. Instead, look for products that feature “smart peptides,” which lighten only darkened areas even if applied outside of those areas. One example of these types of products is the BeautyRx Brightening Complex.
Other Ingredients to Be Aware of When Treating Hyperpigmentation
In addition to skin lighteners such as hydroquinone and “smart” peptides, there are many natural ingredients that help lighten these spots. Kojic acid, which is derived from a special fungus, works very effectively when combined with your glycolic acid treatment to lighten brown spots. Licorice extract from the glycyrrhiza glabra plant is also an ingredient to look for when scanning the ingredient lists of products. Additionally, Vitamin C works double-duty, not only protecting your skin from dangerous free-radical energy, but also helping to heal those dark spots. For more information on how these products work and examples of products that contain them, see the DermTV episode, “Natural Ingredients for Hyperpigmentation."
Treating Brown Spots at The Dermatologist
Effective at-home treatments for brown spots will meaningfully fade their appearance or even eliminate them. Pursuing an at-home course of treatment is also less expensive than visiting the dermatologist. The only downside is that in-office treatment can be almost instantaneous and can eliminate even those brown spots that can't be eliminated at-home. So if you've tried at-home treatments to no avail, it's time to make a trip to the dermatologist.
Laser Treatments for Dark Spots
There are many different laser treatments that can eradicate brown spots. These laser treatments leave a purple “black and blue” discoloration for 7 -14 days, but they usually the brown spots on the first treatment. With laser treatments there are no needles, cutting or pain necessary to remove your spots. While these treatments don’t prevent you from developing the new brown spots you would have developed later on if you hadn’t removed your current spots, it does quickly treat and remove the ones you already have. If you’re concerned about the visual downtime of having purple discoloration, you can opt to use a non laser medical device called IPL, intense pulse light. While this device does not cause purple discoloration, it can take up to 3-4 treatments to fully treat your brown spots.
Chemical Peels for Dark Spots
Another benefit of seeing your dermatologist for dark spot removal is they can perform “no downtime” chemical peels stronger than your at-home products. Since dermatologists use high-strength acids, such as 40% glycolic acid, the peels can remove brown spots more effectively than at-home products that contain a lower percentage of acid. Since there are many different types of acids, as well as strengths of acid, speak to your dermatologist about what is best for your specific concerns. These treatments usually involve no visual “downtime.” You can also visit our Peel Bar locations for a professional peel without the wait or cost of a doctor's visit.
Often Confused for Brown Spots
There are some types of brown spots and other discolorations, such as reds, that are often confused for the types of brown spots already discussed in this guide. They require different forms of treatment.
Freckles tend to range in color from tan to brown and generally appear in childhood in very fair skinned people. They are similar to the brown spots we’ve discussed thus far except that while it’s not dangerous to try to lighten them, it’s very frustrating because the next bout of sun exposure predictably causes them to return to their original tan or brown color. Furthermore, they can only be slightly and temporarily lightened by at-home products. The telltale way to differentiate between the types of brown spots that are treatable at-home and freckles is that freckles darken from seasonal sun exposure and lighten a bit in winter.
Red Spots & Red Discoloration
People often confuse very dark red spots (that look almost brown) with hyperpigmentation. Red discoloration is caused by vascular issues involving enlarged blood vessels with excess blood, not excess pigment, and cannot be effectively treated with topical products. Instead, they can only be treated by a dermatologist. Make sure that any areas you believe to be hyperpigmentation are indeed brown, and not just a dark red, as only true hyperpigmentation can be treated by topical products at home.
Distinguing Brown Spots from Red Spots
There’s a very easy way to help distinguish brown spots from red spots: when you press on a brown spot for two seconds with your fingertip, the brown doesn’t change color. However, when you press upon a red discoloration you literally push the blood out of the vessels and the spot lightens for a few seconds returning to its original color. There is, however, one more nuance. A spot can be both brown and red at the same time. So if pressing upon it makes it lighten, but there is also still brown, you can still reduce the brown component as discussed in this guide.
Treating Red Discoloration
There are no at-home products that will effectively treat red spots and discolorations. If you do suffer from red spots, speak to your dermatologist about Laser and IPL (Intense Pulsed Light) treatment options for painless permanent removal of your red discolorations. In the meantime, the most effective way to cover red spots and discoloration is with makeup with green tints.
When your pigment-producing cells known as melanocytes aggregate into a cluster, as opposed to being normally distributed throughout your skin, they develop into a mole. They can be either raised or flat, tend to be more than one shade of tan or brown, and unlike other types of brown spots, can appear anywhere on your body, even those areas that aren’t exposed to the sun. Moles change gradually over time and can develop irregular borders. Moles cannot be treated by the methods in this guide, and you should never attempt to change the color of a mole. Instead, they should be checked annually by your dermatologist.