What Is Skin Pigmentation?

Melanin produces skin color but many factors affect this

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Skin pigmentation is the color of your skin due to a certain amount of melanin, a natural pigment that gives your skin, hair, and eyes their unique color. Your skin could become darker or lighter due to changes in your body’s production of melanin.

A variety of factors could cause this, from the genes you’re born with to skin damage from acne or sun exposure. Learn more about what could trigger shifts in skin pigmentation, the role of genetics in skin color, different types of discoloration, and how to treat them.

People with different skin pigmentation, including vitiligo

FG Trade / E+ / Getty Images

Causes of Pigmentation 

Your skin tone is the result of a complex process during which special cells inside the outer layer of your skin called melanocytes produce melanin. Inside these special skin cells are organelles (or mini-organs of the cell) called melanosomes. Variations in the color of your skin depend on the amount, size, and functioning of these tiny melanin factories.

There are two key types of melanin: eumelanin and pheomelanin:

  • Eumelanin is brown and black in color. It protects your skin by limiting the amount of harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays that can break through and picking up reactive oxygen radicals which—if left alone—could damage your cells and DNA and potentially lead to chronic health conditions like cancer.
  • Pheomelanin, on the other hand, is yellow and red in color. Unlike eumelanin, pheomelanin provides very little protection from UV rays and can actually support the production of reactive oxygen radicals and the damage they cause.

Your skin pigmentation is determined by the balance of these types of melanin in your skin. This can shift depending on your hormones, interactions with other cells in your body, the impact of certain genes, and more.  

Genetics

Amazingly, over 125 genes are known to affect skin pigmentation. Along with hormones, genes are responsible for regulating the melanin production process. They can adjust how much eumelanin or pheomelanin your skin cells produce and how well they survive and function, causing shifts in skin color over time.

Variations in skin pigmentation are believed to reflect evolutionary adaptations that allowed our ancestors to survive 300,000 to 1 million years ago. As they moved within and outside of Africa, darker skin and lighter skin both came with key benefits.

Darker skin helped protect some people from harmful UV rays in high-sun areas, while lighter skin allowed others to produce vitamin D more efficiently in places with less sunlight (a key component of the vitamin D synthesis process).

The number of melanocytes we have are pre-determined by genetics. However, hyperpigmentation and tanning has to do with increase and transfer of melanosomes—the organelles that contain melanin. This is why you can't lighten "darker" skin but can lighten a tan or hyperpigmentation.

Skin Pigment Discoloration

Pigment disorders, injuries, and other changes in your body can cause your skin to lighten, darker, or change in color. You might notice changes in your skin tone in multiple areas on the surface of your skin or only in certain patches of skin. Types of skin pigment discoloration include hyperpigmentation, hypopigmentation, and depigmentation.

Hyperpigmentation

Hyperpigmentation causes skin to become darker or different in color due to an abnormally high amount of melanin or other pigments in the skin. 

Hyperpigmentation can be caused by:

  • Birthmarks 
  • Age spots 
  • Acne scars 
  • Pregnancy (during which melasma, or tan, brown, or gray patches can appear on the face)
  • Addison’s disease (a rare disorder which causes decreased function of the adrenal gland and dark patches of skin)
  • Certain drugs such as antibiotics and birth control pills
  • Sun exposure
  • Cryotherapy, laser therapy, or light therapy

Hypopigmentation

Skin with hypopigmentation is lighter in color due to an abnormally low amount of melanin. 

Reasons for hypopigmentation include:

  • Past skin injuries due to burns, blisters, ulcers, chemical exposure, or infection 
  • Inflammatory skin conditions such as psoriasis or eczema (atopic dermatitis)
  • Rare genetic conditions like albinism, which is caused by the lack of a melanin-producing enzyme

Depigmentation

Depigmentation occurs when your skin completely loses pigment and turns white. One common cause of depigmentation is vitiligo, an autoimmune condition that causes smooth, white patches to appear on the skin.

Treatment of Skin Discoloration

Treatment for skin pigmentation discoloration varies depending on the cause. Certain forms of skin discoloration may fade with over-the-counter solutions and self-care, while some skin diseases require ongoing management with the help of a qualified dermatologist. 

Hyperpigmentation 

If you’re dealing with darker than usual skin, you’re probably wondering, Can pigmentation be removed? Before you consider cosmetic procedures, it’s important to check in with your healthcare provider to diagnose and treat any potential underlying causes.

After that, many forms of hyperpigmentation can be treated with therapies such as topical medications like hydroquinone cream, chemical peels, dermabrasion, light or laser therapy, or cryotherapy. However, it's important to note that some therapies are not suitable for very dark skin types, such as laser resurfacing.

If pregnancy has caused darker skin spots to appear, talk to your doctor about how to manage them. Sunscreen and sun-blocking clothing can help prevent the condition from worsening, and it may naturally fade after you give birth. If not, over-the-counter and prescription creams could help restore your skin tone. 

Hypopigmentation and Depigmentation  

If parts of your skin are on the lighter side due to skin damage, time and patience are typically the only treatment you need as your skin rebuilds. In the meantime, cosmetics can help even out your skin tone. 

For depigmentation from chronic skin conditions, consult with a dermatologist to determine the best treatment plan for you. Depending on the cause, you may benefit from therapies such as covering patches with dyes, light-sensitive medicines, light therapy, prescription creams, or surgery.

When to Call Your Doctor

If a patch of your skin or a mole changes in color, texture, or shape and does not fade, contact your doctor to schedule an appointment.

A Word From Verywell

Any shift in skin tone can be concerning or upsetting. If you’re living with skin damage or a chronic skin condition that changes your appearance, it’s normal to feel stressed out, embarrassed, or frustrated about having to deal with this change.

Don’t hesitate to reach out to a doctor or therapist for more help. Know that you're not alone, and you can find ways to cope and lean on others with similar experiences for the support you need.  

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