Retinol, retinal, retinaldehyde, retinoids... all terms that you’ve most likely come across at some point during your skincare routine.
Essentially, they are all derivatives of vitamin A – that hero skincare ingredient known to even out skin texture, prevent acne breakouts and speed up cell turnover, among many others.
But when it comes to long-term, noticeable results, there’s one area where retinol truly excels: the care and treatment of hyperpigmentation. But just what is the link between hyperpigmentation retinol and beautiful skin? Let’s get into the details!
What is hyperpigmentation?
Just like retinoids hyperpigmentation is a broad term for blemishes and dark patches on your skin usually caused by some type of inflammation.
You’ll typically notice it as freckles on the face, small dark pimples or bigger concentrated areas that are darker than the rest of your face. It’s precisely this non-standard appearance of hyperpigmentation that makes it so tricky to address.
Why do we get hyperpigmentation?
No matter how fair your complexion may be, we’ve all got some degree of natural pigmentation in our skin. It’s what gives our skin its color. These cells, known as melanocytes, are found in the epidermis and produce several pigments – melanin being just one of them.
But while their main purpose is to protect the epidermis from harmful UV rays, whenever these melanocytes suffer from any kind of damage, it results in an overproduction of melanin. The result? You guessed it – dark spots and blemishes in the form of hyperpigmentation.
Due to the damage being done on a cellular level, the result is often deep-rooted causing persistent blemishes on the surface of your skin. This inflammation may be caused by too much sun exposure, a change in hormones, acne scarring or a genetic condition known as melasma.
It will also come as no surprise that a leading cause of hyperpigmentation is stress. Think of your skin as an outward reflection of what’s going on underneath the surface.
Stress shows up in everything from breakouts and clogged pores to acne and hyperpigmentation. The underlying skin cells become inflamed and, as the body’s fight or flight mechanism is triggered, those protective melanocytes go into overdrive.
What’s more – as they’re essentially an immune response, stress-induced hyperpigmentation is activated far deeper in the dermis of your skin making it harder and more time-consuming to treat. So, while a little stress is unavoidable in life, it helps to take active measures to destress every once in a while. Your skin will thank you for it!
What kind of hyperpigmentation do I have?
Fair question as, just like the causes of pigmentation can vary, so too can their appearance on your skin. To pinpoint the type of scarring you’re dealing with, it helps to break down when and how you got the dark marks in the first place.
The main culprits are typically sun damage, hormonal changes, and irritation caused by topical skincare products or prescription medication.
These can present in one of three ways: solar lentigines (or UV sun spots), post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (acne scarring) or melasma (hormonal pigmentation often seen in pregnant women).
If you’re still unsure of the exact cause of your hyperpigmentation, keep a diary of when you first noticed the blemishes.
Did they come about after a sunny holiday, following a stressful period or maybe your hyperpigmentation first sprouted during your hormonal teenage years? The answer could be one or a combination of factors. But knowing the origin of your scarring can help target the problem head-on.
What Type of Retinol Treats Hyperpigmentation?
If you suffer from dark marks, you’ll know just how persistent they can be. The key is to use specially targeted ingredients to not only brighten the outer complexion but work inside the cells to remedy the underlying damage. Your best bet? For hyperpigmentation retinol is number one.
But take a stroll through the skincare aisle at your local pharmacy and you’ll find an extensive selection of vitamin A derivatives in an array of mediums – foams, gels, creams and oils.
But while the packaging may differ, it’s the concentration of vitamin A that really makes the difference. For example, an over-the-counter product containing 1 % of retinol will be a lot weaker than a retinoid with 0.1 % retinoid from your dermatologist. Keen to find out what’s best for you?
Let’s consider the different forms of retinol.
First on the list comes retinoids, at least in terms of efficacy. Also known as retinoic acid, retinoids can be broken up into four main types: Adapalene, Trifarotene, Tazarotene and Tretinoin. The most researched and therefore most popular of these is Tretinoin.
This power-packed ingredient goes to work by boosting the turnover of skin cells which help to unclog your pores and minimize hyperpigmentation. Over time, your skin gets plumper and thicker as collagen production is stimulated.
But while it may be super effective, it also tends to be more irritating in comparison to other forms. For a prescription-strength retinoid that’s available over the counter, Adapalene is one the most effective OTC retinoids with dermatologist-approved results.
Next in terms of potency is retinaldehyde or retinal for short. Unlike stronger retinoids that act directly on your skin, retinaldehyde needs another step to be converted into retinoic acid.
For those unable to tolerate very strong formulations, retinaldehyde offers a gentler yet still highly potent dose of vitamin A. You’re getting the same benefits of active retinoids but at a much smaller dose over a longer period of time.
If you suffer from mild acne, retinaldehyde could be especially helpful in targeting closed or open comedones - the first signs of acne.
The most easily available of all vitamin A derivatives is retinol and can be found in just about every step of your skincare routine. What sets it apart from retinoids and retinaldehyde is that it takes many more steps to work.
When applied to your skin, retinol first needs to be converted to retinoic acid within your cells to have similar efficacy to the prescription strength.
But just because the potency is weaker, doesn’t make it any less desirable. Retinol serums have the added benefits of soothing and hydrating your skin while brightening and exfoliating your complexion.
If dry, sensitive skin has kept you from trying a retinol product in the past, retinyl palmitate was designed just for you. Considered to be the gentlest of the vitamin A derivatives, retinyl palmitate requires a further step of conversion in the cells to be turned into retinoic acid. The result is an antioxidant, brightening boost to your skin minus the redness and irritation.
The Benefits of Retinol in Treating Hyperpigmentation
When we mention the term hyperpigmentation, it’s most often the result of topical trauma to your skin.
For example, a pimple pops on your face and, as the area becomes inflamed, the underlying layers go into overdrive to heal that patch of skin. This results in an overproduction of melanin in that specific area, often much darker than the rest of your complexion.
For this reason, when looking for the most effective treatment option, a targeted approach is your best bet.
Apply too many products at once and you risk stressing your skin and causing irritation and inflammation.
You want to create a concise, streamlined routine of effective products that work side by side. And the number one ingredient to directly target hyperpigmentation? Retinol.
But just why is retinol so effective in treating dark spots and blemishes? It boils down to one main key factor: retinol’s ability to regulate the turnover of skin cells. Your skin’s ability to regenerate skin cells slows down as you grow older. The beauty of vitamin A is keeping the rate of cell turnover exactly as it should be.
And with cell turnover comes a plethora of further-reaching benefits. As new cells are generated, pores are less likely to become clogged meaning less sebum production and less potential for acne breakouts.
But even if acne is not a condition you have to deal with, chances are you’ve got at least one or two blemishes caused by sun damage or a lingering dark spot from your teenage years.
When it comes to retinoids hyperpigmentation is just one of several skincare concerns you’re able to tackle.
Remember that as you get older, your skin’s ability to replace collagen depletes yearly by about one percent with each year. Incorporate a gentle retinol product into your nighttime skincare routine and boost your collagen production tenfold!
How to Use Retinol to Treat Hyperpigmentation
At the very first sign of hyperpigmentation retinol is key! But like with most good things, slow and steady wins the race. No matter what the condition of your skin is when you start out, do not use a retinoid product every night.
It’s important to build up your tolerance slowly until your skin is able to withstand the active ingredient and not damage your skin barrier.
And yes, even in the case of hyperpigmentation retinol should not be used with other active ingredients, at least in the initial stages.
For best results, retinol is best applied once a week for the first week, twice a week during the next two weeks, followed by three times a week for three weeks and so forth.
And remember, a little goes a long way. Only use a pea-sized amount to freshly washed, dry skin. If, as time goes on, you notice any signs of redness or irritation, apply your retinoid after a rich moisturizer.
It’s important to note that, due to its potency when first applied to your skin, it takes some getting used to. It’s not uncommon to experience what some would call a skin purge. As retinoids are so good at boosting cell turnover, new cells are constantly brought to your skin’s surface and dead ones are sloughed away.
Whatever is lurking under the surface is essentially being cleared out to make way for healthier skin cells. This could take the form of tiny skin-colored bumps, blackheads or larger whiteheads. In others, it could present as irritation such as dryness, redness, flaking and peeling.
So what to do if you’re experiencing purging? Start with the lowest percentage of retinol you can – 0.5 % retinol or retinyl palmitate. Also, consider applying the product to your skin for only a few hours at a time. Try using it for two hours as opposed to overnight for the first week.
But when it comes to dealing with hyperpigmentation retinol need not only be used in isolation. Another often overlooked blemish fighter is vitamin C.
Excellent at helping to fade blemishes already present on your skin. It's also ace at preventing new scars from forming.
That’s not even mentioning its brightening and anti-inflammatory properties too! Vitamin C works deep inside the cells to inhibit tyrosinase – one of the enzymes essential in the production of melanin. Just like with retinoids hyperpigmentation stands no chance with this juicy combo!
That said, even after you’ve built up a good tolerance to retinoids hyperpigmentation still needs to be kept at bay with daily sun protection.
Be consistent in applying a broad-spectrum sunscreen every morning of SPF 30 or higher as retinol tends to make your skin more sun sensitive than usual. Keen to amp up the sun protection even further? Apply a vitamin C serum underneath your sunscreen and get a double filter against UV and free radical damage.
A 2013 study found that "sunscreens block only 55 percent of the free radicals produced by UV exposure… To optimize UV protection, it is important to use sunscreens combined with a topical antioxidant”. By applying a topical vitamin C of 10%, UVB sun damage is reduced by a whopping 52%. That’s essentially double the benefits of sunscreen merely on its own.