“Why is my skin tone so uneven?” is a common question we hear, especially at this time of year. What are those embarrassing dark patches and why do you have them?

Melanin is a pigment that colours your skin. The areas of your skin that are darker than others have more melanin. For example, the freckles on your nose have more pigmentation than the skin on the underside of your arm. Sun exposure signals the skin to produce more melanin; that’s why freckles may appear darker or seem to multiply on exposed skin after a day in the sun.

Is the sun to blame?

In many cases, yes. Sun damage is the top cause of increased pigmentation for men and women. The damage appears as dark patches on the face, hands, décolletage, shoulders and anywhere on the body that has been exposed to the sun.  UVA rays penetrate into the deeper layers of your skin and trigger your body to produce more melanin. This process creates an enviable golden glow or, more than likely, a painful red sunburn.

Although we may do our best to cover up and apply sunscreen whenever we’re outside, it’s not always possible, especially when you’re on holiday. The bad news is sun damage may take up to 20 years to appear. By the time you reach your 30s, you may be reminded of any sun damage you suffered as a child when you begin to notice dark patches on your skin.

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What else causes pigmentation?

Hormones: For many women, the hormone changes that occur in pregnancy cause the skin to produce more melanin. Called melasma, it can darken the skin on the face as well as the abdomen. However, you don’t have to be pregnant to wear the so-called Mask of Pregnancy; taking hormone-based birth control may cause similar side effects in some women.

Medications & medical conditions: Some medications list hyperpigmentation as a possible side effect. Often, the medication triggers increased melanin production, especially when the skin is exposed to sunlight, or it causes melanin to build up. In the latter case, the condition is often worsened by sun exposure.

Similarly, some medical conditions may make you more susceptible to hyperpigmentation, such as Addison disease.

Skin trauma: As the skin heals from a traumatic event, it may produce more melanin and create a scar. For example, you may notice a scar often remains after a spot has healed.

So, what can I do?

To prevent dark patches from occurring, cover up when you’re outside, and if you have children, make sure they’re covered while they’re outside playing. Also, apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen every day to prevent additional sun damage.

In some cases, such as pregnancy, pigmentation may fade on its own. In other cases, you may need to apply topical treatments to reduce the appearance of dark spots and improve skin’s natural texture and tone.

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