Summer sun is great for a tan, but have you noticed your skin developing discoloration spots? You may have heard them referred to as sun spots, sun freckles, liver spots, pigmentation, hyperpigmentation, and/or age spots.
“When I was a child, I was always told liver spots are just something that happens to your skin when you age.” - Savannah, Social Media Marketer
Whether your skin is dark or fair, be UV aware. Unless you grew up wearing sunscreen all the time (not just when you went to the beach), you most likely have avoided sunscreen at all costs. Maybe it breaks you out, or you don’t like the feel or scent of it – don’t worry, I understand. I grew up in Australia where the tan-obsessed thrived. Any mention of SPF struck fear into our hearts because we thought we wouldn’t get a tan. I spent years baking in the sun and the best SPF I used was tanning oil – hey, it had 8 SPF at least! Years later, in my 60’s, I am living proof of passive sun exposure. My stomach is clear, not a spot in sight, whereas my chest and arms have gathered these “age spots” in droves. The majority of our lives are spent vertically, which directs the sun’s rays primarily to our head, shoulders, and chest – these are the main areas you will see damage from passive sun exposure, and is one of the reasons the myth of “liver spots are inevitable."
While these spots can show up over time, they actually are avoidable all together! These spots show up as a result of improper sun protection. The biggest aggressor to our skin in the summer is UV rays and passive sun exposure that contributes to a freckled appearance. Keep in mind that the closer you live to the equator, the more likely you are to see discoloration on your skin. This is because the earth’s position in relation to the sun affects the strength of the rays, in addition to the sun simply being more present on a day-to-day basis. For example, two of our staff members are Fitz 2 and 3, are around 27 years old, and did not grow up using sunscreen. Savannah lived in California and has sun spots all over the top half of her body (not her legs, which is what you would expect of passive sun exposure), whereas Eliza lived in Ukraine and does not have spots – but that’s not to say that she got off scot-free, either. We’ll dive into how to address discoloration on your skin later in the article.
Sunscreen has astronomically improved since the launch of Coppertone in 1944. Originally, sunscreen was a dreaded task to apply a thick grease with an assaulting coconut scent all over your body - Aussies called it “slip, slap, slop” for a reason. Now, and every day moving forward, sunscreen has evolved to be akin to lotions, moisturizers, and serums, while also accounting for personal texture preference and lifestyle. The sun doesn’t know if you’re trying to get a tan or not. Little chores like morning gardening, getting in and out of the car to run errands, or walking the dog will give you passive sun exposure - yes, even in Oregon!
Melanin: Hyper vs. Hypopigmentation
Now let’s talk about what discoloration is, how it progresses through the skin overtime, and how our lifestyle can affect our pigmentation.
First, let me explain two types of pigmentation - hyperpigmentation, and hypopigmentation. The prefix “hyper” means “more,” so hyperpigmentation is when your skin has spots of color, such as brown, black, pink, or gray, and are what we referred to earlier in the article as liver spots, freckles, sun spots, or age spots. These can be as small as a grain of sand, larger than a quarter, and anywhere in between. In contrast, hypopigmentation is when you have spots of skin that are lighter than your ordinary skin color. This is the result of melanin underproduction, as opposed to overproduction/hyperpigmentation of melanin.
So what exactly is melanin? Melanin is essentially a chemical in your body that produces pigmentation, as well a variety of other important tasks, but we’ll just focus on the pigmentation this time. Melanin is designed to protect your skin cells from UV rays. This constant protective barrier, if left unaided, can eventually become damaged, leading to a variety of skin conditions – hyperpigmentation, damaged skin cells, and premature aging just to name a few. You can help protect your skin from UV rays by using both vitamin c and sunscreen on a daily basis. The combination of the two shields you from 100% of the sun’s rays, allowing your melanin production to remain consistent.
Why is consistent melanin production important? Without an even spread of melanin, you will see hyperpigmentation spots on your skin. In addition, melanin has an antioxidant property that helps shield your skin from UV rays. That is not to say that darker Fitzpatricks are ineligible for developing skin cancer. As mentioned earlier, the sun does not care who is trying to get a tan. Everyone has the potential risk of getting sun cancer if they do not take the proper precautions. Aside from getting sun cancer, living with an uneven skin tone can be psychologically damaging for some, and is of equal weight in trying to address. This is just one of the reasons why I am writing this article - preventing discoloration is a year round process, but is especially important in the summer. Everyone is susceptible. If you have a Fitzpatrick between 1 and 3, you’re more likely to burn quickly, whereas Fitzpatricks 4 through 6 are much slower to burn. I’ve found that people with higher Fitzpatricks are less likely to have worn sunscreen, probably because they say they don’t burn. Did you know that sun damage takes 20 years to show up on your skin?
There are more ways than one to develop hyperpigmentation. While staying in the sun for a prolonged time without sunscreen is an obvious culprit, there are also skincare products you might be using that make you more sun sensitive, and thus more prone to discoloration. There is a scientific reason for this, which I will get into shortly.
Reorganize Your Tool Kit
One of the most commonly prescribed and raved about ingredients is retinol. Retinol is the over-the-counter (OTC) form of retinoid, also known as vitamin a. Two common brand names for retinoid are Accutane and Tretinoin. While retinoid has to be prescribed, retinol is easily accessible, and often spoken highly of in YouTube and TikTok videos as a miracle product. The function of retinol is simple: it stimulates cell turnover in your skin, which can be extremely beneficial for targeting acne and general clogging; however, this immediate result can be addicting, and can lead people to use retinol much more often than necessary. Essentially, vitamin a is a chemical exfoliant, also known as a rapid exfoliant (although it should be noted that vitamin a is not a rapid exfoliant, and just works similarly). Exfoliants work by gently removing the top layer of your skin cells, and can assist with desquamation. While it is natural for skin cells to shed, you can damage the lower layers of your skin by artificially stimulating desquamation. Think of retinol as a tool you can use when absolutely necessary.
How could retinol affect more than just the top layer of your skin? As mentioned previously, exfoliants focus on the top layers of your skin, which ultimately thins your epidermis. Your epidermis is the top third of your skin, and has a variety of important jobs. Read our blog post here to learn more about what is happening in your skin. The most important thing you have to know is that the epidermis is what protects you from external aggressors, contains water in your skin, and produces new skin cells.
Let’s talk briefly about some structures within the skin, starting with melanin. Melanin originates near the bottom layer of your epidermis, specifically the stratum basale, out of cells called melanocytes. The stratum basale is also a regenerative layer of the skin, and is where new skin cells originate before moving to the surface of the skin. When an injury occurs at the top of the epidermis, the stratum basale begins to produce new cells to replace the space the injury left; however, overstimulating this production causes the skin to become fragile, with the lower layers of the epidermis becoming uneven. Keep in mind that the more aggressive your rapid exfoliant is, the thinner it will make the top layer of your skin, the stratum corneum. This uneven production of cells results in pooling of melanin to occur. When the epidermis is thick, pigmentation is able to evenly move up through the skin. Because of this, overusing chemical exfoliants is likely to lead to discoloration.
If you’re using a chemical exfoliant, you’ve probably been told to only apply the product at night, as it can increase sun sensitivity – especially if you’re using retinol, Tretinoin, or Accutane. This is true, and is also why it is extremely important to wear sunscreen if you use vitamin a. Even better, if you’re planning on getting sun exposure, don’t use a chemical exfoliant! If you’re trying to avoid pigmentation, back off the AHAs and move to a manual exfoliant, if necessary. Some of my favorites are:
I know getting an overnight result from chemical peels can be addicting, but try to remember them as a tool in your skincare kit. How many of your products are using rapid exfoliants? You might be surprised…
“You don’t need to pull out a canon to kill an ant.” - Sonia Bellini
Aside from using chemical exfoliants when necessary, or dialing back how strong the chemical exfoliant you use is, another aspect of prevention is keeping the epidermis as thick as possible. As alluded to earlier, keeping the epidermis thick will maintain an even appearance. Imagine the epidermis as a blanket that is laying over a messy floor. The thicker this blanket is, the less likely you are able to notice any inconsistencies from underneath. The opposite is true if the blanket is thin like a cheesecloth. The skin is an interconnected organ, and if the epidermis becomes too thin it can lead to water loss and stubborn discoloration. Just a reminder - our bodies are 70% water, our cells use this to live, and not being able to contain water in our skin leaves it fragile. At Bellini’s, our summer facials are primarily focused on hydration, as well as infusing the skin with lots of antioxidants in order to lighten pigmentation.
Figure 1.1 A thick epidermis (top) versus a thin epidermis (bottom). Texture is visible for the thin epidermis, and allows pooling of melanin to occur. https://histologyguide.com//slideview/MH-088-skin/11-slide-1.html
Now, I will focus on what each age range can do to focus on prevention and maintenance of pigmentation. Although I will be talking about the most likely scenario for each group, everyone has their own experience. The following is what I have typically seen from my clients.
First, I’ll talk about everyone under the age of 30 - this is what I call “the lucky age.” Hopefully, you had parents that followed you around and instilled the importance of sunscreen. There are still some sun myths that prevail in this age range - such as the idea that the sun can clear up pimples. The truth is that the sun aggravates blemishes, causing more inflammation under the skin. Over time, treating blemishes with sun can cause discoloration later on. Don’t worry about completely avoiding the sun, the main thing is you just want to be wearing sunscreen and reapplying often.
In addition to sunscreen, the most helpful things you can do to prevent discoloration is using driving gloves, wearing a hat and thin scarf over your chest while outside, and apply a vitamin c everyday. Vitamin c is one of the most important products you can use regardless of your age, because it blocks UV rays from beneath your skin. Even if you’re often active outdoors, you can still slowly develop a tan while wearing SPF. It will be much slower, but will not damage your skin. With consistent sun protection, you can avoid sun spots no matter what Fitzpatrick type you are!
30-45 Years Old
The next group I will focus on is those between 30 and 45 years old. This range I have found the most variability with, and it depends on how and where you grew up. Did you listen to your mom about wearing sunscreen? Even if you have some sun damage and freckling, you can encapsulate this amount of damage and begin reversing the process. We are now beginning to shift solely from prevention to a corrective and preventative approach. Remember that it takes 20 years for sun damage to appear on your skin. You are still able to reverse this visible damage, while also preventing more from developing.
One of my go-to products for people concerned about pigmentation in this age range is SkinCeuticals Discoloration Defense, but you can also use it earlier in life if you have a darker Fitzpatrick type. Remember to put your vitamin c on before Discoloration Defense!
Regardless of what your past behavior was, there is always time to practice proper sun protection. The first step is getting proper education for your skin, which we are eager to provide both in-person and through our blogs. If you’re in the Portland, Oregon area, stop by Bellini’s for personalized guidance with your skin.
The final group I will focus on is everyone over the age of 45. If you’re over 45, you most likely remember when sunscreen started being marketed. These original sunscreens were marketed as extreme tan aides, which would also protect you from sun damage. Before then, there was almost no sunblock protection or marketing relating to it. Originally, there were no FDA approved sunscreens to block UV rays. Only in 1988 was the first UVA protection passed in sunscreen. Because of sunscreen’s history, this age group is most likely to have never used sunscreen, or at the very least never used it consistently. Fortunately, there have been extraordinary developments in sunscreen technology, making it not only extremely protective, but also pleasant to apply.
The goal for this age range is primarily focused on managing and reducing the severity of arising pigmentation. Out of all the benign skin concerns we face, hyperpigmentation is one of the hardest things to get rid of. You can prevent more discoloration by wearing sunscreen on the top half of your body, especially on your hands, arms, and décolleté. If you’re active outside make sure to cover your legs and wear a hat, too.
The facials we do for this age range would heavily incorporate antioxidants, as they work to fight against discoloration. If you’re already using a vitamin c in the day, you can add a nighttime vitamin c for an extra pigmentation-fighting boost. I always recommend SkinCeuticals Resveratrol, which is made from grapes, and is also a great alternative if you’re allergic to traditional vitamin c from oranges. If you’ve been using vitamin c for a long time, you will notice that less pigment tends to come out after spending time in the sun. You can also lessen the visibility of discoloration by using SkinCeuticals Discoloration Defense (after applying your vitamin c), which uses a blend of acids and vitamins to target stubborn types of discoloration. In the fall and winter, I recommend sprinkling in chemical peel treatments that target pigmentation between your facials. It is essential to continue getting facials in between chemical peels in order to help protect your skin. Semi-frequent chemical peels in the winter will help with a variety of skin concerns, pigmentation being one. I recommend doing this during the colder months to help protect your skin after the treatment. The best thing you can do to prevent further discoloration is to protect your skin inside and out - that means hats, vitamin c, and reapplying sunscreen.
In sum, your skincare journey will change and evolve over time. Advancements in skincare technology will continue to develop, and better, easier, more pleasant options will roll out each year. Regardless of these changes, our goal remains the same: keeping the epidermis as thick as possible, and preventing uneven discoloration in the summer. One common practice that actually thins out the skin is using a chemical exfoliant, such as retinol, too frequently. Finally, finding your perfect sunscreen will change your life. I always say that the best sunscreen is the one you will wear. If you need any guidance picking an SPF, we have a thorough blog here that I highly recommend checking out. As much fun as you’re having outside, just remember to wear protection and stop spending money to damage your skin!
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