Skin pigmentation disorders are conditions that cause the skin to appear lighter or darker than normal, and can consist of a blotchy and discoloured appearance. People of all races can suffer from pigmentation disorders and it occurs when the body produces either too much or too little melanin -- a pigment that protects the body by absorbing ultraviolet light and creates hair, skin and eye colour.
Types of disorders:
1) Albinism is an inherited condition that causes a lack of pigment. People with albinism typically have light skin, white or pale yellow hair, and light blue or grey eyes. In severe cases the hair and skin can appear pink.
2) Vitiligo creates smooth, depigmented white spots on the skin. The condition affects nearly two per cent of the population and is more evident in people with darker skin.
3) The condition hyperpigmentation is when the body produces too much melanin, causing the skin to become darker than usual. A common symptom is a dark mask-like discoloration that covers the cheeks and bridge of the nose, however in worse cases, it can appear on the body too.
4) Melasma (also known as chloasma) is characterised by tan or brown patches on the forehead, cheeks, upper lip, nose and chin. Although this condition is typically termed the 'pregnancy mask,' men can also develop it. It may also occur in women on birth control pills or postmenopausal oestrogen.
Causes and symptoms
Scientists are still studying the reasons why skin pigmentation disorders occur. In some cases there are tangible causes, such as sun exposure, drug reactions, poor nutrition or genetic inheritance. In other cases, it is not as clear.
The hypopigmentation spots associated with vitiligo sometimes form where a person has been cut or injured. Research has shown that the light patches associated with vitiligo do not contain melanocytes -- the type of skin cells that create melanin. Some scientists believe vitiligo may be caused by an auto-immune disorder. It also has been linked to other conditions such as hyperthyroidism (too much thyroid hormone) and Addison's disease, which affects the adrenal gland.
Birthmarks, moles and age spots are usually harmless. Some moles, however, can change in size, colour, texture, or start bleeding, which could indicate possible skin cancer. If you notice such symptoms or a or worrying change in your skin's appearance, consult your doctor immediately for medical advice.
Many mixed-race people can have moles, freckles, age spots and birthmarks, ranging from a red-brown to bluish-black, covering various parts of their bodies. Some of these are triggered by UVA and UVB rays which encourage the body to produce an excess amount of pigment and is the skin's way of trying to protect itself. Otherwise, it is often down to trauma to the skin with a brown mark appearing on the same place where a spot or cut has been. However, stress, drugs and a sudden change in oestrogen levels can also bring about these changes.
It is important to wear a good daily application with a SPF of at least 20 to prevent further discoloration. This is especially true if you have light skin, or are mixed-race. Try SkinCeuticals Advanced Sun Defense SPF30 (£34/100ml). It provides UVA and UVB protection through transparent zinc oxide, which deflects harmful rays without leaving a ghostly white residue. It is also good for wearing under make-up.
Taking precautions: In order to know which products will be most reliable in reducing hyperpigmentation swot up on the ingredients that will work for you and what you should use and avoid. For example, hydroquinone works by poisoning the melanocytes (cells that produce the pigment melanin) and can be irritating and even toxic to the skin in high doses, making the cells hypersensitive to sunlight.
Cosmetic products containing hydroquinone have been banned in the EU since 2001. Dermatologists found that prolonged use destroys the skin's protective outer layer and may cause temporary or permanent discoloration of the skin or increased risk of cancer.
Safe and effective mild exfoliators inhibit the production of tyrosinase (the enzyme that causes melanocytes to produce melanin). A good bet is ascorbyl glucoside, one of the key ingredients in SkinCeuticals Phyto Corrective Gel (£44).
A naturally occuring stabilised, water-soluble form of vitamin C has according to dermatologists improved the appearance of mild age spots through gentle exfoliation. It is also a key ingredient in Clinique's new Even Better Skin Tone Corrector (£32), a light serum for face and cleavage. Be on the look out for niacinamide (vitamin B3) which calms redness and increases the productivity of other cells such as the natural exfoliant glucosamine.
Both can be found in Olay's Definity intense Repairing Anti-Ageing Serum (£25).
To find an accredited dermatologist contact the British Association of Cosmetic Doctors by visiting the website www.cosmeticdoctors.co.uk for more advice and information.
Remember not to spray perfume over your neck and chest as chemicals can increase hyperpigmentation. Dab it behind the ears instead. Don't give up easily on anti-pigmentation products. It takes up to six weeks for a full cell cycle to occur and new, less pigmented skin to appear.