Red Light Therapy & Hyperpigmentation

Posted August 06, 2021

          Hyperpigmentation is a term that describes patches of skin that have more pigmentation than other areas, making them darker than the surrounding skin. Hyperpigmentation can affect individuals with any skin type and while not normally a sign of dangerous medical conditions, it is typically regarded as aesthetically undesirable due to the patchy appearance that it causes on the skin.

            There are many different approaches to treating hyperpigmentation, but these depend of a variety of factors, including the individual with hyperpigmentation, the cause of the hyperpigmentation, and how severe the hyperpigmentation is.

Skin Pigmentation

            To understand hyperpigmentation, one must first understand what skin pigmentation is and how the body controls it. Skin pigmentation is caused by a molecule called melanin. The amount of melanin in the skin influences the color of the skin, with more melanin causing darker skin coloration.

            Melanin is created by cells in the skin called melanocytes through a process called melanogenesis. There are two forms of melanogenesis, these include basal melanogenesis and activated melanogenesis. Basal melanogenesis refers to the process of creating melanin that is always active in an individual’s skin. Basal melanogenesis is responsible for an individual’s overall skin tone.

            Activated melanogenesis is the production of melanin due to external factors, such as inflammation, skin damage, or even exposure to ultraviolet light. Activated melanogenesis can be beneficial in some circumstances. Exposure to sunlight, for example, will stimulate melanin production, creating a tan. This helps the skin to absorb more sunlight, offering protection to the skin. Activated melanogenesis can have potentially negative effects on skin quality, however, when it occurs unevenly.

Hyperpigmentation Types

            There are many different types of hyperpigmentation with varying causes. Understanding the root cause of hyperpigmentation is important for recognizing what treatment options are likely to help.

Age spots

            Age spots, also called sunspots or liver spots, are a common type of hyperpigmentation that occurs with sun exposure, especially over a prolonged period of time. Age spots are flat and typically round or oval shaped. They may range in shade from tan to dark brown and can group together, making them more noticeable. These spots can be as big as half an inch across and typically occur in areas that are more often exposed to the sun.

            Although medical scientists do not fully understand how and why age spots are formed, they are thought to be caused by overactive melanocytes that lead to excessive melanin production only in the areas of specific melanocytes. As the name suggests, age spots are more common in people over 50, however, younger people who are frequently exposed to the ultraviolet light in sunlight or in tanning beds may also develop age spots.

Melasma

            Melasma is a form of hyperpigmentation that dermatologists believe is related to hormonal changes. Melasma is blotchy patches of darker color skin that may be brown or gray-brown, and tends to affect individuals with darker skin pigmentation more than fair-skinned individuals.

            Melasma is most common during pregnancy and may also be triggered by birth control measures that affect hormone levels. Melasma is much more common in women than it is in men, and typically occurs in areas that are exposed to the sun. While melasma normally occurs in the face, it can affect skin in any area that is exposed to the sun.

Post-Inflammatory Hyperpigmentation

            Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation is a form of hyperpigmentation that occurs after damage or irritation to the skin that causes inflammation. Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation can cause tan, purple, or brown discoloration after any skin-related damage. As with other types of hyperpigmentation, exposure to sunlight can cause the hyperpigmentation to worsen.

            Injuries that may cause post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation can have several causes, including:

  • Acne
  • Psoriasis
  • Eczema
  • Allergic reactions
  • Infections
  • Insect bites
  • Burns

            While anyone can get post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, this condition is predominate in individuals with darker skin tones. According to the Skin of Color Society, over 65% of individuals who develop post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation are of African descent.

Vitiligo

            While not technically a form of hyperpigmentation, vitiligo does cause patchy skin discoloration. Vitiligo is considered different from hyperpigmentation because, unlike hyperpigmentation, the affected areas of skin actually have reduced levels of melanin. Vitiligo can affect individuals with any type of skin coloration and is caused by the death or malfunction of melanocytes.

            Vitiligo will slowly spread with the affected patches growing in size. Because vitiligo causes the death or malfunction of the melanocytes themselves, there is currently no known way to reverse or cure it.

Preventing Hyperpigmentation

            There are several different methods that people use for preventing hyperpigmentation, but the key way to prevent hyperpigmentation is to protect your skin from the sun. Sunlight contains wavelengths of light that penetrate through the skin and activate melanocytes. While this can create a nice, even tan, exposure to high amounts of sunlight is known to play a contributing factor in the development of age spots and melasma.

            In addition to playing a role in developing hyperpigmentation, melanocyte-stimulating wavelengths in sunlight also worsen almost every form of hyperpigmentation. Sunlight also increases the speed at which vitiligo progresses and causes darkening of the unaffected skin, making the contrast between affected and unaffected skin more stark.

            While avoiding exposure to high amounts of sunlight is important to prevent or reduce the effects of hyperpigmentation, there are other ways to avoid hyperpigmentation. For post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, especially, avoiding skin irritation and damage is important. This includes not picking at skin injuries that do occur, treating skin conditions like acne that could cause further skin injuries, using insect repellent while outside, and avoiding potential skin injuries.

Treating Hyperpigmentation

            There are several different methods for treating hyperpigmentation, but these methods typically fall into one of two categories: skin-altering chemicals or light therapies. Chemical skin treatments are designed to either breakdown the pigmentation in skin chemically or to cause the skin to peel off, allowing the new layer underneath with less pigmentation to be exposed. Light therapies use specific wavelengths and intensities of light to break down the melanin and return the skin to its normal color.

Hydroquinone

            Hydroquinone is a type of skin-bleaching agent that is used in most cosmetic treatments that reduce hyperpigmentation. Hydroquinone can be purchased over the counter in low concentrations, but requires a prescription when any concentration over 2% is used. Hydroquinone works by interfering with how melanocytes produce melanin, causing the area that it is applied to create less melanin.

            Hydroquinone can cause several side effects. The American Osteopathic College of Dermatology warns that some people may have redness and itching when using hydroquinone. This could actually cause hyperpigmentation in the form of post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. Other side effects could include dryness, irritation, pruritus, erythema, and contact dermatitis. Prolonged use of hydroquinone is also connected with ochronosis, a blueish-black discoloration of the skin.

Chemical Peels

            A chemical peel is performed by applying a chemical to the skin that causes the top layer of skin to peel off. Chemical peels can take off varying depths of skin layers, with deep chemical peels producing more noticeable results, but taking longer to recover from.

            According to the Mayo Clinic, there are numerous side effects that may occur when using a chemical peel. These include:

  • Redness
  • Swelling
  • Scabbing
  • Scarring
  • Infection
  • Heart damage
  • Kidney damage
  • Liver damage
  • Permanent skin discoloration

            Chemical peels are performed by a doctor, in most cases, and multiple chemical peels may be needed to fully treat hyperpigmentation. Deep chemical peels may take several weeks to recover from.

Red Light Therapy

            While a newer form of treating skin blemishes, red light therapy is rapidly becoming a popular way of maintaining skin health. Red light therapy uses low energy wavelengths of light that penetrate deep into the skin. While ultraviolet wavelengths of light stimulate melanocytes and produce melanin, red and near infrared wavelengths do not. These wavelengths of light instead stimulate mitochondria, the energy-producing organ of cells.

            Red light therapy has many known skin benefits. The scientific journal Seminars in Cutaneous Medicine and Surgery reports that red light therapy can:

  • Improve circulation in the skin
  • Protect skin cells from damage
  • Increase collagen production, increasing the skin’s elasticity
  • Reduce fine lines and wrinkles

            Research into the effects of red light therapy is still in its early days. However, the potential benefits of this newer form of therapy are already becoming well recognized. While it has long been recognized that ultraviolet light has important effects on skin, the effects of other wavelengths of light are only beginning to be understood.

Treating Hyperpigmentation

            While red light therapy offers a myriad of potential skin benefits, it is important to understand how red light therapy can affect hyperpigmentation, specifically. A 2017 study published in the International Journal of Women's Dermatology identified red light therapy as a potential treatment for hyperpigmentation, especially for patients who were using more traditional treatment but wanted to experience an “accelerated pace of improvement”. This study reports that light therapy accelerates the removal of melanin without inhibiting melanin production itself. Ultimately, red light therapy can be used to improve hyperpigmentation by itself or in conjunction with other hyperpigmentation treatments.

Preventing Hyperpigmentation

            Red light therapy may also offer a degree of protection from ultraviolet light that could reduce the effects of sunlight on hyperpigmentation. A 2016 study published in the Journal of Photochemistry and Photobiology B showed that exposing skin to certain wavelengths of red light lessened skin damage caused by ultraviolet light.

            Mito Red Light provides a variety of red light therapy products that are specifically designed to provide the specific wavelengths of light that are thought to help reduce the effects of skin-related problems and regenerate the skin. We welcome you to review our selection of high-quality products or to contact one of our expert representatives at 1-480-597-4649.