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Dark Spots on the Skin--Causes and Treatments

Oct 01, 2019


Dark spots on the skin or hyperpigmentation account for 20 percent of skin disorders, and they can affect anyone at any time. Although sun exposure is the leading cause of hyperpigmentation, artificial UV light from tanning, medication and hormonal changes can also predispose one to dark spots.

What is Hyperpigmentation?

Hyperpigmentation occurs when you produce more melanin, thus giving skin patches that are darker than the surrounding skin.

Dark spots appear either in small patches on the skin or affect the entire body based on the cause. They can be localized– in one area, as in the case of post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation and melisma, or diffuse. Diffuse hyperpigmentation is usually caused by metabolic disorders, malignancy, autoimmune infections, and infectious etiologies.

Furthermore, the size and color of these dark spots also vary depending on the person’s skin tone.

Although dark spots on the skin are harmless, it is important to know the cause of the hyperpigmentation to prevent further damage, especially if the cause is a malignancy.

Below we discuss the causes and some of the treatments available for hyperpigmentation.

Causes of Dark Spots on the Skin

There are numerous causes of hyperpigmentation;

1. Metabolic causes

Metabolic causes like vitamin B12 deficiency manifests itself as vitiligo, skin hyperpigmentation, and hair changes. Folic acid deficiency is also a trigger for dark spots.

2. Exposure to UV light

Exposure to sun causes skin sensitivity and increases the risk of skin cancer– melanoma and non-melanoma.

Additionally, artificial Ultraviolet Radiation from tanning machines is a risk factor in the development of skin lesions. Furthermore, it affects the production of vitamin D, which is important for healthy bones.

3. Hormonal Imbalance

Melasma also called the ‘mask of pregnancy; affects pregnant women, those in menopause, and women using oral contraceptives and Hormonal Replacement Therapy.

Cortisol, a stress hormone, is also part of the hyperpigmentation problem, so avoiding stress can help manage the condition.

Increased stress, whether physical, emotional, or psychological causes an increase in cortisol production. High levels of cortisol cause an imbalance in estrogen levels which in turn increases melanin production.

4. Sunspots

Sunspots also called solar lentigines, or liver spots are caused by excess sun exposure. These spots normally appear on areas exposed to the sun mostly face and hands.

5. Post-inflammatory Hyperpigmentation

This condition develops when an irritation like a pimple causes the skin to be inflamed. And, as the skin heals, it produces too much melanin, causing the skin to darken.

6. Medications

Certain medication like estrogen pills and antibiotics can increase skin hypersensitivity to the sun, which can cause dark spots.

Other causes include liver disease and pituitary tumors.

Treatments of Dark Spots

Dark spots on the skin don’t hurt and hardly are noticeable, as they usually have the same texture as the skin. Furthermore, they don’t pose any health risk (unless they are caused by a medical problem) so getting rid of them is unnecessary.

Some people, however, may choose to remove them for cosmetic purposes.

Here are a few options on how to get rid of dark spots.

Prescription bleaching creams

Topical creams like hydroquinone, corticosteroids, and trichloroacetic acid are commonly used to inhibit the production of melanin. These creams gradually diminish the appearance of the spots over time.

Keep in mind, though, certain creams like hydroquinone should be used on a short-term basis as its side effects are of great concern. Some studies have indicated that hydroquinone may be carcinogenic if used in high concentrations.

Laser treatments

Dark spots removal by laser is an effective treatment as it removes skin layer-by-layer. However, these treatments may cause redness, tightness, swelling, scarring, and infection.


This procedure exfoliates the skin to remove dead skin cells. With the crystal particles, the machines remove the top layer and improve skin appearance.


Cryotherapy is a process of using extreme cold to destroy dark spots by freezing them with liquid nitrogen. Cryosurgery is also used to treat internal and external tumors in the body.


As we age, dark spots become inevitable because of sun exposure. Although laser for dark spot removal is the commonly used treatment of choice, there are a few remedies you can use to avoid dark spots or prevent faded ones;

Green tea

Green tea is known for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties because of its ECGC (epigallocatechin-3-gallate) compounds. According to research, green tea can be used for melasma. Plus, it’s effective in inhibiting UV-induced erythema, sunburn cells, and DNA protection against UV radiation.

Ascorbic Acid

Vitamin C is an antioxidant that serves as a cofactor to the human enzyme process. It also plays an important role in wound healing, iron absorption, and immune system functions.

Furthermore, both in vivo and in vitro studies have suggested that vitamin C may be beneficial to hyperpigmentation, especially melasma.


Turmeric contains curcumin, a yellow pigment, which has anti-inflammatory and anti-carcinogenic properties. Additionally, it has been shown to induce apoptosis of melanoma cells.

Protect yourself

Always use SPF when going out, especially if you’re going swimming or will be sweating a lot. Additionally, cover yourself when going under direct sunlight.

Parting Shot

As aforementioned, dark spots on the skin become common as we age. Although they may not be harmful, dark spots or skin changes can be an indication of cancer. Therefore, it is essential to visit a dermatologist annually for a skin checkup.

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