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Friday, February 8, 2013

Skin of Many Colors

'minority boy in northern Vietnam' photo (c) 2008, Bùi Linh Ngân - license:

The skin is your body’s largest organ. For that reason, it’s usually fairly obvious when something is wrong with it. The color of the skin is particularly noticeable, as most people with healthy skin also have a healthy, even tone.

Skin discoloration can be caused by a variety of factors, but this post will address a few common ones, as well as when to see a doctor.

1.    How does the skin get its color?

The outer layer of skin, called the epidermis, has what is called melanocytes. Everyone has different levels of melanocytes, which determine how dark your skin will be. Darker skin has more active melanocytes.

When exposed to the sun, melanocytes produce a pigment called melanin. The melanin works to protect your skin against the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays, often resulting in your skin darkening. While many people consider the resulting tan as an advantage, remember that any change in the color of your skin means that it has been damaged in some way.

2.    Common causes of discoloration

Discoloration can be temporary, but rarely just happens. It’s almost always associated with some other (sometimes preventable) cause. Common causes for skin discoloration include:

  • Side effects from medication
  • Signs of aging
  • Sun exposure/sunspots
  • Genetics (birthmarks, melanocyte deficiency/albinism)
  • Scars
  • Stretch marks
  • Skin growths (moles, skin tags)

Some of these causes – like sun exposure – are preventable. If you wear sunscreen of at least 30 SPF every day, you’ll be less likely to experience sunspots or other discolorations associated with ultraviolet rays.

3.    Types of discoloration

As mentioned above, discoloration can results from preventable factors or from genetic or other medical causes. There are a few common medical terms related to discoloration that you should know:

  • Hyperpigmentation – This is when the skin is darker than normal. It usually results from an injury or scarring in darker-skinned people. Some people even get it as a result of blemishes. This is why it is important to take care of breakouts properly, as explained in a previous post.
  • Hypopigmentation – This is when the skin is lighter than normal.
  • Melasma – This is a term for skin discoloration that is often related to hormonal changes. It is sometimes called “the mask of pregnancy” due to the mask-like discoloration on the face that often occurs during the rapid hormone changes during pregnancy.
  • Albinism – This is a medical term for a person without any melanin in their skin. It is a genetic condition resulting in very light skin, white or pale yellow hair and light eyes.
  • Vitiligo – This is a disorder that creates smooth white spots with no pigment on the skin.

4.    Treating skin discoloration

How you should treat your skin discoloration depends on why you have it. There is no cure for albinism, for example, but some temporary discolorations can be treated.
  • If the discoloration is recent and only in the top layers of skin, exfoliation may help.
    • First, try a cleanser with glycolic or lactic acid. These types of cleansers are not abrasive, but will exfoliate gently.
    • If you decide to try something beaded that will help remove layers of dead skin cells that may be discolored, be aware that if it’s too abrasive it could make the discoloration worse.
    • Make sure to follow the tips in our blog post on exfoliation.
  • If the discoloration is a result of medication, talk to your doctor about stopping or changing medication to something without skin discoloration side effects.
  •  If the discoloration is a result of sunspots or other sun exposure, prevent it in the future by covering your skin and wearing sunscreen of at least 30 SPF every day.
  • If it’s simple and involves something like freckles, just use a good makeup to cover what you don’t like.
    • Our blog post on the best anti-aging makeup may help.  
  • If the discoloration is long-term and deep in the skin, talk to a dermatologist about laser treatments. These are often minimally invasive and can correct discoloration related to hormones, aging, birthmarks or other causes.
  • If you have a strange mole, remember the ABCDE of melanoma, and get it checked out by a doctor if it starts to concern you.

Have questions about skin discoloration that I didn’t address here? Ask them in the comments and we can discuss them there.


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