Why Dermatologists Recommend Retinol to Correct Hyperpigmentation

Dark marks — like sun spots and melasma — can be notoriously difficult to treat. For decades, dermatologists, including Dr. Sandra Lee (aka Dr. Pimple Popper) have been relying on retinol to manage many types of hyperpigmentation. Here’s why.

A dark spot aka hyperpigmentation that can be minimised with retinol

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What is hyperpigmentation?

Remember that your skin is made up of specialised types of cells, including melanocytes, which are responsible for producing melanin. These skin pigments (eumelanin and pheomelanin) absorb UV rays to prevent skin from being damaged. Sometimes, melanin builds up to create patches of darker areas, known as hyperpigmentation.

There are three main types of hyperpigmentation:

  • Melasma: patches of dark spots, often symmetrical, caused by hormonal fluctuations (like pregnancy)
  • Sunspots: also known as liver spots or age spots, they’re freckle-like marks caused by the sun
  • Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH): darker areas that remain after trauma, like acne or injury to the skin

How does retinol work?

Derived from vitamin A, retinol is a potent antioxidant that binds to special receptors in the skin and influences how quickly cells multiply. You’ll recall that the skin cycle starts in the lowest level of the epidermis — with the creation of new skin cells — that are continually pushed to the surface by newer cells beneath. Once at the surface, those cells slough off eventually.

Retinol speeds up this process, so that skin is technically younger. Cells are “born” more quickly, and those dead outer layers don’t hang around as long.

How does retinol help hyperpigmentation?

Retinol doesn’t stop dark spots from forming, but dermatologists know it acts in several different ways to decrease hyperpigmentation, including:

  • Shedding dead skin cells. When the skin’s outer layers slough off more quickly, this in turn means any cells that have excess melanin in them are also shed more quickly.
  • Decreasing melanosome transfer. Melanin moves from melanocytes into keratinocytes via “packages” called melanosomes. A faster skin cycle means less time for pigment to be deposited.
  • Inhibiting tyrosinase. Retinoids reduce UVB related pigmentation by disrupting the actions of this enzyme, essential for melanin production.
  • Minimising breakouts. Retinol is clinically proven to inhibit blemishes, which will cut down on any post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.

Does retinol have side effects?

Retinoids do have some documented side effects, though retinol tends to have fewer than prescription counterparts like tretinoin. Most commonly, during the first few weeks of use, some people experience:

  • Redness
  • Dryness
  • Irritation

Typically, these side effects diminish as skin gets accustomed to the product. It’s worth noting that some studies have indicated that retinol may increase sun sensitivity. Dr. Lee suggests only applying retinoids at night (since this is when skin regenerates itself) and using sunscreen during the day to avoid provoking more melanin production.

SLMD Skincare Retinol Serum

What retinol products work best to minimise hyperpigmentation?

According to Dr. Lee, prescription retinoids and over-the-counter retinol operate in nearly identical ways. Prescription versions tend to work a bit faster, but they also carry a greater risk of side effects. She suggests starting with an OTC product like SLMD Skincare Retinol Serum, which works gently overnight and contains hyaluronic acid and allantoin to help minimise irritation.

Dr. Lee’s last word

I often recommend retinol to manage hyperpigmentation. It works in a couple of different ways to minimize those dark patches of extra melanin: first, by speeding up cell turnover to help get rid of those dark spots, and also by inhibiting the production of melanin in the skin. I always remind patients to only use retinol at night, and to use sunscreen by day to prevent more dark marks from forming.

—Dr. Sandra Lee


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