Hyperpigmentation acne marks are the dark spots sometimes left behind on the skin after acne heals, so even once your acne is gone, you still aren’t always done dealing with it. Hyperpigmentation works differently for different people though. For instance, if you mostly have blackheads and whiteheads, you probably don’t have many hyperpigmentation acne marks. However, if you have pimples or cysts, or if you have dark skin, you probably notice a lot more hyperpigmentation. Why do pimples cause more hyperpigmentation? Why does hyperpigmentation show up more on dark skin? We’ll answer all these questions and more in this article, plus we have several tips and tricks for how to treat hyperpigmentation and how to prevent it from appearing in the first place.
The Path to Hyperpigmentation: The Transformation from Acne Blemishes to Acne Marks
For the sake of clarity, we’re going to differentiate two terms: acne blemishes refer to acne itself, such as blackheads or pimples, while acne marks are the hyperpigmented spots that often appear after acne blemishes themselves have healed. But how do acne blemishes become acne marks?
The Ins and Outs of Acne Blemishes
Acne blemishes start because of three key factors: inflammation, bacteria, and oil production. These factors combine in different ways to create different types of acne blemishes, from blackheads to cysts, but researchers have discovered that acne is primarily an inflammatory condition, meaning inflammation is at the root of all acne, no matter what kind.
Blackheads and whiteheads actually form in much the same way: a combination of inflammation and an excess of oil and dead skin cells. When the skin becomes inflamed through irritation, stress, or any other number of causes, the pores constrict slightly, trapping the excess oil and dead skin cells. Whiteheads form when this inflammation actually closes the pore completely, and blackheads form when the pore remains slightly open. The color difference is caused by the air that gets into the open pore. The air oxidizes the oil, turning it a darker shade, hence the name blackhead.
Pimples start the same way, with minor inflammation that causes the pores to constrict, but there’s a key difference: bacteria, specifically p. acnes bacteria, also get trapped in the pore. Once they’re there, the p. acnes multiply and their numbers grow rapidly, creating a minor infection. Your body then tries to fight off the infection by causing more inflammation. This is meant to prevent the bacteria from spreading and to bring more oxygen and immune system cells to the site of the infection, but it’s also what makes pimples larger and more painful than blackheads or whiteheads. When the immune system cells fight p. acnes, both cell types usually end up dying, and the dead cell matter becomes pus, which is what gives pimples their white or yellow heads. Cysts form the same way, but instead of coming to a head, the infection spreads deeper into the skin, making it harder to treat and causing extra inflammation.
How Hyperpigmentation Acne Marks Form
Hyperpigmentation acne marks form after the acne blemish has healed, or toward the end of the healing process. Blackheads and whiteheads don’t really “heal;” instead, the oil and dead skin cells are removed and the pore quickly returns to its normal state. Pimples and cysts, on the other hand, can require quite a bit of healing, and that’s where hyperpigmentation comes in.
One of the first steps in the healing process is to increase blood flow to the site of the wound. Acne blemishes technically fit the definition for a very minor skin wound, so when acne forms, blood flow increases. This allows various cells and chemicals, like the immune system cells that fight off p. acnes, to travel through the bloodstream and start healing the wound, but it also causes inflammation.
Most dermatologists and researchers agree that inflammation plays an important role in hyperpigmentation, but the exact mechanics aren’t well understood at this time. Here’s what we do know: certain chemicals are released by the wound site that encourage inflammation, such as histamines and nitric oxide, and these chemicals also stimulate the cells that produce our skin’s pigmentation. Pigment is produced by a chemical called melanin, and melanin is produced by a particular type of cell called melanocytes. The longer it takes for the wound to heal, the longer the melanocytes are stimulated and the more melanin is released. This is how acne blemishes change into hyperpigmentation acne marks.
How Skin Tone Affects Hyperpigmentation
As you might have guessed, skin tone can have a big impact on hyperpigmentation. Generally speaking, hyperpigmentation acne marks occur more frequently and last longer in dark skin than they do in fair skin because of how dark skin produces melanin. Contrary to popular belief, dark skin doesn’t produce more melanin than fair skin, it just releases a different form of melanin and allows it to mature longer. Fair skin produces a slightly different kind of melanin compared to dark skin, and melanocytes in dark skin typically allow the melanin to mature longer before releasing it to the skin cells for pigmentation, giving it a darker hue. Since this is the main difference between skin pigmentation in fair and dark skin, dermatologists believe that the type of melanin typically present in dark skin is likely the reason for the increased frequency and duration of hyperpigmentation in dark skin. It may respond more vigorously to inflammation, or it might take longer to deteriorate in the skin cells—the exact cause is still unclear.
However, it’s perfectly clear that this hyperpigmentation can cause real problems for people with dark skin. Because of the way our society scrutinizes and shames any skin irregularities like acne and hyperpigmentation (despite the fact that nearly 80% of people have acne at some point, making it anything but irregular), many people with long-lasting or severe hyperpigmentation can develop low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression. The beauty industry is slowly getting better about representing the beauty of dark skin and including products made for dark skin, but colorism and racism can also play a large role in the struggle of hyperpigmentation. Unfortunately, the societal standard of beauty is still predominantly white, and dark-skinned people are often discouraged from loving the way their skin looks normally, let alone when it has hyperpigmentation marks. The good news is, even though these prejudices and standards pervasive, they are utter nonsense.
Preventing Hyperpigmentation Acne Marks
It is possible to treat hyperpigmentation acne marks (we’ll get to that in a moment), but as with all acne care, prevention is always preferable. Generally, the best way to prevent acne marks is to prevent acne, but we know that isn’t always possible. The next course of action is to heal acne as quickly as possible. Melanin is released as part of the healing process, so the quicker acne heals, the less melanin is released. There are a wide variety of ways to help acne heal faster, but our two favorites are honey and resisting the urge to pick at acne and create acne scabs.
The Healing Power of Honey
There are some lab-made products that can help heal wounds, but we like to recommend honey because it comes with fewer side effects and it’s been proven to work. Honey-soaked dressings are actually becoming the most popular type of wound dressings in hospitals because they help wounds heal faster and with less infection compared to traditional dressings.
Honey is antibacterial and is able to kill nearly any kind of bacteria, including p. acnes, likely because of its incredibly high sugar content. This makes honey great for treating acne like pimples or cysts, and treating acne is one of the best ways to prevent hyperpigmentation. But honey can also help prevent hyperpigmentation because it is anti-inflammatory, meaning it can cut off some of the chemicals released during the inflammation process that trigger the release of extra melanin.
We suggest applying a small amount of honey to any pimples or cysts before bed each night and covering them with small pieces of tissue or BandAids to treat acne, promote healing, and prevent hyperpigmentation.
Avoid Picking and Popping, But Know How to Heal Acne Scabs Just in Case
One surefire way to get hyperpigmentation acne marks is to pick and pop your acne until it bleeds, creating an acne scab. The scab will have to be left alone for a day or two, meaning you won’t be able to really treat the acne very well and inflammation will likely get worse, increasing the likelihood of hyperpigmentation. And if you don’t leave the scab alone the situation gets even worse, because it will just bleed and form a scab again, drawing out the healing process even more.
It’s hard, but generally speaking, we recommend trying to touch your face as little as possible throughout the day. Picking, popping, scratching, even rubbing can cause irritation and inflammation at best, and bleeding and scabbing at worst.
If you can’t resist, or find yourself picking at your skin subconsciously, it’s important to know how to heal acne scabs. Like acne itself, your best bet is honey. It will prevent bacteria from infecting the scab and it should speed up the healing process.
Top 3 Ways to Treat Hyperpigmentation Acne Marks
So you’ve done everything in your power to prevent hyperpigmentation, but you still have several dark spots nonetheless. Now what? Now it’s time for treatment. There’s no perfect solution, but we have three strong suggestions: one for fair skin, one for dark skin, and one for sensitive skin.
1. For Fair Skin: Lemon Juice and Honey
Yes, honey again. It really is that good. But this time we recommend adding some fresh-squeezed lemon juice as well. Lemon juice contains a large amount of ascorbic acid, a particular nutrient in vitamin C that has been known to induce skin lightening. It does this by reducing the production of melanin, and many fair-skinned study participants respond well to ascorbic acid treatment for hyperpigmentation. However, ascorbic acid has been known to cause too much lightening in those with dark skin, leaving behind a light spot that’s often just as noticeable as the dark spot was.
2. For Dark Skin: Glycolic Acid
Glycolic acid is a popular ingredient in many acne skin care products, including the Clearing Tonic we make here at Exposed Skin Care. Glycolic acid works by increasing skin cell turnover, which helps get rid of the dark, hyperpigmented cells and make room for fresh, normally pigmented cells. Because glycolic acid doesn’t strip the cells of color or cause the melanocytes to refrain from producing melanin, it shouldn’t have any adverse effects on dark skin, but you should always check with your dermatologist before trying something new.
Papaya extract works a lot like glycolic acid due to an enzyme found in papayas called papain which helps exfoliate the skin, getting rid of old dead skin cells to make room for new, healthy, appropriately pigmented cells. This makes papaya extract safe for sensitive skin in all skin tones. Glycolic acid is relatively gentle, but papaya is considered very gentle and good for sensitive skin, and it may even help speed the wound healing process, so it could be a good tool for the prevention of hyperpigmentation acne marks as well as a good treatment.
Not Quite Hyperpigmentation: How to Get Rid of Redness from Acne
Some people don’t have the dark spots typically associated with hyperpigmentation, and may be wondering instead how to get rid of redness from acne. Pink or red spots can also be left behind once acne heals, and they have two common potential causes.
The first explanation is a broken blood vessel. Sometimes when we pop our pimples, or even when pimples pop on their own, a blood vessel will pop too, causing very minor bleeding under the skin. This can create a red, pink, or even purple spot. If you think this could be the cause for your after-acne redness, there’s not a great answer to how to get rid of redness from acne in this scenario. The blood vessel simply needs a bit of time to repair itself. But there are things you can do to avoid making it worse. Don’t pick, pop, or rub the red area at all. This could cause the blood vessel more damage, forcing it to take longer to heal. Honey may help, since it speeds the wound healing process, but the best thing for this kind of redness is to let it be.
The second explanation is a bit simpler: it could simply be hyperpigmentation in a very fair skin type. Fair skin tends to produce melanin that is more red than brown in nature, so hyperpigmentation in very fair skin could produce more of a red or pink spot rather than a dark spot. In this case, the key for how to get rid of redness from acne is the same as for any other kind of hyperpigmentation acne mark.