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What are the dark spots caused by pimples (and how to get rid of them)

If you’ve ever noticed a dark mark left behind once a pimple has gone, you’re not alone. These spots are known as hyperpigmentation acne, and they’re extremely common, especially among people of color. Find out all about what causes hyperpigmentation acne, how to prevent it, and how to treat the discoloration it leaves behind.

What causes hyperpigmentation acne?

Hyperpigmentation acne

At the most basic level, skin discoloration is caused by an imbalance of melanin within the cells. Melanin is a natural pigment that gives skin, hair, and eyes their color. Brown skin has more melanin than fair skin, but production of this pigment varies throughout our lives. For example when we tan, our cells increase melanin production to defend against UV light.

The same reactive process is at work in hyperpigmentation acne. Pimples are a form of inflammation, and cells can increase melanin production to heal and protect the area. The color of the hyperpigmentation marks can vary from light tan to dark blue-gray, depending how deep they are in the skin. Lighter marks are closer to the surface and easier to treat, while slate-colored marks can, unfortunately, last for years.

Pimple, hyperpigmentation, or scar tissue?

Sometimes it can be tricky to determine whether a dark mark on the skin is a pimple, hyperpigmentation, or scar tissue. 

Pimples are inflamed or blocked pores that are typically raised and may be tender. 

Scars are usually raised and have a glossy, smooth surface that’s a different texture to your normal skin.

Hyperpigmentation spots are flat and the same texture of your skin. They are different colors, ranging from light tan to dark blue-gray depending on depth.

How to prevent hyperpigmentation

Prevention is always better than cure when it comes to skincare. Hyperpigmentation can be caused by a number of factors, and getting to the root of the problem will help you treat it. 

Cause: Acne

If you only notice hyperpigmentation spots where a pimple has been, then hyperpigmentation acne is the culprit. The best way of preventing more dark spots from appearing is to treat the acne itself. Look for skincare products that contain ingredients that combat oil production, improve healing, and fight bacteria. These include: 

  • Vitamin C (sodium ascorbyl phosphate)

  • Vitamin A (retinol, or retinyl palmitate)

  • Vitamin B3 (niacin or niacinamide)

All these ingredients are all great at reducing breakouts and keeping your skin healthy and spot-free.

If you do get a pimple, resist the urge to pick or pop it! This only makes the inflammation worse, increasing the odds that a hyperpigmentation spot will be left behind.

Cause: Psoriasis

Psoriasis is a skin disease that causes red, itchy patches of skin, usually on the torso, joints, and scalp. Unfortunately psoriasis is  a chronic condition that has no cure, but it can be managed. You should always consult a physician for help treating psoriasis outbreaks.

Because psoriasis is essentially the overproduction of skin cells, avoid harsh exfoliants. Instead look for rich moisturizers and products that contain salicylic acid, which can help lift psoriasis scales. Don’t use products that contain alcohol or fragrance, as they can make the symptoms worse.

Cause: Product irritation

Sometimes your skin can react to the products you use, causing irritation that leads to hyperpigmentation. Fragrances are often the cause of product irritation, even if you’ve used the same product for years without problem. In fact, contact allergies are more likely to be triggered by prolonged exposure. That means it's more likely to be a tried-and-tested product that causes a breakout.

It isn’t only skincare products that can irritate your skin. Shampoo, laundry detergent, dishwashing liquid and more can all cause allergic reactions. If you suddenly develop an itchy rash, try eliminating products until you find the culprit.

Cause: Hormone imbalance

The final common cause of skin irritation is hormonal imbalance. If you’ve tried other treatments without results, consult your physician to see if there’s an underlying problem. Hormone imbalances can occur at any age, and for a variety of reasons, and they’re always worth getting checked out.

How to remove hyperpigmentation spots

woman applying sunscreen

If you suffer from hyperpigmentation marks, the first step is to prevent them from becoming more visible. This means avoiding external factors that can increase melanin production, such as UV light. Always wear sunscreen outdoors, even if it’s a cloudy day. Dermatologists recommend SPF 30 or higher, even if you have brown or black skin.

Hyperpigmentation spots will typically fade on their own as your skin renews, but it can take 6-12 months for them to disappear completely. Deep hyperpigmentation (very dark brown or blue-grey marks) may take much longer to fade, or even become permanent.

Some skincare products can help treat hyperpigmentation. Look for products with the following ingredients:

  • 2% hydroquinone

  • Azelaic acid

  • Glycolic acid

  • Kojic acid

  • Retinoids (retinol, tretinoin, adapalene gel, or tazarotene)

  • Vitamin C

There are several ways that skincare ingredients can help treat hyperpigmentation spots. Some ingredients suppress the production of melanin, or have a lightening effect on the skin.  Others promote skin healing, protect against UV damage, or increase the process of skin shedding (known as desquamation). 

To avoid creating any new pimples that can turn into hyperpigmentation spots, use makeup that is noncomedogenic. Noncomedogenic products won’t block your pores, reducing the chances of them causing a breakout.

If you want to get the fastest and most effective treatment for hyperpigmentation spots, it’s time to visit a dermatologist. Chemical peels can help reduce or remove hyperpigmentation in the upper layers of your skin, and make deep hyperpigmentation spots less visible. Whatever you do, don’t try to bleach your skin. Home skin-lightening remedies can contain toxic ingredients, and you could end up damaging your skin.

In conclusion

Hyperpigmentation acne is a common skin complaint that many people suffer from. Although the dark marks from pimples may look concerning, they aren’t dangerous, and will usually fade on their own given time. However you can reduce your chances of getting more hyperpigmentation spots by treating the underlying cause, and use the right skincare products to speed healing and reduce their visibility.

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