“Help! I went on a beach vacation and wore sunscreen religiously and now my face is covered in freckles and sun spots!” This was a text message I recently received from one of my clients who I see regularly for facial treatments upon her returning from a trip to Mexico.
How can someone whose skin is normally fair, porcelain and even-toned, be so good about wearing sunscreen, a hat and mostly staying in the shade at the beach, return to brown spots and freckles all over her face? The answer is simple. The heat (Yes, the heat!) given off by the sun caused her melanin cells (melanocytes) to produce more pigment in an effort to protect her skin from inflammation. Essentially, her pigment cells were asleep before and from the sun and heat, they woke up resulting in dark pigment (also known as hyperpigmentation).
My immediate goal with her skin was to get the pigment cells to settle back down so the sun spots and freckles will fade away and her skin can return to being bright and even-toned again.
It’s important to know that while it can eventually lighten up over time, discoloration needs to be treated with high-powered active ingredients and professional treatments to get it to go away quickly.
Here is the expert advice I gave to her, which is what I give all of my clients in this situation.
1. Jump on it — fast. It’s important when sun spots and freckles occur, that you act quickly. Skin cells have a memory, so the longer they are there without you doing anything to get them to settle down, the longer it may take to get them to go away if you decide to do something about it later.
2. Discontinue use of a sonic cleansing brush (Clarisonic), facial scrub or at-home microneedling. This may come as a surprise but repeated aggressive friction from needles, bristles or beads, and grains may prevent the melanin cells from settling down so it’s best to put all of these on hold for the moment to avoid any unnecessary inflammation response. (By the way, I’m not the hugest fan of the Clarisonic brush— especially for certain types of skin. Read my thoughts here.)
3. Avoid overheating the skin. Since we want the pigment cells to settle down, doing activities which can raise the internal temperature of the skin, is not a good idea right now. I suggest that you avoid outdoor exercise, hot yoga, steam rooms and saunas. If you should find your skin getting red and over-heated, keep a gel-based mask in the refrigerator and apply it to the skin and leave on for 20 minutes to cool the skin and provide relief.
4. Use sunscreen, a gentle exfoliating acid, a natural skin lightener and retinol in your skin care routine. These four active ingredients are exactly what the skin needs to remove discoloration. Vitamin C acts as a melanin disruptor to improve skin color and both retinol (vitamin A) and exfoliating acids encourage skin cell turnover from deep within the skin to bring new, evenly pigmented cells to the surface. Sunscreen is mandatory to ensure the skin stays protected from the damaging rays of daylight. (Actress Sofia Vergara loves using this sunscreen.)
Here is the skin care routine I recommend for my post-vacation clients seeking to fade their brown spots:
- Cleanse the face with a mild sulfate-free gel cleanser and rinse well. Pat skin slightly with a towel.
- Immediately apply an alcohol-free toner and wipe over the entire face. Leave damp.
- Immediately apply a thin coat of a vitamin C serum (like Vitamin C&E Treatment). (This step is extremely helpful as vitamin C is excellent for inhibiting melanin cells to encourage fading of discoloration. Essentially, it acts as a natural skin lightener. For the best results, use one with the ingredient magnesium ascorbyl phosphate or tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate which are stable forms of vitamin C known for their proven ability to fade brown spots, without causing skin irritation. Read more about that here.)
- Wait 60 seconds and then apply a generous coat of sunscreen to block out damaging UV rays.
- Apply either a foundation makeup or mineral powder makeup. Especially for skin types prone to pigmentation, I never suggest you go makeup free during daylight hours. The fact is, wearing makeup (appropriate for your skin type) offers a barrier of protection against harmful UV rays. UV rays from the sun are the #1 reason for skin aging. It’s not genetics, smoking, and believe it or not, even age. The sun is the skin’s WORST enemy. Most types of makeup contain sunscreen and even if they don’t indicate an SPF number, most have UV-protecting ingredients like Titanium Dioxide. Based on this benefit from wearing makeup, I never leave my skin bare and never suggest my clients (with or without hyperpigmentation issues) to do so either. So do your skin a favor and start wearing makeup NOW, to protect your skin from wrinkles in your future.
- Cleanse the face with a lotion-based cleanser to effectively dissolve and digest off makeup and debris.
- Immediately apply an alcohol-free toner and wipe over the entire face. Leave damp.
- Immediately apply a gentle exfoliating acid serum (like AHA Smoothing Serum 20%) for two nights in a row. Look for one that contains glycolic, lactic or malic acid, which will help dissolve pigmented cells. After two nights, discontinue the acid serum and use a serum with retinol (like Advanced Resurfacing Serum) on night #3. On nights #4 and #5, use the vitamin C Serum from the morning as your evening serum. Then repeat the whole process starting back with the acid serum. Using a variety of different ingredients (acids, retinol, and skin-lightening vitamin C) are all working to eliminate unwanted discoloration.
- Wait 60 seconds and then apply a soothing, anti-inflammatory moisturizer appropriate for your skin type.
5. Use a prescription skin bleach, if needed. In some cases, a compounded skin bleach used several nights a week may be necessary to remove more severe pigmentation. I usually suggest to most of my clients to wait a few weeks to see how the combination of the acid serum, vitamin C serum and retinol serum work before I’ll recommend they get a skin bleach. They need to be prescribed by a dermatologist but can be custom-blended from a pharmacy. A great example of a compound uses 8% hydroquinone, 1% kojic acid, and 1% vitamin E. (There are ready-made prescription bleaches available like Tri-Luma but because compounds are custom-made, they can really cater to the skin type and severity of pigmentation. Note: Hydroquinone should not be used for long periods of time. Be sure to follow the instructions for usage as recommended by your doctor.
6. Get a professional chemical peel or intense pulsed light (IPL) treatment. In many cases, at-home creams and serums will only do so much and a professional procedure is needed to get the skin looking clear faster. My favorite treatments for this condition are Bio Brasion (the next generation of microdermabrasion) combined with a chemical peel. (You can see the amazing results from my client, Natalie who had a bad case of discoloration.) Peels are very powerful for removing deeper pigment but of course, the type of peel needed for each type of skin may vary. IPL is also a popular choice for targeting the sun and heat-induced discoloration by lifting out pigment from the cells. If you do decide to seek the help of a professional, be sure to get a good referral and seek out someone with a lot of experience performing these types of procedures.
7. Prevent it from returning. Just because my program can return the skin back to being even-toned doesn’t mean you can start to slack off with your routine. Once you have a tendency for it to occur, it will slowly come back. The best way to prevent discoloration from returning is to limit time away from heat and the sun, wear sunscreen faithfully, wear a wide-brimmed hat when outdoors to avoid overheating the face, and continue to use a home care routine with vitamin C, exfoliating acids and retinol. (And a prescription skin bleach, when necessary.) Also, I highly suggest getting a skin-brightening facial every six weeks where an esthetician will use a professional-strength exfoliating acid as well as vitamin C to ensure the skin stays smooth, glowing and even-toned. For an at-home chemical peel, I suggest for my clients to use Triple Berry Smoothing Peel which has a blend of five exfoliating acids and works very well when used 2-3 times a month to keep pigment cells away to give a bright look to the skin.
In conclusion, developing hyperpigmentation on the skin during the summer months and from a beach vacation can be very common but with the right products and treatments (along with patience), can get the skin returned back to its beautiful self in no time. You simply just need to put in a little work.
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