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The Seoul Guide: Hyperpigmentation and how to treat it?

The Seoul Guide: Hyperpigmentation and how to treat it?

Start treating your dark spots and scars with Japanese and Korean skincare (J and K-Beauty) products! The products are well known around the World to produce spotless, glowing skin. This post explores how hyperpigmentation forms and how you can use the active ingredients in the products to give you evenly-toned and glowingly-clear skin.

Summary

Here’s a quick summary of the main takeaway points before we get into the details of the subject. The post is quite lengthy and goes into quite a bit of detail.

Hyperpigmentation is a skin condition where our skin cells have an excess amount of pigment and this normally manifests as what we refer to as uneven skin tone or dark spots. Hyperpgimentation forms due to damage to our skin from the likes of inflammation, excessive and unprotected exposure to UV rays as well as excessive free radicals. Steps to take to prevent and treat hyperpigmentation are as follows:

  1. Always wear a sunscreen to protect against new spots or darkening of existing spots.
  2. Incorporate antioxidants into your skincare routine to prevent new spots from forming.
  3. Use pigmentation inhibitors to prevent new spots from forming post-damage from inflammation/sun exposure/excess free radicals.
  4. Treat existing hyperpigmentation with vitamin A (and derivatives) as well as Alpha Hydroxy Acid (AHA) chemical exfoliation.

The Missha Time Revolution Night Repair Science Activator Ampoule assists to inhibit hyperpigmentation with a wealth of antioxidants while reducing the appearance of wrinkles and ageing as well as improving skin elasticity.

How is pigmentation formed?

To understand how to treat hyperpigmentation, we first need to understand how pigmentation forms. Pigmentation in dermatology refers to the colour of our skin; so strictly speaking pigmentation on its own cannot be seen as a skin condition. However, an excess amount of pigmentation (hyperpigmentation) or a lack of pigmentation (hypopigmentation) can be seen as a skin condition.

The colour of our skin is effectively determined by a substance in our skin called melanin. Melanin is produced by skin cells called melanocytes which are mostly located in the epidermis (the outer most layer) of the skin. In order for the melanoyctes to produce melanin, they require a biological enzyme called tyrosinase. Without this enzyme, melanin cannot be produced. Once the melanin is produced, it is transferred to skin cells called keratinocytes by a liquid filled sack called a melanosome. These keratinocyte cells sit on the surface of our skin which allows for the melanin to become visible as pigmentation. The more melanin in the keratinocyte cells, the darker the pigmentation of your skin.

The relative colouration of the skin depends of the amount of melanin produced by melanocytes and taken up by keratinocytes.
Source: https://courses.lumenlearning.com/wm-biology2/chapter/pigmentation/

Hyperpigmentation – What is it and what initiates it

Now that we understand how pigmentation is formed, we can start to understand what hyperpigmentation (excess pigmentation) is and how it develops.  

Hyperpigmentation is an umbrella term used to describe any darkened part of your skin (due to an excess amount of pigmentation) and is often referred to as an “uneven” skin tone.

Specific hyperpigmentation conditions and their initiators that fall under this umbrella are conditions such as: 

Hyperpigmentation ConditionInitiator Examples
Spot scarring and discolouration Stubborn breakouts
Freckles expanded into sunspotsExcess exposure to sunlight or exposure without sunscreen
Patch discolourationConditions such as eczema, psoriasis or skin irritation rashes
Spot discolurationInsect bites

The initiators in the table have the potential to overstimulate our skins’ melanocytes. When the melanocytes are overstimulated, they create an excess of melanin resulting in the hyperpigmentation condition. It’s important to note that once the initiators cause “damage” to our skin, it takes on average 7 days for the melanin to be produced and transferred to the surface skin cells (keratinocytes).

Fading can take time – methods to treat hyperpigmentation with Korean and Japanese Skincare Products

Treating formed hyperpigmentation takes time. Thus it is always better to protect against and prevent hyperpigmentation than to try and treat it. Additionally, the deeper and more concentrated the hyperpigmentation is in the layers of our skin, the more difficult the hyperpigmentation becomes to treat. Thus even if you already have hyperpigmentation, always try to protect against and prevent it from darkening; the darker the spots are the more difficult they will be to fade. The four main steps that we can take to treat hyperpigmentation is to (in preferred order):

  1. Protect against hyperpigmentation caused by the sun’s UV rays with sunscreen.
  2. Prevent new hyperpigmentation spots from forming with antioxidants.
  3. Treat dark marks and blemishes during the formation and distribution of excess melanin produced due to inflammation/sun exposure/excess free radicals.
  4. Treat formed dark marks and blemishes.

Step 1 Protection is Better than Cure – Limit the harmful damage of sunlight (UVA and UVB) 

One of the most effective things that we can do to protect against hyperpigmentation from forming is to apply a sunscreen. Without an effective sunscreen, UVB rays induce delayed skin pigmentation by increasing melanin synthesis whereas UVA rays induce immediate skin pigmentation by oxidation (darkening) or faster distribution of melanin.     

Some of our favourite sunscreens (light, non-greasy, no white-cast) to protect against hyperpigmentation include:

Step 2 Antioxidants – Benefit from these miracle workers

You’ve probably heard of antioxidants and their seemingly unlimited benefits. In order to explain exactly how antioxidants assist with preventing hyperpigmentation, we’ll have to bring in another beauty and wellness buzzword: free radicals.

Free radicals are molecules that can cause damage to different components in cells, such as the DNA, proteins, outer barrier and the cell matrix.

Melissa Kanchanapoomi Levin, M.D., board-certified NYC dermatologist

Here’s what’s happening at a cellular level, free radicals are introduced to your body by:

  • UV rays;
  • Infrared radiation;
  • Pollutants;
  • Eating excessive oily or burnt foods; and
  • Other stressors such as smoking.

These free radicals are unstable and highly reactive molecules that then steal electrons from healthy cells and causing damage to your organs (your skin is your largest organ) in the process. Damaged skin cells can also lead to other issues such as premature ageing (due to decreased collagen production from damaged cells) and skin cancer.

Your body’s defense against these free radicals are antioxidants. Antioxidants donate an electron to the free radicals, neutralising it in the process and protecting your healthy cells. If your body has less antioxidants than free radicals (due to things like ageing or an unhealthy diet), the free radicals aren’t neutralised and cause damage to your skin cells.

Once your skin cells become damaged, they produce substances which stimulate your melanocytes to produce more melanin for defence. The produced melanin acts to protect your cells from further damage as melanin also acts as a free radicals scavenger.

Some favourite antioxidants found in Korean and Japanese Beauty to fight premature ageing and hyperpigmentation include:

  • Bifida Ferment Lysate
  • Galactomyces Ferment Filtrate
  • Ginseng
  • Glutathione
  • Glycyrrhiza Glabra (Licorice)
  • Green Tea
  • Niacinamide (Vitamin B3)
  • Reservatol (found in red fruits like berries, grapes and of course wine!)
  • Rice Ferment Filtrate
  • Saccharomyces Ferment Filtrate
  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin E

Topical antioxidants work best when applied to your skin at concentrations greater than 8%. For this reason, we recommend incorporating antioxidants into your skincare regime as a serum or as an essence that can be applied routinely everyday, twice-a-day. Some of our favourite serums and essences with their antioxidant active ingredients for hyperpigmentation include:

Budget friendly

Multi-purpose

High antioxidant concentration

Step 3 Hyperpigmentation Inhibitors – Stop excess pigmentation from forming post UV-damage or inflamation

Hyperpigmentation inhibitors is a reactive measure to combat pigmentation that has already formed whereas pigmentation protectors (sunscreen) and preventers (antioxidants) are proactive measures to prevent hyperpigmentation from forming altogether.

The most common active ingredients that lighten unwanted hyperpigmentation are referred to as tyrosinase inhibitors and actually work after the damage is done and when hyperpigmentation is forming.

Tyrosinase is the enzyme required by our skin’s melanocytes to produce melanin.

The tyrosinase inhibitors work exactly as their name suggests – by inhibiting the activity of the enzyme. Thus, although the damage is done and your cells want to start producing melanin, the inhibitor prevents them from doing so. Because a production of melanin is one of our skin’s defences against UV rays, it is so important to apply an effective sunscreen if tyrosinase inhibitors are used to treat hyperpigmentation to prevent further damage.

Examples of the most common and popular tyrosinase inhibitor active ingredients are:

  • Arbutin
  • Azelaic Acid
  • Cysteamine
  • Ginseng
  • Glutahione
  • Glycyrrhiza Glabra (Licorice)
  • Kojic Acid
  • Vitamin C

Besides stopping the melanin from forming once the damage is done, another method of treating post-damage hyperpgimentation is by preventing the transfer of the melanin from the melanocytes to the keratinocytes.

Keratinocyte cells sit on the surface of our skin which allows for the melanin to become visible as pigmentation. The more melanin in the keratinocyte cells, the darker the pigmentation of that skin cell.

A well known melanin transfer inhibitor is the wonder-ingredient niacinamide.

Some of our favourite K and J Beauty products for incorporating hyperpigmentation-inhibitors into your routine along with their melanin-inhibiting active ingredients include:

Toners

  1. Melano CC Vitamin C Brightening Lotion (Toner) – Vitamin C
  2. Hada Labo Shirojyun Arbutin Brightening Lotion (toner) – Arbutin and vitamin C
  3. SOME BY MI Galactomyces Pure Vitamin C Glow Toner – Niacinamide and vitamin C

Essences

  1. The Plant Base Pore N Tightening Essence – Arbutin, glycyrrhiza glabra (Licorice), niacinamide and vitamin C
  2. Secret Key Starting Treatment Essence – Arbutin and ginseng
  3. The Plant Base White Truffle Ginseng Tone Up Emulsion – Ginseng, niacinamide, glycyrrhiza Glabra (Licorice) and vitamin C

Serums

  1. SomebyMi Yuja Niacin 30 days Blemish Care Serum – Arbutin, glutathione, niacinamide (5 %) and vitamin C
  2. SomebyMi Galactomyces Pure Vitamin C Glow Serum – Niacinamide and vitamin C
  3. Missha Time Revolution Night Repair Ampoule – Niacinamide

Moisturisers

  1. Melano CC Vitamin C Brightening Cream – Vitamin C
  2. TIA’M My Signature A+ cream – Arbutin and vitamin C
  3. Heimish Bulgarian Rose Satin Cream – Niacinamide and vitamin C
  4. Missha Super Aqua Cell Renew Snail Cream – Arbutin

Step 4 Epidermal Cell Turnover – Shed old hyperpigmentation laden cells and produce new cells

This step is particularly important for treating hyperpigmentation that has already occurred. In the case of your unwanted spots, epidermal cell turnover increases your skin cells ability to:

  • Renew, meaning that cells with excess melanin are brought to the surface of the skin faster. At the surface of the skin, the cells are shed as part of the normal skin shedding process.
  • Distribute existing excess melanin to the newly renewed cells.

A favourite ingredient for this step of treating hyperpgimentation is Vitamin A – often seen in the form of retinol, tretinion acid and retinaldehyde. Apart from increasing healthy skin cell turnover, vitamin A also assists with:

  • Repairing the cellular structure of your skin.
  • Decreasing sebum production thus assisting with the treatment of acne.
  • Eliciting the formation of collagen hence improving the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.

Being such a wonderful ingredient, there are a few manageable “cons” for vitamin A such as:

  • It should not be used by females who are pregnant, trying to conceive or are breastfeeding.
  • It can be an irritant. Some people experience breakout purging when used to treat acne and it can cause some redness and dryness. As a result, one should always introduce vitamin A into your routine slowly (once a week as a start) and starting with small concentrations.
  • It makes your skin more sensitive to the sun, so make doubly sure to use a sunscreen and avoid excessive sun. This is also the reason that vitamin A is most of the time suggested to be applied in your nighttime routine.
  • It should not be used in conjunction with chemical exfoliators or Vitamin C. A suggestion is to use your vitamin C products in the morning and vitamin A products in the evening. Chemical exfoliation should be done on alternate days to applying vitamin A to your skin.

These “cons” are manageable, so don’t be afraid to introduce a product containing vitamin A into your routine. It truly is a wonderful ingredient to treat hyperpigmentation (along with ageing and breakouts). Some of our favourite products that include vitamin A or derivitives of it are:

  1. The Plant Base Pore N Tightening Essence – even skin tone while reducing the appearance of large pores
  2. Kose Cosmeport Plumping Eye Zone Mask 32 Pairs – even skin tone while targeting the fine lines around the eyes and mouth caused by dehydration
  3. The Plant Base Pore N Anti Sebum Silky Emulsion – even skin tone while controlling sebum production to combat oiliness and breakouts

The final ingredient that you can use to combat existing hyperpigmentation is by using Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs). AHAs are a type of chemical exfoliant that assist with increasing epidermal cellular turnover rate as well as increasing blood circulation. Both of these increases lead to cells with excess melanin being brought to the surface of your skin faster and them being shed as part of the normal skin shedding process. The AHAs also remove the dead surface skin cells which will also assist to brighten your overall complexion

As with all good things in life, too much of a good thing is not a good thing. Thus, don’t overdue dedicated chemical exfoliation with AHAs (for us a maximum of twice a week is good) and introduce it into your routine gradually. Some toners and moisturisers have a lower concentration of AHAs and can be used daily. As with vitamin A and vitamin C, AHAs can also make your skin more sensitive to the sun, so always use a sunscreen.

The common AHAs found in Korean and Japanese skincare are:

  • Glycolic Acid
  • Lactic Acid
  • Mandelic Acid 
  • Citric Acid

Some of our favourite products that include AHAs are:

Everyday-use toners

  1. COSRX Natural BHA Skin Returning A-Sol Toner – A mild chemical exfoliating toner containing glycolic acid & lactic acid. This toner is specifically formulated for acne prone skin.
  2. COSRX AHA/BHA Clarifying Treatment Toner – A mild chemical exfoliating toner containing glycolic acid and suitable for all skin types.
  3. Mamonde Rose Water Toner – A luxuriously hydrating toner that can calm irritated skin while the mild lactic acid gently exfoliates.
  4. Son & Park Beauty Water – A multitasking cleanser/toner containing citric acid.  After everyday continual use, expect a brighter skin tone and smoother texture.

Dedicated chemical exfoliators

  1. COSRX AHA 7 Whitehead Power Liquid – A dedicated chemical exfoliator containing 7 % glycolic acid.
  2. Wafood Sake Lees Face Pack – A wash-off mask type exfoliator containing citric acid. This face pack will become your best ally for getting that clear, silky skin.
  3. Neogen Bio-Peel Gauze Peeling Lemon – A physical and chemical exfoliator containing lactic and glycolic acid. These pads will assist to give you brighter and smoother skin.

Brightening moisturiser

  1. Heimish Bulgarian Rose Satin Cream – A hydrating cream that also contains lactic acid.  It will assist to brighten your complexion and improve the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines.

Bottom line on treating hyperpigmentation with skincare products

We hope that you found this guide helpful and will assist you with decoding which ingredients assist with treating hyperpigmentation. A few tips to remember when dealing with hyperpigmentation:

  1. Prevention is always better than cure. Wear your sunscreen and get your dose of antioxidants. Always!!!
  2. Be patient and consistent. Hyperpigmentation doesn’t just appear overnight. Likewise, fading the unwanted hyperpgimentation is also going to take time.
  3. Incorporate a combination of pigmentation busters into your routine. Additional to your sunscreen, have a good mix of antioxidants, melanin inhibitors and cell renewers.
  4. One last time because it’s so important – APPLY YOUR SUNSCREEN! Once you’ve lightened the hyperpigmentation and have incorporated melanin inhibitors into your routine, your skin becomes particularly sensitive to UV damage and thus it becomes even more important to wear sunscreen.

6 comments

  1. Hi there I absolutely loved this. It was so informative and I’ve recently begun using K beauty products and they’re amazing on my skin. I have really bad hyperpigmentation spots and I don’t what to do at this point as most products give me a breakout however I’ve noticed the Benton products I use are quite gentle. May I ask you do a Step by step on how and when to use the above products. Skin care and self care go hand in hand and I’m always up to learn more. Many thanks❤️

    1. Seoul of Tokyo

      Hi Valerie, thank you so much for going through our very first blog post! We are so glad that you loved it and also that K-Beauty is amazing for your skin.

      We haven’t featured any Benton products on this blog post but there are definitely Benton products which are great for treating hyperpigmentation. The Benton Snail Bee line in particular contain the famed and much hyped up (for a good reason) snail mucin which is going to promote cell healing and thus turnover as well as niacinamide (powerful antioxidant and melanin inhibitor). They also have a great chemical exfoliator, the PHA peeling gel and PHA peeling toner to promote your cellular turnover to treat your existing hyperpigmentation.

      Thank you for the suggestion, we will definitely include in this post an example routine which incorporates some of the products mentioned.

      Keep well!

  2. ปั้มไลค์

    Like!! Thank you for publishing this awesome article.

  3. Marcelle Alberts

    What a GOOD Read. Thank you this was very informative.

  4. Kgolagano

    Hi I struggle with pist inflammatory pigmentation, dark spots after break out has cleared.

    I have never tried Korean Skincare so I wouldn’t know where to start, I have acne-prone skin.

    I occasionally use medical grade Retinol to treat my acne breakouts, what I need is something to help with the dark marks. Please advice

    1. Seoul of Tokyo

      Hi there, as a start please consider adding these steps to your routine to assist with the hyperpigmentation:
      1) Sunscreen – should be warn everyday and will assist to protect your skin from further hyperpigmentation as well as assist to prevent existing hyperpigmentation from darkening which would make it more difficult to treat
      2) AHA Chemical exfoliator – will assist to encourage cellular turnover and quicken lightening of existing dark spots
      3) Serum rich in niacinamide – melanin inhibitor which will assist in reducing excess melanin from being produced which can result in dark spots.

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