Light at the End of the Tunnel

For many spa-goers, the fight against hyperpigmentation caused by changing hormones can be a lifelong struggle. From the years spent on oral birth control pills to the months of pregnancy to the transition of menopause, hormonal fluctuations—and the ensuing hyperpigmentation that can result—are constant companions. But thanks to innovative products and therapies, spas are becoming ever more equipped to handle the problem. It’s a good thing, too, because an increasing number of people are demanding it.

For example, Erica Connor, Dermalogica’s director of retail operations, says that 10 percent of her company’s overall clientele is concerned with pigmentation due to hormonal imbalances. It’s also an issue for users of Advanced Rejuvenating Concepts. According to founder and executive director Tina Zillmann, skin-lightening products make up some 15 percent of the company’s sales, and at least 60 percent of those clients suffer from pigmentation caused by hormonal imbalances. And those numbers can go even higher. Janae J. Muzzy, vice president of research and development for Epicuren Discovery, estimates that somewhere between half and two-thirds of her customers are working to correct or actively prevent hyperpigmentation, and for the majority of those customers, it’s associated with some form of hormonal imbalance.


Going Beneath the Surface

There are a variety of ways hormonal fluctuations can cause skin discoloration. According to Muzzy, the abnormal levels of estrogen or progesterone commonly brought on by pregnancy, menopause, oral contraceptives, and hormone-replacement therapy can prompt hypersensitivity in the basal-layer melanocytes. “Melanocytes are responsible for producing melanosomes, which in turn convert tyrosine into melanin, thus giving the skin its color,” she says. “This process serves as the body’s natural defense against UV rays, but when melanocytes become hypersensitive as a result of hormonal imbalance or disruption, the skin’s natural protection mechanism becomes highly reactive and inflamed and responds by over-producing melanin.” This enthusiastic generation seems to result in hyperpigmentation called melasma (often referred to as the mask of pregnancy), a disorder that appears as areas of dark, irregular, demarcated skin, ranging in size from macules to patches on the forehead, nose, lips, and cheeks in a mask-like configuration, says Anne-Marie Campbell, executive administrator and senior writer for Le Mieux.


Taking the Long View

Combating hormonal hyperpigmentation is no easy feat. It requires longer treatment durations and lower product concentrations, says Sara Fulton, cofounder and president of Vivant Skin Care. And, Muzzy says, this form of hyperpigmentation is a direct result of an imbalance in the body, so “no matter how many treatments or products you use, the skin will continue to react with visible hyperpigmentation until balance is restored.” Fixing the issue is challenging if the client remains exposed to heightened hormone levels, and unfortunately, because melasma is often triggered by pregnancy, restoring balance can be more difficult than just changing a prescription. “Treating a pregnant client requires that certain ingredients—glycolic and other acids, retinol, tretinoin—be avoided,” says Alexis Mayne, director of research and development for Sanítas Skincare. “A stepped approach can help. Introduce certain safe products during pregnancy to reduce discolorations, and plan for more aggressive treatment postpartum or post-lactation.”


Getting the Spots Out

So how do you eradicate the problem? Dasha Saian, cofounder and marketing director of Saian Natural Clinical Skincare, recommends prescribing a series of six professional treatments two weeks apart but says it’s imperative for customers to have adequate products for daily home use. “Hyperpigmentation correction is most successful when done in concert with treatments from an esthetician or doctor and a consistent, effective homecare routine that includes twice-daily cleansings, gradual resurfacing—assuming no recent invasive procedure has been received—and a combination of specialty products that address multiple stages of melanogenesis,” says Muzzy. Keep in mind that patience is a virtue. “Hyperpigmentation is treated over time, so it often takes a month to see the results your clients are looking for,” says Saian. Mayne concurs with that timeline. She’s found that with a series of six glycolic or lactic acid peels and regular use of products containing AHAs, retinol, sunscreen, and vitamin C, clients see small improvements within the first 30 days and more dramatic results within three to six months. “While effective treatment may take a month or so longer, the results are much better and more long term,” she says.

It’s not always easy to convince a nervous client that things will get better, but it’s a crucial component of successful treatment—guests must be willing to follow medical advice. “When the body has hormonal imbalances and the client wants to see a dramatic improvement in their skin, it becomes a type of tug-of-war that the body usually wins, unless the client follows the professional advice of their physician,” says Zillmann. “The secret recipe requires consistent care, consistency in treatment, and client compliance. It is a slow process. If you rush trying to get rid of pigmentation, it can be a nightmare, and you can make it worse.” She schedules clients for monthly visits to monitor their progress and adjust their homecare routines as necessary, prescribing a melanin-suppressing regimen to help even and brighten skintone before office treatments and, depending upon skin type, salicylic peels, ultrasonic rejuvenation, and optional microdermabrasion or lactic peels afterward.

Fulton takes a longer view, as well, promoting a daily at-home regimen that includes a cleanser, toner, corrector, and hydrator to prep the skin for further treatment. “Preconditioning for six to eight weeks prepares skin for more advanced therapy, like Vivant Progressive ProPeels, which accelerate the skin’s rejuvenation process via exfoliation, and non-ablative fractional laser therapy, which brings the pigmentation up from the mid-dermal level and eventually causes it to flake off,” says Fulton. She notes that consistency and moderation are key, though. Irregular laser therapy, be it ablative or non-ablative, can cause scarring, delayed wound-healing, and reactive hyperpigmentation. Extended non-ablative, fractional laser therapy or extended  exposure to topical products, such as hydroquinone and retinol, can cause recurrences of pigmentation, erythema, edema, burning sensations, pain, and scaling. Muzzy also recommends proceeding with caution when using chemical peels, IPL treatments, and microdermabrasion. They may be highly effective, but they all have the potential to cause extreme irritation. It’s important to be aware of the skin’s heightened sensitivity, she says, and choose post-procedure products with calming ingredients. “Calm is the most important term to remember,” says Zillmann. “Stimulating hormonally hyperpigmented skin with aggressive treatments or over-exfoliation will simply stimulate more pigment or deliver no change to the current condition.”

And, whatever you do, don’t forget to stress the importance of sunblock—the pros agree that daily sun protection is vital in the fight against discoloration. “Avoiding UV exposure is probably the single most effective action that can be taken to prevent the formation or reduce the severity of hyperpigmentation,” says Muzzy. Stick to these suggestions, and your clients’ skin will be clear in no time.—Maya Stanton

Help clients achieve glowing complexions with these skin-brightening products.—Jessica Morrobel


1. CBI Laboratories Skin Brightening Gel: Featuring bearberry, birch bark, and licorice extracts, this treatment improves uneven skintone and discoloration.

2. [ comfort zone ] Absolute Pearl Night Serum: Formulated with pearl powder and vitamin C, this serum improves skin discoloration by stabilizing the production of melanin.

3. Dermalogica C-12 Pure Bright Serum: This lightweight topical treatment combats skin discoloration at its source with oligopeptides and botanicals to reveal a more luminous complexion.

4. Éminence Organic Skin Care Bright Skin Licorice Root Booster: Gentle enough for all skin types, this lightening serum blends lemongrass and stone crop to nourish and clear uneven skin.

5. G.M. Collin PhytoWhite Cream: This moisturizer reduces the appearance of dark spots and illuminates the skin with a blend of amino acids, antioxidants, and peptides.

6. Image Skincare Iluma Intense Lightening Serum: Combining green tea leaf extract and vitamin C, this oil- and paraben-free serum treats skin discolorations and reduces inflammation.

7. Institut’ DerMed Chromabright Serum: Made with glycolic and kojic acids, this treatment stimulates collagen production, fades dark brown discoloration, and protects skin against photo-aging.

8. Jurlique Purely Bright Treatment Serum: This serum decreases the appearance of dark spots and protects skin from moisture loss with a blend of African birch extract and squalane derived from olives.

9. Naturopathica Botanical Skin Brightener: Packed with daisy flower, licorice root, and wine extract, this treatment helps brighten the complexion and reduce hyperpigmentation.

10. Saian Anti Hyperpigmentation Serum + Alpha Arbutin: Infused with hyaluronic acid, this glycerin- and paraben-free serum minimizes the appearance of liver and age spots without causing irritation.

11. Sesha Skin Therapy Clinical Advanced Lightening Serum: Relying on green tea, pumpkin, and yeast extracts, this serum lightens skintone and prevents hyperpigmentation.

12. Vivant Skin Care Bleaching Cream: Infused with hydroquinone and vitamin A, this lightening treatment reduces excess melanin while kojic acid brightens skintone.