We know them by a variety of names: sunspots, livers spots and — that most offensive term of all — age spots. Those nasty little discolorations that somehow mysteriously appear on our face, hands, shoulders and arms seem to mar our otherwise porcelain-like complexions and are the bane of more than half the world’s female population.
And no matter how much you try to cover them up with foundation makeup and BB creams, pile on skin lightening ointments, and avoid the sun, the spots just seem to keep coming back.
“Hyperpigmentation – the medical term for referring to sunspots – is the second most common reason for dermatological visits in Mexico, right after acne,” explained derma-surgeon Isela Méndez of the Clínica Dermatólogia Isela Méndez in Colonia Polanco.
In fact, according to the Mexican Academy of Dermatology (AMD), about 54 percent of people in Mexico suffer from hyperpigmentation, and while men are not usually as concerned about these flaws on their complexions as women, the condition is as common in males as in females.
Méndez went on to say that while skin discolorations usually appear in people over age 35 or 40, the root cause is generally over-exposure to the sun during childhood years.
“A lot of people don’t bother to use sunscreen until they start having skin discoloration issues,” she said, “but 70 percent of our exposure to solar ultraviolent rays takes place during the first 18 years of life, so while the spots are sometimes called age spots, they are really the consequence of overexposure to the sun in our earlier years. They just don’t show up until later in life.”
And Méndez said that, while the sun is the primary cause of hyperpigmentation, hormonal changes (mainly in women), irritation such as acne breakouts and the use of certain pharmaceuticals can also lead to skin discoloration.
“Regardless of your ethnic background or skin color, eventually most of us will struggle with some kind of brown or ashen pigmentation problem,” she said. “Skin will appear darker than normal in concentrated areas, or you may notice blotchy, uneven patches of brown to gray discoloration or freckling.”
Treating hyperpigmentation is not easy, since the discoloration is usually the result of an overproduction of melanin, the pigment in skin produced in the deeper dermal layers of the skin.
“Melanin production can be triggered by the sun’s ultraviolent rays, and that is why we tan when we are exposed to a lot of sunshine,” Méndez said. “But once the body gets used to producing a certain amount of melanin, it will continue to do so even after the excessive sun exposure is eliminated. That is why even if you avoid the sun, the spots keep coming back.”
In order to treat the problem, Méndez said that there are a variety of topical creams and gels available on the market that use a combination of active ingredients designed to not only target existing pigmentation at the epidermal level, but also to block its development and reoccurrence by slowing melanin production at the dermal level.
“These creams will usually help to fade the appearance of dark spots, but are not going to get rid of them completely,” Méndez said. “But if you really want to get rid of the spots, you are going to have to resort to a medical procedure, such as laser treatments, chemical peels and cryotherapy.”
Laser therapies involve the use of intense laser light that penetrates the epidermis and causes the skin to rejuvenate. The intensity of the light scatters the skin pigments and destroys the discoloration.
Chemical peelings, on the other hand, use erosive acids to dissolve dead skin so that new skin can surface.
Cryotherapy works by freezing age spots with a liquid nitrogen solution.
Méndez said that each of these therapies has proven successful in significantly reducing the appearance of the spots. However, she said in most cases she prefers to use a combination of two or more of these treatments to fully irradiate the discolorations and to get to the root of the problem.
“Treating hyperpigmentation is a complex process and usually requires several sessions,”
Méndez said, “but these spots can be removed permanently, as long as the patient uses sunscreen faithfully for the rest of their life.”
Indeed, she said, no other aspect of controlling or reducing skin discolorations is as important as being careful about exposing your skin to the sun and the use of sunscreen with a minimum SPF of 15 and UVA-protecting ingredients of titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, avobenzone, Mexoryl SX or Tinosorb.
Liberal applications and frequent reapplications of a well-formulated sunscreen can go a long way to curb the appearance of hyperpigmentation, and the diligent use of a sunblock alone allows some repair as well as protection from further sun damage, which is what created the problem in the first place.
But using effective skin-lightening products, exfoliants, peels or laser treatments without also using a sunscreen will prove to be a waste of time and money, Méndez said.
“Excessive sun exposure is your skin’s worst enemy, and it can lead to even more serious problems than hyperpigmentation, such as skin cancers,” she warned.
Isela Méndez’ dermatological clinic is located at Calle Plinio 118B in Colonia Polanco (tel: 5280-7256 or 5280-4218),
For more information, consult the webpage www.iselamendez.mx.
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