Article medically reviewed by Dr. Gavin Chan (MBBS, cosmetic physician, liposuctionist)
Templestowe Lower and Berwick Clinics
Dr. Gavin Chan has a background in intensive care, anaesthesia, and emergency medicine. Since 2004, Dr. Chan has provided cosmetic procedures, including anti-wrinkle injections, dermal fillers, liposuction, fat transfer, skin needling, and laser treatments. He is a doctor trainer for various dermal fillers and anti-wrinkle injections.
Skin Pigmentation Treatment Quick Facts
- Excessive skin pigmentation can be from a number of causes including UV exposure, hormones, skin trauma, and congenital(existing from birth)
- Pigmentation can be treated with lasers and lightening creams
- The mode of treatment used will be dependent on the type of pigmentation, patient preference, and patient risk tolerance.
- Pigmentation can be classified into epidermal (superficial), dermal (deep), and mixed.
- Different lasers are used for different types of skin pigmentation and skin types
- UV protection/sunscreen is paramount in the treatment of pigmentation
- Laser treatment on olive or darker skins needs to be approached with caution.
What is skin pigmentation?
Excessive skin pigmentation is a result of abnormal production and deposition of melanin by the melanocytes. Melanocytes are pigment-producing cells. The number of melanocytes present in our skin will determine our skin colour. Production of melanin is dependent on UV or sun exposure, and is a natural protective mechanism of the skin.
What causes excessive skin pigmentation?
Reasons for skin pigmentation problems are;
- UV radiation – in most cases, especially in areas of high UV radiation levels like Australia, skin pigmentation problems can be caused by excessive UV or sun exposure (most common)
- Hormonal – as seen in melasma or chloasma that is a type of pigmentation usually caused by pregnancy or the pill (common)
- Trauma to the skin – this can be a result of physical trauma to the skin, chemical peels, laser treatments, or acne. This is known as post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (common).
- Birthmarks and acquired pigmentation – skin pigmentation can be present at birth (birthmarks), appear in childhood, or adulthood. Examples of these include; congenital melanocytic naevus, cafe au lait spots, spilus naevus, hori’s macules, and naevus of ota.
Skin pigmentation treatment options
Skin pigmentation laser treatment
Some lasers can be used for the treatment of skin pigmentation and have minimal or no impact on normal skin. This is possible due to the process of selective photothermolysis. This is a term that describes how a particular laser wavelength is attracted to pigmented lesions, and only minimally to the normal skin to allow selective removal of a lesion. This allows the laser to selectively disrupt the pigment with minimal or no damage to surrounding skin. Generally, the wavelengths that are attracted to the melanin in pigmented lesions range from 532 nanometers(nm) to 1064nm.
One type of laser for treating pigmentation are millisecond pulse width lasers. These lasers emit pulses of light that are attracted to the melanin in the pigment, and this selectively disrupts the pigment by thermally heating it. The length of each pulse in this case is in the millisecond range (1 millisecond = 1/1000th of a second), and although this sounds short, it is actually a long time in this instance. An example of this laser is the Gemini Laser .
Another type of laser for treating pigmentation are q-switched lasers. These lasers emit nanosecond pulses (1 nanosecond = 1 billionth of a second) of light that are attracted to the melanin in the pigmented skin. They also selectively heat the pigment to disrupt it, but as the pulses are much shorter, they also have a photomechanical effect ie. they shatter/shock the pigment causing it to breakdown. It is this effect that also allows these lasers to remove tattoo pigment as well. Generally the advantage of these lasers is that they require fewer treatments to treat pigmentation than the millisecond lasers. It is a more aggressive and effective treatment, and therefore also has more side effects such as a longer recovery time as well as an increased chance of post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (see below). Examples of these lasers include the Sinon Ruby laser and the Medlite laser.
Skin pigmentation treatment with topical lightening creams
The first method of treating skin pigmentation is to prevent its appearance or worsening by daily application of sunscreen. UV exposure from sunlight or sun beds will invariably worsen any existing pigmentation and promote further pigmentation to arise. The risk of skin cancers also rises with increasing exposure to UV.
At Victorian Cosmetic Institute, we recommend physical sunscreens as opposed to chemical sunscreens. Physical sunscreens contain titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. These are not absorbed by the skin and provide long lasting protection through the day. Chemical sunscreens such as Para-aminobenzoic acid, are absorbed into the skin and need reapplication after two hours. Studies have found that these chemicals are absorbed by the skin and found in the liver soon after application. All sunscreens should be applied with two coats. Like painting a wall spots are often missed with only one coat. Furthermore, sunscreen should be applied everyday, even if it is cloudy, or overcast, as UV light is still present. It is also important to avoid direct sunlight, especially during the middle hours of the day, seek shade when possible, and wear a hat and protective clothing. For more information on sunscreens, click here.
Topical lightening agents can be used in conjunction to help reduce skin pigmentation. Topical lightening agents help to reduce pigmentation by inhibiting enzymes that produce melanin (skin pigment) and by increasing the turnover of the skin to flush out exisiting pigmentation. Common lightening agents include; hydroquinone, kojic acid, paper mulberry bark extract, retinoids, and glycolic acid. For more information on topical lightening agents click here.
Types of pigmentation problems and laser treatment
Skin pigmentation can be categorised into either;
- Epidermal (superficial) pigmentation – these pigmentation types are usually close to the surface of the skin and are induced by sun exposure and include solar lentigos, freckles, and cafe-au-lait macules
- Dermal (deep) pigmentation – these pigmentation types are usually found in the dermal layers, and include hori’s macules, and naevus of ota
- Mixed dermal/epidermal pigmentation – These pigmentation types traverse through both the superficial and deeper layers of the skin. Melasma is an example of this.
The following are examples of the types of pigmentation:
Solar lentigos or sun spots (epidermal)
For those wanting to treat this type of pigmentation, the Medlite q-switched laser and the Sinon Ruby laser are usually the most effective. These lasers are highly attracted to melanin (pigment), and as solar lentigos have more melanin than the surrounding skin, they tend to pick up the laser energy more than the surrounding normal skin. This is akin to a black car heating up more than a white car when parked in the sun. The lasers causes mechanical and thermal destruction of the pigment and results in clearing of the pigment.
Case study: This female presented to Victorian Cosmetic Institute with a large solar lentigo on her face with surrounding smaller ones on her cheek. She underwent treatment with the Ruby laser and achieved the result seen in the after photo after one treatment. The total downtime/recovery period was approximately one week, where the pigmented spots became darker and then fell off.
Seborrhoeic keratosis are brown, wart-like growths on the skin. They can appear like stuck-on sultanas on the skin. They are benign growths, but need to be distinguished from malignant lesions such as melanoma prior to laser treatment. Seborrhoeic keratosis can be removed with lasers such as the Gemini laser, or radiofrequency devices such as the Pelleve. These devices heat up the seborrhoeic keratosis and basically allow them to be separated from the skin and wiped off.
Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (mixed dermal/epidermal)
Case study: This patient presents to Victorian Cosmetic Institute with a history of facial acne. The before picture depics some active acne as well as post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation as a result of previous acne lesions. The after photo was taken after 6 months of treatment for active acne as well as the use of Kligman’s formula for the treatment of post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.
Melasma/Chloasma (mixed dermal/epidermal)
Freckles are responsive to the q-switched Medlite laser or the Sinon Ruby laser. The Gemini laser is an effective laser for asian freckle treatment. Patients who tend to freckle may refreckle with sun exposure. Most patients show an improvement > 50% after treatment in their freckling as long as daily sunscreen is used. For more information on freckles and some case studies, click here.
Brown birthmarks (epidermal)
Pigmentation on asian, olive, or dark skin
Pigmentation problems commonly occur on people with asian, olive or dark skin. These can be more difficult to treat than pigmentation on fair skins, and require a different approach.
Laser treatments can sometimes cause post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (see above), and this can make the original pigmentation problem seem worse initially post laser. It is important therefore to ensure proper;
- preparation of the skin – often lightening serums/creams are used prior to help prepare the skin and reduce the chance of post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation
- laser settings – choosing a laser that is appropriate to these skin types, the use of skin cooling during laser, lower settings, smaller laser spot sizes to minimise effects of the laser on the normal collateral skin
- post-laser treatment – ensuring that the proper creams, including sunscreens and sometimes steroids, are used post-laser.
Pigmentation Treatment Before and After Case study
This patient presented with a number of pigmentation issues, including solar lentigos, seborrhoeic keratosis, and hori’s macules (deep dermal pigmentation). Her skin was prepared with Kligman’s formula (a lightening serum) prior to treatment with laser, and a combination of lasers were used to treat the various pigmentation problems she had. There was a short period of time when the patient experienced hyperpigmentation post-laser, but the final result shows a significant clearance of pigmentation after 6 months.
Dermal (deeper) pigmented lesions case study
Why should I choose Victorian Cosmetic Institute to treat my pigmentation?
At Victorian Cosmetic Institute, our doctors will carefully assess your pigmentation problem and carefully formulate a treatment plan for you. We have a wide range of treatment options including a large number of topical agents and lasers, and this will ensure that you will get the treatment most suited to your pigmentation.
Our doctors are also highly experienced in laser treatments, and will be able to give you the best advice for your treatment.
The first step is simply contacting us for your initial consultation, where we will discuss with you what is a realistic and achievable outcome, and what to expect from your laser treatment.
You are welcome to ‘ask us a question’ using the button on the top right hand corner of the screen if you have further questions, or to make an appointment phone us directly on 1300 863 824 or use the ‘make an appointment’ button above.