Everyday activities such as shaving or exfoliating are also potential culprits. Skin can be irritated by shaving, exfoliating too much, or simply trying a new product, especially deodorant, notes Dr. Elbuluk. “If you’re someone prone to ingrown hairs, you can have hyperpigmentation from this repeated inflammation,” she says.
Talk to your doctor about treating hyperpigmentation
A common DIY remedy for dark spots is to aggressively scrub the area – like what my relatives advised me to do with the back of my neck. However, in general, over-exfoliating your skin in an attempt to lighten it is counterproductive if you want to reduce any potential inflammation. “It happens [when people] try to scrub your skin too much thinking it will help, or use too many exfoliating products at the same time,” explains Dr. Elbuluk. The skin is most likely to become irritated because the skin barrier is damaged and then inflamed. Areas with thinner skin such as armpits, are more sensitive and prone to inflammation.
However, there are cases where these areas are darker because of an underlying health problem, such as insulin resistance or an endocrine disorder, says Dr. Tzu. Identifying when these areas of skin are darker due to an internal disorder may require you to reevaluate what is “normal” for your skin. The body naturally has more tones and shades, but if you’ve noticed any new, drastic changes lately, then Dr. Elbuluk recommends seeing a board-certified dermatologist or your primary care physician to determine the cause. And when you do, she emphasizes, you should feel empowered to ask your doctor a lot of questions: what’s normal and what’s not for your skin, whether you should or shouldn’t be using certain treatments, and anything else you can think of.
She notes that people of color can be hesitant to see a dermatologist. There are several potential reasons, including high medical costs, lack of access to dermatologists who understand skin problems on darker skin, and a general distrust of the medical field. As with any condition, it can be more tempting to seek help elsewhere. “People rely a lot not only on who they know, but now also on social media and other sources,” he says. “And there is good information, but also a lot of misinformation. This misinformation sometimes forces people to create their own remedies or look for products that can end up making the problem worse.
Watch out for Bleach
There are many whitening and lightening products available online and in beauty supply stores, many of which are hydroquinone-based. Hydroquinone is a skin lightening agent commonly found in these and other skin care products, but is not intended for use without medical supervision. In 2020, the CARES Act made it a prescription drug, so you can only get it if a dermatologist prescribes it. Previously, people could buy products with a maximum of two percent of the additive until the bill was ratified because of the risk of misuse. The FDA notes that some reported side effects were skin rashes, facial swelling, and ochronosis, or darkening of the skin—the exact opposite of what most people reach for hydroquinone.