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Can Retinol Improve Hyperpigmentation?

Hyperpigmentation, a common dermatological condition, is characterized by the overproduction and irregular distribution of melanin (the pigment responsible for our skin and hair colour). In the fight for pigmentation removal, you might have come across or heard of people integrating retinol in the forms of retinol creams or retinol serums into their skincare routine to lighten their hyperpigmentation 

Retinol benefits the skin in many ways – by stimulating cell turnover, renewing the skin, reducing sebum production and has even been proven to lighten some forms of pigmentation over time. This has resulted in retinol being increasingly touted as a solution for many skin conditions including hyperpigmentation. 

But can retinol help hyperpigmentation? What does retinol do? How does retinol work? Is it a truly effective method, or does it fall short when dealing with deeper pigmentation? In this article, we find out.

retinol retinoids vitamin a serum

What is Retinol? 

In order to have a better understanding of what retinol is and what it does, we first have to understand what retinoids are. The term retinoid refers to a class of compounds derived from vitamin A and have structural and functional similarities to vitamin A [1].  

Of these derivatives, there are a number of different types and forms such as retinol, retinal, granactive retinoid and retinyl esters, which can be naturally derived or synthetic. These derivatives are then further classified by their efficiency, which significantly varies depending on the number of steps required for the body to convert before finally becoming active. Every additional step of conversion decreases the strength or potency of the compound. 

What Does Retinol Do?  

Retinol works at a cellular level and influences the proliferation and differentiation of cells by activating special receptors in the skin known as nuclear receptors. By accelerating the proliferation of cells, it allows for the emergence of healthier and newer skin.  

Retinol can also mitigate the production of tyrosinase, an enzyme integral to the formation of melanin. This preventive mechanism can decelerate the onset of new hyperpigmented spots – which might be why it has been touted as THE skincare ingredient for treating skin conditions like hyperpigmentation and melasma.

Understanding Hyperpigmentation  

Hyperpigmentation is a skin condition that is used to describe darkened patches on the surface of the skin. These pigmentary alterations can be long-lasting and chronic depending on the type of hyperpigmentation. The most common pigmentary conditions are melasma, sunspots (solar lentigines), post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation and freckles. Of these, pigmentation is then further differentiated by where it sits on the skin layers:   

  1. Epidermal (Superficial – sits in close to the surface in the epidermis) 

  1. Dermal (Deep – sits in the deeper layers of the skin in the dermis)  

  1. Mixed (Combination – sits in both the epidermis and dermis layers) 

The formation of pigmentation is highly complex and involves factors like inflammation, sun damage, genetics and many other processes. Melanin production and skin colour are affected by not only keratinocytes but also Langerhans cells, mast cells and lymphocytes [2]  

Hyperpigmentation, Skin Pigmentation , hyperpigmentation treatment

The effective treatment of pigment disorders is most consider by the influence of melanin formation and also always targeted the other histopathological processes in the skin. The therapy for hyperpigmentation is therefore based on: 

  • Accelerating epidermal turnover with the removal of pigment in the superficial layer 
  • Increase in melanosome transfer and downregulation of tyrosinase  
  • Reducing melanocyte proliferation and secretory function  
  • Inhibiting dermal inflammation  
  • Inhibiting tyrosinase with decrease melanogenesis 

Does Retinol Help Pigmentation?  

Epidermal Pigmentation, Superficial pigmentation, freckles, sunspots, melasma, dark spot, pigments, age spots

#1 Epidermal Pigmentation | Surface-level Pigmentation  

Epidermal pigmentation often shows only excessive quantities of melanin in the superficial upper layer of the skin, and is often responsive to many treatments including retinol. Retinol is able to proliferate the skin at a cellular level which allows for the increased removal of old pigmented cells and supports the emergence of newer, less pigmented skin. The accelerated cell turnover stimulated by retinol also aids in the dispersion and reduction of melanin, which leads to a more uniform skin tone. Thus, it can yield promising results for mild to moderate hyperpigmentation that sit near the surface of the skin. 

#2 Dermal Pigmentation | Deep-Seated Pigmentation  

Dermal pigmentation is more complex where it is caused by melanin within the dermis, between bundles of collagen. Unlike epidermal pigmentation, dermal pigmentation displays more melanin due to an upregulated or abnormal activity of melanocytes as a result of various factors.  

Melasma, for example, is a chronic relapsing pigmentary disorder characterized by brown-patches on the surface of the skin. While there are many factors that can influence the proliferation or exacerbation of melasma, research has shown prominent features such as increased vasculature and number of senescent fibroblasts and basement membrane disruption causing an increase in melanocytes [3]. This melanin is therefore less responsive to topical therapies such as retinol.  

Besides the fact that retinol is only able to promote cell turnover on the outermost layer of the skin, its limitations with deeper pigmentation are further compounded by the complexities of the pigmentation processes that take place in the body. Hormonal changes, for instance, can stimulate melanin production deep within the skin. While retinol can work to suppress tyrosinase and reduce melanin production, it cannot control triggers or alter genetic influences that often cause deep-seated pigmentation. 

Deep Pigmentation, stubborn pigmentation, melasma, melasma treatment, dermal pigmentation, freckles, dark spots, dark patch, uneven skin tone

How long does it take for retinol to clear pigmentation?  

Retinol starts to work in your cells right away, but it is not an overnight cure for pigmentation. It will take several weeks up to months for noticeable results to appear. Retinol requires more time to take effect compared to stronger retinoids, as the skin must convert it into retinoic acid before it becomes active. Due to its lower potency, retinol is an accessible treatment solution that is available over-the-counter without a doctor’s prescription.  

However, while its efficacy as a cure for some forms of pigmentation has been reasonably established, retinol may not prove to be effective for tackling stubborn cases rooted in the deeper layers of the skin. 

What is the Best Pigmentation Removal Treatment in Singapore?  

At this point you might be asking, what exactly is the best pigmentation removal treatment then? Due to the complexity of pigmentation, there simply is no one best pigmentation removal treatments. Treatments can vary based on the severity, depth, causes and even skin tones. For instance, patients with lighter skin tones have fewer risks and complications with certain treatment options, while patients with darker skin tones have an increased risk of post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation with the same treatments.   

Effective pigmentation removal treatment therefore requires a more targeted approach, involving a combination of different modalities that can not only target pigmentation at different skin depths, but also provide dermal repair in order to reduce the activity of the melanocytes.  

Retinol For Hyperpigmentation

Retinol, despite its touted benefits, is not a cure-all for every type of hyperpigmentation. Like any skincare ingredient, its effectiveness has its limits. While it can effectively tackle epidermal pigmentation, its capabilities to combat deep-seated dermal pigmentation remain limited.  

Understanding its strengths and limitations can help you make more informed decisions when it comes to pigmentation removal treatments. Therefore, it is also crucial to speak to a doctor to understand the depth and severity of your pigmentation and to determine the most effective treatment plan for your unique skin condition.