If you were hoping that exfoliation would help you treat hyperpigmentation and brighten your skin, I’ve got great news: that’s entirely true! Exfoliation is a key step in everyone’s skincare routine, and without it, the skin feels dull, rough, and definitely not smooth. But exfoliation does more than just bring you closer to flawless skin. It increases the efficacy of the products you apply, helps diminish wrinkles look, regulates sebum, unclogs pores, and reduces hyperpigmentation. Yes, it’s all true. Exfoliating your skin regularly is actually one of the best ways to even your skin tone and improve signs of hyperpigmentation by breaking up the pigmented cells and sloughing them off.
You are just about to find out how exactly exfoliation helps evening skin tone and corrects hyperpigmentation. But first, what is exfoliation?
What is exfoliation?
Exfoliation is the process that removes the dead skin cells from the epidermis, aka the outer layer of your skin, in order to allow new, healthy cells to replace them. This is really important because dead skin cell buildup can lead to clogged pores, a dull look, and premature aging signs. Although the skin naturally sheds dead cells every 30 days — this is called cell turnover — you still need to exfoliate to speed up the process.
There are more types of exfoliation, all sharing the same goal: to break the bonds between dead skin cells. Among these, chemical and physical exfoliation are the most common. Chemical exfoliation uses peeling agents such as glycolic acid, salicylic acid, or malic acid, which dissolve the bond that holds skin cells, while physical exfoliants, like scrubs and brushes, rub the top layer of skin enough to remove the dead skin cells.
Does exfoliating treat hyperpigmentation and brighten the skin?
Yes. Exfoliation is the first step in reducing skin discolorations, improving hyperpigmentation, and treating melasma because it sheds away the pigmented and discolored cells, leading to a bright and even complexion. However, for this, you would need a chemical exfoliation and not a physical one. Chemical exfoliants were found to improve skin tone and texture by reducing the excess melanin, the pigment of the epidermis that defines skin color. Dark spots, freckles, hyperpigmentation, and an uneven skin tone are all forms of excess melanin, so reducing the levels of this pigment can reveal lighter and luminous skin. And science proves it!
Chemical exfoliators are considered a promising treatment for melasma, a condition that causes patches of discoloration because they remove melanin by causing a controlled chemical burn to the skin. For instance, glycolic acid was found in clinical studies to improve hyperpigmented skin in just eight weeks.
What’s the best chemical peel for hyperpigmentation and skin brightening?
There are three types of chemical peels, which differ based on the concentration used: superficial, medium, and deep peels. Superficial peels usually use 20-30% concentrations and work at the skin’s surface, suitable for mild hyperpigmentation. On the other hand, medium peels go at higher concentrations of 35-50%, penetrating deeper into the skin and are helpful to treat hyperpigmentation, melasma and improve the skin’s overall texture. Finally, deep peels are usually used for acne scars and use concentrations of 55-70%.
So superficial and medium peels are most appropriate to fade hyperpigmentation, but they should be performed in a professional salon by an esthetician or dermatologist. If you decide to brighten your skin at home, be aware that concentrations above 10% can cause irritations and other issues if your skin can’t tolerate it. Although it won’t be as effective as in-office ones, at-home chemical peels can still help fade away hyperpigmentation and lighten your skin.
In case you were wondering which peeling agent is best for hyperpigmentation and skin discoloration, here’s what studies say:
- Glycolic acid: most potent chemical peel for melasma and hyperpigmentation. It was used in a concentration of 30–70%, two to three weeks apart. For glycolic acid, the gel-based peel is preferred for sensitive skin.
- Lactic acid: proved beneficial when used in a 92% concentration for improving skin tone, applied every three weeks. Lactic acid draws moisture to the skin and is less irritant than glycolic, thus it may be more appropriate for dry and sensitive skin.
- Mandelic acid: used at concentrations of 10-50% and applied weekly was shown to treat mild hyperpigmentation.
- Salicylic acid: with 20-30% strength, it helps eliminate pigmented cells.
- Tretinoin peel: 5-10% tretinoin chemical exfoliant helps reduces photodamage, treat hyperpigmentation, and improve skin texture.
How to properly exfoliate your skin
Exfoliation is a double-edged sword. If you do it right, your skin will get massive gains, but if you over-exfoliate, you could compromise your skin barrier and irritate your skin. Now, if you’ve decided to go to a derm, she or he will tell you everything you need to know, but if you want to do a chemical peel at home, here’s what you should do:
First, if you have never exfoliated before, it’s best to start with a gentle cleanser containing peeling agents suitable for your skin type (see the infographic below to see which acids are good for you.) Usually, cleansers are formulated with low concentrations of exfoliating agents, meaning they are suitable for most skin types and can be used daily. Cleansers or toners are a good way to increase your tolerance towards chemical exfoliation.
However, for skin lightening and hyperpigmentation, a cleanser may not be that effective. Instead, you can try a chemical peel. Chemical peelings use higher concentrations and work more effectively at removing dead skin cells and improving skin tone. Sensitive and dry skin should exfoliate once weekly, while oily and combination skin can do it twice a week, depending on the peeling strength and skin sensitivity. Nevertheless, chemical peeling for the treatment of hyperpigmentation and melasma is not recommended in darker skin types (IV to VI) as it can lead to severe scarring.
Finally, use a moisturizer after exfoliation to reduce irritations and dryness, and never forget about sunscreen, as sun damage is the main cause of hyperpigmentation and dark spots.
- Sarkar R, Bansal S, Garg VK. Chemical peels for melasma in dark-skinned patients. J Cutan Aesthet Surg. 2012;5(4):247-253. doi:10.4103/0974-2077.104912
- Sarkar R, Arsiwala S, Dubey N, et al. Chemical Peels in Melasma: A Review with Consensus Recommendations by Indian Pigmentary Expert Group. Indian J Dermatol. 2017;62(6):578-584. doi:10.4103/ijd.IJD_490_17
- Rendon MI, Berson DS, Cohen JL, Roberts WE, Starker I, Wang B. Evidence and considerations in the application of chemical peels in skin disorders and aesthetic resurfacing. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2010;3(7):32-43.