Pigmentation: Your Skin's Defense

Pigmentation is the defense mechanism of your skin.

So it's spring and summer is around the corner, we all are ready to hit the beach, get that summer tan and basque in the glow of summer. 

But wait, I just spent all winter complaining to my skin therapist and dermatologist about these dark spots and wanting to even out my skin tone. 

Well, let's start with how these dark spots occur in the first place. 

In the basement layer of your skin, the stratum germinativum, known as the "basal layer" is where cells undergo mitosis to replace the lost dead skin cells falling off on the surface layer of the skin. This area is also where our pigment producing cells or melanocytes are contained. 

Now, before they actually turn into pigmentation you see on the surface of the skin, pigment starts out in a granular form. The melanocytes produce these granules called melanosomes, which in turn produce the protein known as melanin.

Melanin is actually what protects us from sun damage. 

When we are exposed to the sun and it's rays we risk the damage of cell death, tissue breakdown and aging. 

To protect cells from this damage, the skin produces melanin which send a blanket of pigment to the surface of the skin to defend from too much damage.

When we are exposed to this damage, the body secrets and enzyme within the skin known as Tyrosinase. This enzyme stimulates the production of melanin in response.

Once produced, melanin is transferred into cells through dendrites (image included below) the cells transport the melanin through the layers of the skin as they move up to the surface. 

As these cells die off, flatten on the surface we see this pigmentation as a result. 

Now our skin color, that differentiates us from one another is a result of the amount of melanin activated in the skin. Those of us with darker skin simply have more active melanocytes.  

But this also means that the more active the amount of melanocytes, the easier we pigment. 

So looking at pigment beyond what determines our skin color, those dark spots we see after a breakout of just start to notice as we get older, are all a result of this defense mechanism in our skin. 

These dark spots, darker than our normal skin color we refer to as Hyperpigmentation


Hyperpigmentation can result from sun exposure, but also can occur from physical injury or trauma. For example, ever have a really had breakout only to be left with dark spots after having to deal with clearing up your skin? 

Go back to our intro to how pigmentation occurs. It's a defense mechanism for when the skin assumes its under attack.

Now, when you have a breakout that usually involves pus or bacteria underneath the skin, an expansion of the follicle wall can occur. This typically causes inflammation and redness at the site, it is sometimes even painful to the touch. Well, your body will naturally send some defenders to attack these foreign agents and help clear the bacteria. One of the ways your skin reacts it to send pigment to cover and protect the site.  So the rule of thumb is, where you see red, brown will follow. 

Another way hyperpigmentation occurs is through hormonal changes in the body. In some instances during pregnancy, a woman may experience what is known as Melasma more commonly known as "pregnancy mask". This is a blanket of hyperpigmentation that can show up due to the hormonal changes mamma is experiencing, but again, it is all a result of the body trying to defend itself. 

One of the ways Skin Therapists and Dermatologists can examine and determine the amount of pigmentation under the skin, is through the use of a device called a Wood's Lamp. 

A wood's lamp is basically a black light, it shows what is occurring beneath the surface layer of the skin. 

To the right, is an image of a woman with melasma, what it looks like to the naked eye and under the woods lamp. 

We are covering these two parts to pigmentation because we receive a lot of questions and concerns over getting and maintaining even skin tone. The first step to all of it is prevention. 

Wear your sunscreen every day to protect yourself from sun damage. Understand the various ways dark spots or hyperpigmentation occur. Understand that is it is not always something that happened overnight, it could have been from sun exposure as a kid that was down in your deeper skin layers, it could very well be from that last breakout two weeks ago but if it didn't happen overnight it takes time to treat as well. 

So as we get into the summer season, enjoy it safely and know that your daily habits do matter, and can help you achieve and maintain the health of  your beautiful skin.

We posted this video by Thomas Leveritt in our first skin theory post. It's a great illustration of how what we see with the naked eye is not the only thing that matters. Take control of your skin health and educate the ones you love to do the same.