Hint: It’s not just because of a mismatched foundation shade.
Inconsistencies in facial skin tone is a common issue that affects people from all walks of life. Some of these inconsistencies manifest as uneven patches of dark discoloration on the skin, while others observe generally darker complexions compared to their bodies.
While it may not be a concern for some, it can chip at one’s confidence if the discolorations are pronounced and affect a large portion of the face. While we believe that every person is beautiful regardless of skin quality or color, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to even out one’s skin tone.
The good thing is that skin tone discolorations often aren’t permanent and can be remedied or prevented.
Why Is My Face Darker than My Body?
In many cases, makeup is the culprit when your face looks darker than your body. Even when you find the right foundation shade, it can “oxide” when exposed to air over time after applying. Oxidation makes the foundation look slightly darker or even grayish.
When trying to match foundation, start by swatching a few shades on the back of your hand. Narrow down your choices to at least two close shades and swatch those along your jawline. The next step requires patience as it takes an hour or two for a foundation to oxidize. Remember to check how the foundation looks in natural and artificial lighting as you wait.
So what does it mean when our natural facial skin tone, devoid of any makeup or color-correcting products, is darker than the rest of our body? Here are a few possible causes and how to address them.
If there’s an even darkening of the facial skin, the sun is most likely the culprit.
The sun gives off three types of UV rays, two of which — UVA and UVB — are responsible for skin darkening and damage due to their ability to penetrate our skin’s deeper layers.
We’re regularly exposed to UVA and UVB. UVA, which has the longest wavelength, makes up 95% of the sun’s rays that reach us on the ground, while UVB makes up 5-10%. UVA’s effects occur swiftly as an immediate tan on the skin that can progress into a sunburn. On the other hand, UVB contains more energy and is responsible for sunburns, DNA damage, and cancer.
Even when we’re not outdoors, UVA can still reach us as it can pass through cloud and glass. So, while our bodies benefit from the additional protection of clothing indoors and outdoors, our faces are often left exposed, leading to uneven darkening of the facial skin.
Melanin is a pigment produced by cells called melanocytes. It determines our skin color and protects us from UV damage. When our skin is exposed to the sun, it triggers melanocytes to produce more melanin, hence making our skin look darker.
Melanocytes are found all over the body, but according to a study, the face, neck, and upper limbs have the highest concentration. This means that more melanin is produced and condensed in those areas. Additionally, these areas are more reactive and susceptible to darkening when exposed to UV rays and can easily appear darker than the rest of the body even when exposed to the same amount of sun.
If you have uneven brown patches on the face that looks similar to age spots and freckles but much more extensive, you may have melasma.
Melasma is more common in women and is a result of overactive melanocytes producing too much melanin. It’s especially common in women with darker skin tones, as they have more brown pigment-producing cells in their skin. Men, on the other hand, make up only 10% of cases.
Melasma is triggered by changes in hormone levels related to pregnancy, hormone therapy, and birth control pills. It can also be exacerbated by sun exposure because it signals already hyperactive melanocytes to produce even more melanin.
There are no risks associated with melasma, and in some cases, it can go away on its own without needing treatment. However, if you find that the patches aren’t fading away and are so obvious to the point of feeling uncomfortable, you can opt to use lightening skincare products to help even out skin tone.
If you’re noticing an indistinct darkening of certain areas of your face like the cheeks, temples, and forehead, you may be looking at acanthosis nigricans. This condition is indicative of an endocrine disorder and causes grayish-brown or black discolorations on the face and body. In severe cases, the skin can feel velvety and thick.
Acanthosis nigricans is common amongst obese people with a genetic predisposition to thyroid disease, diabetes, and high insulin resistance. Obesity-related Acanthosis Nigricans manifests explicitly on the face as dark grayish-brown or black patches on the cheeks or temples, making the face look generally darker.
While acanthosis nigricans itself is not a disease, it may indicate that you are at risk of one.
Tips for Minimizing UV Exposure
UV damage happens fast and can be devastating on the skin, so prevention is better than cure. For a person with very fair skin, UV damage occurs after only 5 minutes of sun exposure. After 10 minutes, the skin is already sunburned. Here’s how to avoid reaching that point:
Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen.
Surprise! Needless to say, the number tip for preventing your face from becoming darker than the rest of your body is to use sunscreen. However, it is best to look for a broad-spectrum sunscreen which protects our skin from both UVA and UVB rays.
If you’re going out but aren’t going to be under the sun for prolonged periods, an SPF 15 sunscreen is enough. However, for extended outdoor activities or sports, heavy duty sunscreens with higher SPFs (50 and above) are recommended.
Always reapply sunscreen.
Swimming or sweating will eventually wash off any sunscreen we apply; thus, it’s important to re-apply it every two hours, so we don’t lose that valuable sun protection. Giving our skin enough time to absorb the sunscreen before entering the water or engaging in intense physical activities will also ensure we’re adequately protected.
Be aware of the time.
UV rays are most intense and harmful between 10 AM and 4 PM. For this reason, it’s best to either stay indoors or in the shade and remember to always use sunscreen as those pesky UVA rays can reach you even when you are indoors.
Solutions for Lightening Darkened Facial Skin
If you’re looking for products to lighten up and even out your skin tone, it’s important to distinguish between “lightening” and “whitening” products.
Lightening involves the gradual process of breaking down existing hyperpigmentation spots until the skin achieves an even and clear complexion. It does this by inhibiting the production of melanin in the skin.
In contrast, whitening refers to aggressive skin bleaching to achieve a tone several shades lighter than your natural one. We do not recommend this because skin bleaching products often contain harmful ingredients like mercury, hydroquinone, and corticosteroids, which can lead to skin thinning, scarring, and even organ damage if overused.
Darkening due to acanthosis nigricans
If you suspect that you may have acanthosis nigricans, an important first step is to consult with a doctor to get a proper diagnosis and rule out any health risks. In many cases, addressing the underlying cause helps lessen the appearance of darkened skin. But if there is no systemic cause, or if symptoms don’t improve, acanthosis nigricans can be managed in other ways.
Chemical peels and microdermabrasion can chemically and manually exfoliate and resurface the skin to even out the complexion, while laser treatment aimed to reduce melanin can address hyperpigmentation. Topical and oral retinoids are also known to successfully reduce discoloration due to acanthosis nigricans.
Skincare ingredients that help with mild hyperpigmentation
If you’re looking for ways to lighten hyperpigmentation safely and gently, several otc skincare products and ingredients can help you do just that.
Vitamin C serums
Vitamin C is a naturally-occurring antioxidant found in our skin. It protects us from UV damage and free radicals while correcting hyperpigmentation issues and brightening skin. Vitamin C, however, is highly unstable and quickly degrades when exposed to light and heat. This is why vitamin C is often formulated as serums because the skin easily and quickly absorbs serums.
Vitamin C is safe to use every day in concentrations of 0.6-10.0%, particularly during the day due to its excellent UV protection qualities. However, it’s essential to pair it with sunscreen to prevent the antioxidant from breaking down on the skin.
Nighttime use of vitamin C is suitable for further repairing environmental damage on the skin. After cleansing and toning, mix a couple of drops of a vitamin C serum into a moisturizer for maximum absorption. It’s not advisable to mix vitamin C with AHAs, BHAs, retinol, or benzoyl peroxide as these combinations will irritate and dry out the skin.
[note blue] Combining vitamin C with vitamin E also boosts the antioxidants’ photodamage protection capabilities, reduces skin cell damage, and keeps skin moisturized. [/note]
Niacinamide is a form of vitamin B3. It’s known to improve fine lines, wrinkles, inflammation, repair the skin barrier, and lessen sebum production, which is excellent for acne-prone skin. It also addresses discoloration issues like redness, hyperpigmentation, and sallowness by inhibiting melanin’s transfer into skin cells.
Concentrations of 2-5% niacinamide are proven to be safe for use in everyday skincare routines. However, those with sensitive skin should start with a lower dosage. Niacinamide is typically best applied after cleansing and toning the skin and before moisturizers.
[note blue] Niacinamide combines well with highly unstable ingredients like retinol and vitamin C. Niacinamide increases the skin’s resistance to retinol, making it less susceptible to irritation. It also stabilizes vitamin C, thereby boosting its effectiveness. [/note]
Alpha hydroxy acids are water-soluble, fruit-derived acids that exfoliate the topmost layer of our skin. They address uneven skin tones, acne scars, melasma, age spots, and other aging signs like fine lines and wrinkles.
AHAs can be incorporated into daytime and nighttime skincare routines and used every day provided that the concentration doesn’t exceed 10%. However, AHAs are chemical exfoliants and can increase our skin’s photosensitivity, so sunscreen is always a must.
[note blue] AHAs are a chemical exfoliant, so keep them away from vitamin C, benzoyl peroxide, retinol, or acne prescription medicine. This combination can cause redness, flakiness, and excessive dryness. It’s rather best to combine them with ingredients like hyaluronic acid or Centella Asiatica, as these repair our skin barrier, are highly moisturizing, and contain properties that calm irritated skin. [/note]
OTC Retinol or retinoid cream
Retinoids are chemical compounds derived from vitamin A and classified as antioxidants. They work by improving the skin’s cell turnover rate so that dead skin cells shed off faster. This process addresses acne, acne scarring, photoaging signs, and hyperpigmentation.
Over-the-counter retinol has the weakest concentration and is safe to use every day. Sunscreen is essential, though, because it’s highly unstable and breaks down when exposed to light and oxygen. OTC retinol can also cause mild photosensitivity, especially if your skin is new to the ingredient, so protection is vital.
Retinoids like tretinoin and retinoic acid, however, are more potent and require a dermatologist’s prescription. Using retinoids in too-high concentrations can lead to skin dryness, redness, peeling, swelling, and itching. Needless to day, sunscreen is a definite must when using retinoids.
The frequency of retinoid use should strictly follow that indicated on the product label or by your dermatologist.
Retinol and retinoids are best not mixed with vitamin C, AHAs/BHAs, and benzoyl peroxide as these can exacerbate dryness and irritate the skin. Instead, combine them with hyaluronic acid and ceramides to keep skin moisturized.
Kojic acid is derived from several fungi types and is also a fermentation by-product of sake, soy sauce, and rice wine. Classified as an AHA, kojic acid lightens the skin, breaks down existing hyperpigmentation, and evens the skin tone. It does this by inhibiting the formation of tyrosine, which in turn inhibits the production of melanin.
Kojic acid comes in various forms, such as powders, creams, cleansers, serums, lotions, and soaps. While concentrations of up to 1-2% are considered safe for everyday use, it’s better to start with a lower dose. Higher doses can sometimes lead to increased skin sensitivity and contact dermatitis, especially in people with naturally sensitive skin.
Despite its tendency to irritate sensitive skin, kojic acid is generally safe to use with other skincare ingredients. It also contains anti-fungal properties that help stave off bacterial infections, making it suitable for fungal acne.
Our skin is as complex and varied as we are, but it’s a comfort to know that there are just as many options out there that can help with skin discoloration. We encourage you to read up and learn as much as you can, and if you’re still not sure as to why your face is darker than your body, it’s always best to consult a dermatologist.
Think we missed out on an important tip? Want to share your experiences in how you solved your hyperpigmentation issues? We’d love to hear your suggestions and stories in the comments!