If you've ever experienced hyperpigmentation caused by sun damage, aging, hormones, or breakouts, then you know just how much of a pain it is to treat. Once those red and brown marks show up, they are maddeningly difficult to get rid of on your own.
There are three main types of pigmentation: That caused by sun damage, hormone-induced melasma, and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation that occurs after a breakout or skin injury. Sun damage and melasma are found in the deepest layers of the skin, meaning they cause permanent pigmentation issues that can be minimized but never truly erased. PIH is not quite as deep and, with proper treatment, can be completely eradicated as it is considered a temporary type of "scar."
In skin-care, ingredients like lactic acid and retinol work by getting rid of surface skin cells to help gradually reduce the look of hyperpigmentation over time, but they take time and repeated use and can often be painful and irritating. But, researchers are learning that there is another more effective way to deal with PIH issues, one that actually minimizes the formation of the hyperpigmentation to decrease the severity or even stop those spots from showing up in the first place. The most successful of those right now is called tranexamic acid.
The story behind this little-known ingredient is fascinating — its history is actually in the medical world as an oral drug, notes Dr. Ted Lain, board-certified dermatologist and Chief Medical Officer at Sanova Dermatology. "Physicians and patients noted that women taking the pill-form of tranexamic acid — used for uterine bleeding, for example — had an unexpected benefit of reduction in facial hyperpigmentation. This caused scientists to focus on the mechanism of how tranexamic acid does this, which revealed that it works in a very different manner than any other treatment we use for this condition," he says. "It works by blocking the inflammatory pathway associated with pigment production, which is revolutionary in the fight against post-acne or post-procedure excess pigment production."
Again, this is specifically aimed at PIH, the pigmentation that is in direct response to a wound. As Daniel Kaplan, co-founder of skin-care brand ZitSticka, explains, "Tranexamic acid reduces the activity of the tyrosinase enzyme, which is what causes the skin to produce excess melanin as it is healing, which leads to hyperpigmentation." So, rather than minimizing the dark and red marks that have already appeared, it makes sure that when your skin is healing post-zit, it's not leaving behind pigment in the first place.
There have also been studies into the potential benefits that topical tranexamic acid can have on melasma, however the evidence there is still too scant to make sweeping claims about. That's not to say there isn't any potential, science just hasn't confirmed it conclusively. Something to keep an eye on, for all you melasma sufferers.
As more info becomes available around tranexamic acid, more at-home products have appeared that take advantage of its melanin-inhibiting powers, oftentime alongside other brightening power players. Two notable ones that caught our eyes at Shen were ZitSticka's new Hyperfade treatment patch and Skinceuticals Discoloration Defense serum.
ZitSticka's patch uses the brands unique microdart technology — a stick-on hydrocolloid patch is covered with 24 tiny "darts" made up of dissolvable hyaluronic acid and infused with pigment-fighting ingredients. The darts deliver these ingredients below the skin's surface where they can be be most beneficial, then dissolve away after two hours, once they ingredients have been absorbed. In addition to tranexamic acid, Hyperfade also contains brightening kojic acid and ascorbic acid, plus arbutin, which Kaplan says is a cleaner and safer alternative to hydroquinone. After the actual blemish is over (either having come to a head or reabsorbed back into the skin), apply the patch on the spot for two hours. Repeat every 48-72 hours. The brand says it can take up to four patches to see best results, but we saw significant improvement after just one use. It works for all skin tones and all types of PIH, whether it presents as more red or brown in your complexion.
Skinceuticals Discoloration Defense, on the other hand, was made for all types of pigmentation and features a potent cocktail of ingredients to address everything from sun damage to melasma to PIH. It contains three percent tranexamic acid, which Dr. Lain says is the highest concentration available over the counter, plus five percent niacinamide to stop the transfer of pigment from their site of production to other skin cells, one percent kojic acid to block the enzyme responsible for producing pigment and five percent HEPES, which "enhances penetration of the other ingredients, while also pushing the pigment higher to the skin surface, allowing for easier, and more effective, exfoliation." It's been clinically tested to improve the appearance of all skin discoloration, brighten, and even skin tone in as early as two weeks.
Unlike ZitSticka, which is a more targeted approach on individual spots, Discoloration Defense is meant to be used all over, which makes it perfect for those with larger patches of pigmentation they want to reduce.
So, whether you're fighting off the occasional post-breakout pigment scar or looking for an overall more even skin tone with improved clarity, consider giving tranexamic acid products a try. It's an ingredient we predict you're going to see a lot more of in the very near future and for good reason — it works, it's less irritating than many of the other acids on the market, and we're only beginning to scratch the surface on what it can do for fighting and fading hyperpigmentation.