One of the most noticeable signs of aging, especially on the face and neck area, are dark spots, age and liver spots. We explore what they are, their causes and how a vitamin C serum can help reduce and even prevent them.
What are dark spots?
Typically occurring on middle-aged and older skin, dark spots are the result of hyperpigmentation, where melanin-forming skin cells (melanocytes) accumulate in specific areas. Also known as lentigines, they are generally benign(1).
The main causes of dark spots and uneven pigmentation
As we get older, the development of dark spots becomes more common(2), due to a number of factors, such as the cumulative effect of UV exposure, leading to an increase in melanin production. But this isn't just the natural result of aging: there are several others factors that impact the proliferation and intensity of hyperpigmentation.
The sun is one of the main causes of dark spots
The sun is one of the main causes of dark spots, or solar lentigines. When exposed to UV rays, the skin produces melanin to protect itself, hence the gradual development of tanned skin. However, this melanin can accumulate and lead to permanent dark spots on the skin.
These dark spots are evidence of photoaging – damage caused by the sun, which also results in wrinkles and a loss of elasticity in the skin(3).
What about acne spots? The dark, often reddish marks that remain on the skin after acne breakouts are slightly different to environmentally-caused lentigines. Known as postinflammatory hyperpigmentation(4), they are the result of broken blood vessels and the growth of new skin, as well as a melanin increase. Often, they are not permanent, but may take months to fade(4).
It bears mentioning that pollution has recently been linked to the development of hyperpigmentation. Studies have shown(5) that there is a connection between air pollution and the formation of dark spots, and for many people who live in cities, constant exposure to pollution is a reality. It’s therefore important to protect and treat your skin against harmful toxins present in the air, with powerful antioxidants that can help with dark spots, such as vitamin C.
The role of vitamin C in skincare
Vitamin C is a naturally-occurring antioxidant that exists in high concentrations in normal, healthy skin. The human body is unable to produce vitamin C molecules by itself, and so must absorb it through sources such as citrus fruits, leafy vegetables and certain berries(6). Normal levels of vitamin C have been shown to be depleted when skin is older, sun-damaged or exposed to pollutants(7). Which is why it’s a popular ingredient in topical skincare, in order to keep vitamin C levels up, and for its anti-aging properties. This ingredient helps neutralize the free radicals that damage and age our skin, and has been shown to prevent damage caused by UV radiation(8) as well as reducing the intensity of melanin formation, and thereby hyperpigmentation. It is also good for sensitive skin: studies show that it has a comparatively low rate of side-effects to other brightening ingredients like retinol(9).
It protects skin against free radicals throughout the day - and, in addition, vitamin C can help prevent any irritation that retinol may cause
Dr. Nina Roos, Dermatologist
When should you use a vitamin C serum?
Dermatologist Dr. Nina Roos believes that a serum with vitamin C is the most effective way to improve and prevent hyperpigmentation. She explains that: "when applied at night, it helps the cells of your skin regenerate. But, if you do use it in your nightly routine, you may have to forfeit other nighttime skincare treatments like retinol." Alternatively, applying it in the morning offers different benefits. “It protects skin against free radicals throughout the day - and, in addition, vitamin C can help prevent any irritation that retinol may cause”, she adds.
1. Skoczyńska, A. et al, 'Melanin and lipofuscin as hallmarks of skin aging' in Advances in Dermatology and Allergology 34.2 (2017) pp. 97-103 [Accessible at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5420599/]
2. Vashi, N.A. et al, 'Aging Differences in Ethnic Skin' in The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology 9.1 (2016) pp. 31-38 [Accessible at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4756870/]
3. Telang, P.S. 'Vitamin C in dermatology' in Indian Dermatology Online Journal 4.2 (2013) pp. 143-146 [Accessible at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3673383/]
4. Davis, E. et al, ‘Postinflammatory Hyperpigmentation’ in the Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, Issue 3.7 (2010), pp. 20–31, [Accessible at: www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2921758/].
5. Hüls, A. et al, ‘Traffic related air pollution contributes to development of facial lentigines: Further epidemiological evidence from Caucasians and Asians’ in The Journal of Investigative Dermatology, 136.5 (2016), pp. 1053–1056, [Accessible at: www.jidonline.org/article/S0022-202X(16)00453-X/fulltext].
6. Lykkesfeldt, J. 'Vitamin C' in Advances in Nutrition 5.1 (2014) pp. 16-18 [Accessible at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3884093/]
7. Rhie, G. et al, ‘Aging- and photoaging-dependent changes of enzymic and nonenzymic antioxidants in the epidermis and dermis of human skin in vivo’ in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology 117 (2001), pp.1212–1217, [Accessible at: www.jidonline.org/article/S0022-202X(15)41443-5/fulltext].
8. Farris, P.K. ‘Cosmetical Vitamins: Vitamin C’, in Procedures in Cosmetic Dermatology. 2nd ed. New York: Saunders Elsevier (2009) pp. 51–6.
9. Rashmi, S. et al, ‘Cosmeceuticals for Hyperpigmentation: What is available?’ in Journal of Cutaneous and Aesthetic Surgery 6.1, (2013) pp. 4-11, [Accessible at: www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3663177/].