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Unsightly liver spots and brown patches are enough to make anyone run for cosmetic cover. The good news is that the causes behind these little brown beacons can often be resolved or reduced from the inside with nutrition, and faded from the outside with smart topical products.
Causes of Discolored Spots and Patches
Brown spots and patches are, at best, a sign of concentrated, imbalanced melanin production in response to sunlight or temporary skin injury. Some less common pigmentation problems, like patchy vitiligo, may be autoimmune- or nutrition-related. But most spots and patches tend to be a result of aging, nutritional deficiencies, increased medications, or hormonal changes.
The Hormonal Connection to Hyperpigmentation
Hormonal changes that result from pregnancy or birth control pill use can produce dark patches known as melasma—even without sun exposure. Once established, melasma tends to fade once hormones are rebalanced.
Less common than dark spots, vitiligo is characterized by light (depigmented) patches caused by malfunctioning melanocytes. It has been linked with autoimmune disorders, oxidative stress, and neural problems, and could be genetic in some. There is some correlation with copper deficiency. It responds well to nutritional supplements. (See sidebar, p. 88 for a list of supportive nutrients.) Some research points to a build up of hydrogen peroxide in vitiligo cells, similar to what accumulates in the cells of gray hair follicles.
First Defense: Shield Yourself From Rays
Once any hyperpigmented areas form, any sun exposure tends to darken them. So step one is using natural sunscreen and/or mineral makeup that offers full-spectrum protection without potentially harmful synthetic chemicals. Mineral makeup gives additional sun protection, plus great blemish and spot coverage without irritation.
Hydroquinone, a harsh compound, has long been the conventional dermatologist’s ingredient of choice for treating hyperpigmentation, but it is a suspected carcinogen, and can cause skin discoloration and allergic reactions. IPL (Intense Pulsed Light) treatments can be effective, but scarring is a risk. LED light therapies can improve local penetration of topical treatments, although botanical pigmentation lighteners can be effective on their own.
An enzyme called tyrosinase is involved in melanin production. Therefore, natural topical options include tyrosinase inhibitors. These include N-acetyl glucosamine (also available as a supplement), especially when combined with niacinamide. Application of kojic acid and alpha arbutin can also reduce and break down melanin production, and speed natural exfoliation by increasing skin cell turnover and collagen production. Vitamin C applied topically as a cream or serum can brighten the skin, and taken internally as a supplement can increase collagen production. Licorice and several other botanical extracts have shown similar or even greater brightening ability when applied to the skin. More recently, apple stem cells were found to trigger skin regeneration, while Melanostatine 5, a proprietary peptide, was found to interrupt the reaction that causes hyperpigmentation, resulting in a 33% improvement in skin tone and clarity.
A mild peeling agent such as azelaic acid, mild salicylic acid, or green papaya enzymes, will greatly improve the penetration of the aforementioned botanicals and thus the speed of their brightening effects. Some data suggests that topical applications of azelaic acid twice daily, used in conjunction with a broad-spectrum sunscreen, work as well as hydroquinone 4% creams, without the side effects.
The Sugar Connection
Dietary intake of sugars, as well as foods that rapidly raise blood sugar, contributes to an age- and hyperpigmentation-promoting phenomenon called glycation, which is actually a slow browning (literally cooking) of proteins throughout the body. This damages collagen fibers and wrinkles the skin, and also accelerates free radical oxidative damage throughout the body. Glycation is not only linked to age spots, but also brain plaques associated with Alzheimer’s disease, and body-wide nerve damage that is a particular risk for diabetics. So your visible age spots—especially if not attributable to unusual sun exposure, or hormonal or medication changes—could be a sign of these dangerous, accumulated wastes throughout the body. How’s that for motivation to cut out sugar, white flour, sweet beverages, juices, and other glycation-promoting foods? Also, the presence of the right kinds of fats (both healthy vegetable fats and animal fats) is critical to greater hormonal balance during pregnancy, and in general to reduce hormone fluctuation-related hyperpigmentation. Information on my own glycation-reducing, healthy fat-rich dietary approach can be found in my book The Truth About Beauty.
7 Supplements that Fight Spots
1. Folate (the active and bioavailable form of folic acid) deficiency has been linked to vitiligo and pigmentation problems.
2. A combination formula of N-acetyl glucosamine and niacinamide may help prevent age and liver spot formation due to a synergistic inhibition of certain enzyme reactions that increase melanin production in response to UV light exposure
3. Research indicates that Ginkgo supplements can produce marked improvement in vitiligo.
4. L-phenylalanine is known to improve vitiligo.
5. The dipeptide carnosine has been shown to inhibit glycation in rodent studies.
6. Catalase, a powerful antioxidant, has been used topically and internally to fight both vitiligo and gray hair, believed to be due to hydrogen peroxide buildup in the cells. This buildup might cause stress or autoimmune activity that is destructive to pigment production.
7. Probiotics help reduce gut flora imbalances that can contribute to autoimmunity conditions.
A topical brightening, regenerative, and exfoliating regimen, applied daily with unfailing sunscreen use, will fade most spots and patches in eight to 12 weeks. And it’s an ongoing process. Brightening and regenerative agents, as well as the nutritional tactics, should be continued help prevent future hyperpigmentation, while improving skin and overall health.
In the meantime, covering dark spots every day with mineral-based makeup and concealers is always a win-win because you look better as you further protect patches from sun exposure.
___ Reviva labsSkin Lightener for Day Fade Cream contains kojic acid plus provides SPF 15 protection.
___ MyChelleApple Brightening Serum fights hyperpigmentation with Melanostatine 5. smarter sunscreens
___ Aubrey organicsNatural Sun SPF 30 Active Lifestyles Tropical Scent Sunscreen protects skin from sun damage, plus contains natural anti-inflammatories and moisturizers.
___ Mineral FusionSPF30 Brush-On Sun Defense is easy to apply, great and for every day use, and doesn’t leave behind a white film.
___ Doctor’s BestFully Active Folate provides the bioactive form of folic acid to fights spots from the inside-out.
___ Oxylent by Vitalah is a sugar-free effervescent multivitamin/mineral that includes vitamin C and other important nutrients for skin health.
___ Dr. Ohhira’sProbiotics: a particularly powerful probiotic with prebiotics to feed individual gut flora and promote immune health.
Award-winning author and holistic beauty and health expert Kat James transformed her body, skin, and health beyond recognition after a 12-year eating disorder, and liver and autoimmune diseases, nearly took her life. Learn more about her acclaimed Total Transformation Programs at
Photography: (top) Marc Lemauviel