How does Skin Pigmentation Occur?

How does Skin Pigmentation Occur?

Hyperpigmentation disorders of the skin can result from an overproduction or accumulation of melanin. In this article, we thought it would be interesting to touch base on how skin pigmentation occurs. By understanding the mechanism, we can gain a better understanding on hyperpigmentation treatment


Here is the low down ...

Exposure to UV light causes the melanocytes which are present in the deeper layers of the epidermis to produce melanin to protect the skin. 

If the skin is healthy, the melanin will be discharged from the skin by repeated turnover. However, if for some reason these melanocytes get out of control, they continue generating melanin even without exposure to ultraviolet light, leading to pigmentation. All of these processes happen in the epidermis layer of the skin.

Melanocytes are the pigment producing cells which produce an organelle called the melanosome. Within the melanosome, biopolymers of the pigment melanin are synthesized to give hair and skin its color. The synthesis of melanin requires several steps, including the necessary involvement of an enzyme known as Tyrosinase. As such, depigmenting agents can target one or more steps involved in the melanogenic pathway to modulate skin colour (Fig 1).

Tyrosinase is responsible for the two major forms of melanin – the black/brown eumelanin and yellow/red pheomelanin. 

Please note: the information in the diagram and within this article has been summarised.


Actiwhite™ PW LS 9860 

Formulated as a synergistic blend of pea extract and sucrose dilaurate.  Gentle and effective alternative to Hydroquinone. 

Actiwhite™ lightens skin pigmentation in two ways: 

  1. Inhibits the maturation of melanosomes by inhibiting the expression of gene PMEL-17 and
  2. Deactivates tyrosinase; the rate limiting step to melanin production. 

 Luminous Silk Brightening Serum by elle derm. 


Arbutin inhibits the activity of Tyrosinase to suppress melanogenesis (Fig 2). It acts specifically by regulating the conversion of L-tyrosine into L-dopa, and subsequent conversion of L-dopa to L-dopaquinone.

The Ordinary Alpha-Arbutin 2% + HA


Inhibits the conversion of tyrosine to DOPA (dihydroxyphenylalanine). Ultimately, this causes a decrease in the number of melanocytes and decreased transfer of melanin leading to lighter skin colour.

Hydroquinone is an effective skin lightening ingredient but they have been known to cause ochronosis in those with darker skin and has been shown to be carcinogenic when tested in labs. For this reason we recommend short term use only. 


Kojic Acid

Blocks the production of Tyrosine which then prevents melanin from forming. Skinceuticals makes a great product with Kojic Acid and Tranexamic Acid.

Skinceuticals Discoloration Defense 

L-Ascorbic Acid

Inhibits the activity of Tyrosinase

Glycolic Acid & Lactic Acid

Glycolic Acid and Lactic Acid work as an exfoliant to remove the top layers of dead skin cells. They do this by reducing cellular cohesion between corneocytes. They can be used to treat pigmentation but can take a long time to work. We would recommend using this as a maintenance therapy. 

At a higher concentration, Glycolic Acid and Lactic Acid have been shown to produce increased amounts of mucopolysaccharides and collagen and increased skin thickness.

Neostrata Ultra Smoothing Cream (10% AHA) 

elle derm Anti-Stress Age Perfector (10% AHA) 


Retinoids stimulates the cell turn-over rate, as well as decreases melanins and transference of the pigment in the skin, causing the skin to become lighter in colour. Retinoids also exhibit other skin benefits which will be covered in more detail in another article. 

Author: Helen Huynh - Pharmacist & editor for ellé derm australia

Helen is also contactable via:



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