Have you noticed patches of discolored skin on your face or body? Such skin changes are common and usually harmless. However, it’s important to know the different conditions causing discoloured skin patches to appear on your skin in order to determine the right treatment.
In this article, we discuss what skin discoloration is, what are its common causes and how to treat it.
What Is Skin Discoloration?
Skin discoloration is the increase or decrease of pigmentation in the form of patches or spots that can appear anywhere on your body. The pigment melanin, naturally present in the human skin, renders your skin colour or complexion, hair colour and eye colour.
Melanin also plays an important role in defending your skin and internal organs from the harmful effects of the UV radiation from the sun.  Prolonged exposure to UV radiation stimulates increased production of melanin in the outermost layer of your skin (epidermis). This protects your skin from the deleterious effects of UV such as DNA damage, that in turn may lead to skin cancer.
Skin discoloration may be genetic, acquired by birth or appear during the lifetime of an individual. Conditions causing skin discoloration may be harmless or need medical intervention in some cases. However, it is present in a small percentage of individuals irrespective of races.
What Causes Skin Discoloration?
There are several conditions that may cause skin discoloration.  Here, we list a few of the common causes of skin discoloration.
1. Skin Pigmentation Disorders
This type of skin discoloration occurs when there is a defect in melanogenesis - the biochemical pathway that synthesises new melanin in the skin.
In this condition the melanocytes, cells producing melanin, either do not function properly or die out completely. This leads to the loss of melanin, usually in patches anywhere on the body. It can affect your hair as well. Vitiligo may run in the family and may be related to dysfunctioning of the immune system. 
This is a genetic disorder in which the affected person produces little or no melanin in their body. As a result, you have no pigmentation in your skin and hair. Albinos are extremely sensitive to sunlight and have a higher risk of developing skin cancers. 
Melasma causing patches of dark or discolored skin is more common among women than men. Changes in the hormonal levels such as during pregnancy may trigger the appearance of melasma.
D. Post inflammatory hyperpigmentation
This condition leads to increased formation of melanin in your skin after a burn, injury or other forms of trauma to the skin.  Although anyone can get this form of skin discoloration, people with darker complexion are more prone to this disorder.
2. Skin Conditions Causing Rashes
Certain skin conditions that cause irritation or rashes may also cause skin discoloration. Some examples include:
A. Atopic dermatitis
Also known as eczema, this skin condition causes itchiness, swelling, dryness and cracked skin along with inflammation.  This is a genetic disorder which disrupts the skin barrier function and may lead to skin discoloration.
Psoriasis is caused due to an immune disorder, which leads to overproduction of the skin cells.  This in turn forms dry, discolored and raised patches of skin also known as plaques. The plaques may be red or white and flaky like scales.
Rosacea is a chronic, auto-inflammatory disorder causing redness along with small pus-filled bumps, which usually appears in the area around your nose, on your cheeks or forehead.
D. Contact dermatitis
This condition causes redness, itching and rashes upon contact with an allergen or other irritants such as soaps, perfumes, etc. The symptoms usually subside by themselves when the allergen or irritant is removed from the skin.
Invasion of the skin by germs such as fungi and bacteria can lead to discoloration of the skin. Here are a few examples:
A. Tinea versicolor
This is a common fungal infection resulting in either darker or lighter patches on the skin of your torso which are initially small, but may grow in size with progression of the infection. 
Ringworm is caused by a group of fungi called dermatophytes (an organism that feeds on your skin cells). It commonly affects the groin area, buttocks, hand and feet. It causes red or silver coloured ring shaped, raised itchy rashes. 
This is an infection caused by the fungi candida, which is a normal resident of your skin.  Candidiasis causes red, itchy patches most commonly in the fold of your skin such as the elbows, armpits, intimate regions etc.
4. Acquired By Birth
You may have patches of discolored skin on your body right from the time you were born, thus these are also known as birthmarks. A few types of birthmarks include the following:
(i) Café-au-lait spots
(ii) Mongolian blue spots
(iv) Strawberry nevus
5. Hormonal Imbalances
Increase or decrease in the levels of certain hormones can lead to skin discoloration.  Hormonal changes occurring during pregnancy, menopause or due to conditions such as PCOS, diabetes may lead to skin discoloration.
6. Burns And Injuries
Prolonged exposure to strong sunlight can cause sunburns which results in discolored patches of skin. Heat or chemical burn may also cause permanent skin discoloration. Injuries leading to scarring may also be responsible for loss of coloration of your skin.
7. Skin Cancers
Certain skin cancers cause patches or spots on your skin. A few examples are:
(ii) Actinic melanosis
(iii) Basal cell carcinoma
(iv) Squamous cell carcinoma
What Is The Best Treatment For Skin Discoloration?
Since skin discoloration can be caused due to multiple reasons, it is important to identify the reason causing it. Your dermatologist can identify the cause and suggest a treatment strategy that suits your needs the most.
Here are a few treatment options that are commonly opted for the treatment of skin discoloration.
Hydroquinone is one of the most commonly used bleaching agent for skin. It reduces the number of melanocytes in your skin thus making the applied area lighter in color. This may help you get a more even complexion.
The bleaching cream or lotion should be used carefully as per the instructions. You may either use a prescription bleaching formulation or an OTC bleach depending on your need. The prescription formulations are usually stronger and more effective than the OTC ones.
B. Chemical Peels
These peels contain different active ingredients such as salicylic acids, glycolic acids, TCA (trichloro acetic acid), etc. How deep the actives penetrate your skin depends on the strength and type of ingredient used. Using chemical peels can help you get a smoother complexion.
It is important to choose a peel that suits your skin. To know your unique skin more, try SkinkKraft’s AI enabled KnowYourSkin questionnaire. You can also order SkinKraft products customized for your skin’s specific needs.
Certain strong chemical peels such as the ones containing phenol, should be administered only by an expert. These are used to treat severe discoloration and may take upto a month for complete recovery post administration.
This is a minimally invasive procedure in which the topmost layer of your skin is sanded off gently.  This results in smoother skin and even complexion. This is particularly helpful in case of skin discoloration due to minor scars, photodamage, stretch marks, etc.
D. Laser Therapy
Different types of laser radiation can be used to treat skin discoloration. The laser beam is directed at the affected area to remove the differentially pigmented epidermal cells. The new skin layer that will grow is expected to be of an even tone.
A few examples of lasers used for treating pigmentation issues are intense pulsed light (IPL) laser, Q-switched laser and non-ablative fractionated resurface laser. Laser therapy should only be done at a dermatologist's office for best results.
In this procedure, liquid nitrogen is used to freeze the affected area on your skin. This may cause blistering. But upon recovery, your skin will get rid of the differences in pigmentation. Cryotherapy is particularly effective for the removal of hyperpigmentation.
When Should You Worry About Skin Discoloration?
Skin discoloration by itself may be harmless. But sometimes it may indicate underlying health conditions such as increase or decrease in hormones like insulin, estrogen-progesterone, thyroid, etc.
Although not so common, skin discoloration may indicate certain cancers. Autoimmune disorders such as scleroderma, lupus may also be responsible for your skin discoloration. Therefore, it is always a good idea to consult your doctor when you notice skin discoloration.
You should immediately visit a healthcare professional if you notice one or many of the following symptoms:
1. Sudden changes in the size or number of discolored patches or spots on your face or body.
2. Discomfort such as pain, irritation or redness in the affected area that refuses to go away.
3. Sudden appearance of moles or changes in the boundaries of the existing moles.
Skin discoloration is a common skin condition which is usually not harmful by itself. But it can indicate other underlying health issues. Therefore keep an eye on the affected area and visit a doctor if need be. Some forms of skin discoloration are permanent but most can be treated in consultation with a dermatologist.
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