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How to Manage Post-Inflammatory Hyperpigmentation with Tiara Willis, Esthetician + Founder of @MakeupForWOC

By Manna Zel

If you’ve ever tried to manage post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, you know it can feel like a complex skin concern to solve. Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation occurs, as the name would suggest, when your body overproduces melanin as a result of inflammation in the skin—like acne, eczema, excess sun exposure, a burn from a curling iron, or a scar from surgery. Though PIH is an extremely common condition that can occur in all complexions, skin types, ages, and genders, studies show that post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation is most commonly experienced by people of color. 

“Basically, it’s the body’s immune response where excess melanin was produced,” says esthetician Tiara Willis, who built the platform @MakeupForWOC at fourteen, dissatisfied with the lack of representation for women of color in social media and beauty. 

When she graduated high school at sixteen, Willis followed a lot of estheticians online who inspired her to pursue esthetics for herself. 

“I was dealing with a lot of acne,” Willis says of her skin at the time. “Through [esthetics school], I learned how to clear up my skin. Now, I get that privilege to help other people do the same.” 

It wasn’t until her acne began to clear that Willis became more conscious of her hyperpigmentation—until then, her mind had only focused on the acne. In the years since, Willis has built a go-to, four-part guide to managing hyperpigmentation, which she shares here with To The People.

STEP 01: INCREASE CELL TURNOVER

Your first line of defense against hyperpigmentation is topical. Look for depigmenting agents like vitamin C, glycolic acid, retinoids, and niacinamide. 

“You’ll need an exfoliating product or retinol,” Willis says. “It’s even great if you can get a product that brightens, too.” 

STEP 02: REDUCE THE INFLAMMATION

When managing hyperpigmentation, one of your main goals should be to reduce the inflammation causing the secondary pigmentation. 

“Whether it's acne or eczema, you want to control those things first and then work on brightening that hyperpigmentation,” Willis says.

As Willis explains, this step is crucial to understanding the difference between post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation and acne scarring. 

“Acne scarring [happens] when there’s inflammation and the skin around it broke down. It’s normally a lack of collagen, and there’s a depletion of subcutaneous fat that happened and you’ll see that divot in the skin,” she says. 

STEP 03: PROTECT SKIN FROM UV RAYS

Willis notes that sunscreen is so vital because 80% of extrinsic aging is from UV rays—and UV rays have an inflammatory effect, which can cause induced melanogenesis. When using active ingredients, exfoliants, and prescription products, your skin can become even more sensitive to the sun—so even if you’re spending the day indoors, sun protection should be an essential step in your skincare routine. 

“While Black people don’t tend to get as [many] wrinkles as fairer skin tones, we still tend to sink, sag, and pigment,” Willis says. “Melanin does protect from the sun, but it doesn’t protect us from everything, which is why we’re more prone to hyperpigmentation and it’s harder for us to get rid of it.”

To ensure maximum protection and efficacy, Willis shares the two-finger sunscreen rule

“Take sunscreen from the tip of your fingers to the base—that’s how much sunscreen you should use from your neck up.” When you apply less than that, your skin is actually receiving less than the specified amount of sun protection on the bottle. 

STEP 04: USE A BRIGHTENING PRODUCT 

Hyperpigmentation can manifest in patches of different sizes, shapes, and colors—ranging from light brown to black, depending on where the excess pigment is located within the skin—and brightening can be complex. There are so many pathways for the production of melanin, but the most common, Willis says, are tyrosinase inhibitors, which inhibit the formulation of melanin in one pathway. Since free radicals increase pigmentation, too, she recommends loading up your routine with antioxidants to fight them off and protect your skin. 

“What I recommend for people is [that] when they get a serum for hyperpigmentation, it should be a complex serum,” Willis says. “It shouldn’t just be one ingredient—try to get something that has multiple things that brighten hyperpigmentation.”

REPEAT THE ROUTINE FOR THREE MONTHS (OR MORE)

It depends on the pigmentation itself, but Willis’ rule of thumb for improving hyperpigmentation—and many other skin concerns—is to wait three months, minimum

“Sometimes, pigmentation can run deep into the dermis, and it’ll be that blue-black pigmentation, so it’ll take longer there. Sometimes, pigmentation can be hormonally induced, like melasma—that can take a while or never completely go away,” Willis says. But if you’re seeing a dark spot from a pimple, Willis advises to treat it for three months, and see how it goes. 

CONSIDER SEEING AN ESTHETICIAN OR DERMATOLOGIST

Epidemiological studies show that dyschromias like post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation are one of the most common skin concerns that people of color present to an esthetician or dermatologist. When considering a visit to an esthetician or a dermatologist, Willis recommends seeking out the care of a professional who represents you, if accessible.

“Medical racism crosses over into skincare,” Willis says, noting that many common skin concerns for people of color aren’t included in dermatology studies—nor are many products or ingredients tested on our skin. 

“For example, a very common cosmetic concern for skin of color is pigmentation on your knuckles, on your elbows, where your joints move—which is very normal. But say you were to Google, ‘Why are my knees dark?’ or ‘Why are my knuckles dark?’ You’ll see a bunch of scary medical concerns and not enough normalization about [how] this is a very common thing [for] skin of color. Things like that would only be something another Black dermatologist or Black esthetician would know, but on Google it’d be really hard to find.”