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Skin - abnormally dark or light

Skin that has turned darker or lighter than normal is usually not a sign of a serious medical condition.

See also: Skin color, patchy

Alternative Names

Hyperpigmentation; Hypopigmentation

Considerations

Normal skin contains cells called melanocytes. These cells produce melanin , the substance that gives skin its color.

Skin with too much melanin is called hyperpigmented skin.

Skin with too little melanin is called hypopigmented skin.

Pale skin areas are due to too little melanin or underactive melanocytes. Darker areas of skin (or an area that tans more easily) occurs when you have more melanin or overactive melanocytes.

Bronzing of the skin may sometimes be mistaken for a suntan. This skin discoloration often develops slowly, starting at the elbows, knuckles, and knees and spreading from there. Bronzing may also be seen on the soles of the feet and the palms of the hands. The bronze color can range from light to dark (in fair-skinned people) with the degree of darkness due to the underlying cause.

Common Causes

Causes of hyperpigmentation include:

  • History of skin inflammation (post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation)
  • Use of certain medications (such as minocycline)
  • Endocrine diseases such as Addison's disease
  • Hemochromatosis (iron overload)
  • Sun exposure

Causes of hypopigmentation include:

  • History of skin inflammation
  • Certain fungal infections (such as tinea versicolor)
  • Pityriasis alba
  • Vitiligo

Home Care

Over-the-counter creams are available for lightening the skin. If you use these creams, follow instructions carefully and don't use one for more than 3 weeks at a time. Darker skin requires greater care when using these preparations. Cosmetics may also help cover a discoloration.

Avoid too much sun exposure. Always use sunscreen.

Abnormally dark skin may continue even after treatment. Experts recommend emotional support or counseling.

Call your health care provider if

Call your doctor for an appointment if you have:

  • Skin discoloration that causes significant concern
  • Persistent, unexplained darkening or lightening of the skin
  • Any skin sore or lesion that changes shape, size, or color -- may be a sign of skin cancer

What to expect at your health care provider's office

Your doctor will perform a physical exam and ask questions about your symptoms, including:

  • When did the discoloration develop?
  • Did it develop suddenly?
  • Is it getting worse? How fast?
  • Has it spread to other parts of the body?
  • What medicines do you take?
  • Has anyone else in your family had a similar problem?
  • How often are you in the sun? Do you use a sun lamp or go to tanning salons?
  • What is your diet like?
  • What other symptoms do you have? For example, are there any rashes or skin lesions ?

Tests that may be done include:

Your doctor may recommend creams, ointments, surgery, or phototherapy, depending on the type of skin condition you have. The following articles offer more detailed treatment information.

Some skin color changes may return to normal without treatment.

Updated: 5/13/2011

Kevin Berman, MD, PhD, Atlanta Center for Dermatologic Disease, Atlanta, GA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.  Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.


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