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Skin Discoloration: Causes, Pictures, and Treatment
Skin discoloration refers to any change in your natural skin tone. Causes of skin discoloration can include birthmarks, infection, skin pigmentation disorders, and skin cancer, among others.
Skin discoloration is a broad term that describes any change in your skin that differs from your natural skin tone. These areas of discolored skin can range in color and may be:
While there are many harmless causes of skin discoloration, such as birthmarks, some cases of discolored skin may develop from an underlying medical condition that requires diagnosis and treatment.
Discolored skin patches may also commonly develop on certain body parts due to a difference in melanin levels. Melanin is the substance that provides color to the skin and protects it from the sun. When there’s an overproduction of melanin, it can cause differences in skin tone.
Another possibility is skin cancer, which must be addressed with a dermatologist right away.
In this article, we cover several possible causes of skin discoloration along with pictures so you can discuss any concerns you have with your doctor.
There are many potential causes of skin discoloration, ranging from minor problems to more serious medical conditions. These may include:
- birthmarks, which are discolored skin spots that may be present at, or shortly after, birth
- pigmentation disorders, such as melasma, albinism and vitiligo
- medical conditions, such as rosacea, psoriasis, and Graves‘ disease
- infections from harmful bacteria, viruses, or fungi
- allergies, which may lead to hives or eczema rashes
- skin cancer, which develops from damaged skin cells that become malignant (cancerous)
- other causes, such as burns and medication side effects
Let’s look at these potential causes of skin discoloration in more detail.
Birthmarks are discolored skin spots that can develop at birth or soon after birth. They are typically harmless and don’t require treatment unless they become bothersome or painful.
Some common types of birthmarks include:
- Moles. Moles can appear on the skin at birth. They can range in color from tan, brown, or black, to red, purple, and blue. Some moles may even be the same color as your skin. Most moles aren’t a cause for concern, but any changes in the size or shape of a mole can signal trouble and should be checked by a healthcare professional.
- Dermal melanocytosis (formerly Mongolian blue spots). Bluish patches that can appear on the backs of babies and young children, usually in those of Asian descent. These blue spots are harmless and often fade over time.
- Port-wine marks. Port-wine marks are flat patches that appear pink or red on lighter skin tones, dark-purple or violet-red on darker skin tones. They are caused by swollen blood vessels under the skin.
- Salmon patches. Salmon, red, or pink-colored patches that may develop on a baby’s face or neck. This birthmark tends to go away on its own by ages 1 to 3.
- Strawberry nevus (hemangioma). A red birthmark that’s common in young children and infants. This birthmark usually fades by age 10.
- Deep hemangioma. This type of birthmark also tends to disappear by age 10. It appears as a purple- or blue-tinted lump under the skin that may require treatment if it’s painful or if it breaks open and bleeds.
- Hypopigmented macule. A spot of skin that’s lighter than the rest of your body and tends to go away over time.
- Café au lait spots. Spots of skin that are much darker than the rest of the body. Unlike a hypopigmented macule, this type of birthmark remains for life.
Pigmentation disorders can cause changes in your skin that are either lighter (hypopigmentation) or darker (hyperpigmentation) than your natural skin tone. While usually harmless, more extensive pigmentation changes may lead someone to get aesthetic treatments.
Common pigmentation disorders include:
- Vitiligo. This chronic (long-term) condition causes large patches of hypopigmentation on your skin. While vitiligo can develop at any age, it typically begins before age 20.
- Albinism. Albinism is an inherited condition that leads to the development of extremely light skin, eyes, and hair due to a lack of melanin.
- Melasma. Nicknamed “the mask of pregnancy” due to the involvement of progesterone and estrogen, melasma is a type of hyperpigmentation that causes darker spots of skin on the face and abdomen. It usually fades and gets lighter once you stop taking birth control pills or after pregnancy. Certain amounts of sun exposure can cause it to return.
- Age or “liver“ spots (lentigo). These are common hyperpigmentation spots caused by sun damage. Age spots can develop anywhere on the body, but they tend to affect sun-exposed areas, such as your hands, chest, and face.
The immune system normally works to keep the body healthy by fighting off harmful agents that can cause infection and disease.
In people with autoimmune diseases, however, the immune system confuses healthy cells for something foreign and attacks them by mistake. This triggers inflammation throughout the body, resulting in various symptoms, including swelling and redness.
Some autoimmune diseases and other medical conditions that may lead to symptoms of skin discoloration include:
- Psoriasis. Psoriasis is a chronic skin condition characterized by itchy patches of red to silvery scales that are caused by an increase in skin cell turnover.
- Rosacea. This condition may cause skin flushing and redness. Some types of rosacea may also cause acne pustules, ocular (eye) symptoms, and thickened skin.
- Lupus. Lupus can affect the skin as well as other areas in your body, including your joints and major organs.
- Stasis ulcer. A type of leg ulcer that often coincides with varicose veins and venous insufficiency, leading to redness, swelling, and pain.
- Graves’ disease. A type of thyroid disease that causes your body to produce too many thyroid hormones. Related skin symptoms may include areas of rough, thickened, red skin.
- Addison’s disease. This adrenal insufficiency condition may cause areas of hyperpigmentation in the skin. You may also be at an increased risk of developing vitiligo.
- Scleroderma. Scleroderma is a rare autoimmune disorder that may cause patches of thick, discolored skin, as well as problems with connective tissues.
Various infections can cause changes in skin color in the affected area.
Infections that may lead to discolored skin include:
- Bacterial infections. Cuts, scrapes, and other wounds may become infected when bacteria enter, resulting in changes in the texture of your skin. The surrounding area may also turn red or white, and the wound itself may have discharge. Topical or oral antibiotics may be prescribed for these types of skin infections.
- Fungal infections. Fungal infections, such as ringworm, tinea versicolor, and candida, can also trigger discolored skin patches on various parts of the body. Topical or oral fungal treatments may be used for these conditions.
- Viral infections. Viral infections, such as shingles, cold sores, and warts, may lead to red, purple, or brown bumps or sores. Antiviral treatments may be used for certain types of infections.
Rashes and allergies
Allergic reactions to foods, plants, or irritants can also result in discolored skin patches in various areas of the body. These changes may appear as rashes or raised bumps that itch or burn and can occur in the following:
- Eczema (atopic dermatitis). Like certain autoimmune diseases, eczema triggers an immune reaction that attacks the skin. The condition can cause scaly patches and red bumps that ooze or crust over.
- Contact dermatitis. Contact dermatitis is another type of allergic skin rash that can develop when you come into contact with fragrances, skin care products, metals, or clothing that irritates your skin. Contact dermatitis rashes are often itchy and sometimes even painful.
- Hives (urticaria). These raised, itchy bumps on the skin are the result of inflammation from your body releasing histamine (a compound involved in immune responses) in response to an allergen. While usually acute, some cases of hives can be chronic, lasting for months or even years.
Cancer can change the skin’s color or texture. Skin cancer may occur when the genetic material in skin cells becomes damaged, often from long-term sun damage or exposure to chemicals. The damage may cause the cells to grow out of control and form a mass of cancer cells.
There are several types of skin cancer, all of which require treatment:
- Actinic keratosis. A precancerous skin condition characterized by scaly, crusty spots on the hands, arms, or face. These spots are typically brown, gray, or pink. The affected area may itch or burn.
- Basal cell carcinoma. The most common form of skin cancer, basal cell carcinoma affects the top layer of skin. It most often appears in sun-exposed areas. In the early stages, it produces lesions that bleed. The associated bumps may be discolored, shiny and pearly, or scar-like. They can look like open sores and often have slightly higher edges with an indentation in the middle.
- Squamous cell carcinoma. A type of skin cancer that begins in the squamous cells. These cells make up the outermost layer of skin. This condition causes scaly, red patches and raised sores, which are also often seen on sun-exposed areas of the skin.
- Melanoma. This is the least common but most serious form of skin cancer. Melanoma begins as an atypical mole. Cancerous moles are often asymmetrical, multicolored, and large. They can appear anywhere on the body, but they usually first appear on the chest or back in people assigned male at birth and on the legs in people assigned female at birth.
Most discolored skin patches aren’t caused by skin cancer. However, you should ask a healthcare professional to examine any misshapen moles or other rapidly changing skin lesions.
Other causes of skin discoloration
Other conditions and medical treatments that can cause skin discoloration include:
- Bleeding into the skin. This happens when blood vessels burst due to injury, bruising, or an allergic reaction.
- Radiation therapy. Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that can cause the skin to blister, itch, and peel.
- Spider veins. Damaged veins that can appear as clusters of red, blue, or purple lines underneath your skin, particularly in your legs.
- Hormonal changes. Hormonal changes may cause the development of melasma hyperpigmentation.
- Thermal injuries. Skin discoloration can occur after healing from burns such as those associated with frosbite, sunburn, fire, and electrical injuries.
- Toxic exposures. Chronic application or ingestion of silver compounds (argyria) and heavy metals can lead to deposition of metallic compounds in the skin and/or stimulate excess melanin production.
- Medication side effects. Drug-induced hyperpigmentation may occur in some people taking antibiotics, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), and other drugs.
You should schedule an appointment with a doctor if you:
- have any lasting changes in your skin color
- notice a new mole or growth on your skin
- have an existing mole or growth that changed in size or appearance
- have any other concerning symptoms, such as pain, inflammation, or discharge
At your appointment, your doctor will first take a look at areas of skin discoloration and ask you about any changes you’ve noticed. They will also ask about other symptoms you may be experiencing.
Depending on your doctor’s findings during the physical exam, they may order further diagnostic testing to determine the cause of skin discoloration. While the exact tests may vary with each potential cause of discolored skin, the options may include:
- blood tests to check for conditions that may cause changes in skin color
- a Wood’s lamp examination to identify possible fungal or bacterial infections
- a skin biopsy to examine a small sample of the affected skin under a microscope for the presence of abnormal cells
Treatment for discolored skin patches depends on the underlying cause. If a healthcare professional finds an underlying health condition, they will attempt to treat that particular condition first.
Any active infection must be treated with the appropriate class of drugs. For example, antibiotics can treat bacterial infections, while antifungal medications treat fungal infections.
If you choose to seek treatment for cosmetic reasons, a dermatologist may recommend over-the-counter or prescription topical treatments to reduce signs of skin discoloration. Professional treatments, such as chemical peels or microdermabrasion, may also be used to help reduce hyperpigmentation, but these aren’t usually covered by insurance.
It’s important to ask your doctor before trying any topical treatments or home remedies that supposedly treat skin discoloration. You should always get a correct diagnosis first.
While many cases of skin discoloration are harmless, any unusual changes in your skin can be concerning. Some causes of discolored skin patches are fairly minor conditions that only need simple treatments. Other causes may be more severe and require ongoing treatment.
It’s important to speak with a doctor about any skin changes that are unusual or bothersome, especially if you notice sudden symptoms or rapid changes in your skin. These could be an indication of a more serious condition.
Your doctor will diagnose the cause of your discolored skin and recommend treatments as appropriate. If skin discoloration is linked to an underlying medical condition, keep in mind that skin symptoms may not go away until the medical condition is first addressed.
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Cropped view of young beautiful woman with vitiligo isolated on white
Freckled woman with calla lily looking at camera isolated on pink
Positive curly woman with freckles on pink background, banner
Freckled and sportswoman with vitiligo standing back to back isolated on grey
Happy curly woman holding cosmetic products on pink background
Shirtless african american man with vitiligo skin and muscular torso posing isolated on grey
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Young african american man with vitiligo skin looking at camera while listening music in earphone near office windows
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Cropped view of african american man with vitiligo holding aftershave lotion in bathroom
Stylish young woman with vitiligo touching arm and looking at camera on grey background
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Excited curly woman in white top touching face isolated on grey
Trendy woman with vitiligo posing with hand on hip in satin dress on grey background
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Attractive allergic woman scratching red skin and looking at camera on white
Pleased woman with vitiligo touching neck and closing eyes on grey background, banner
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Cropped view of teen girl with freckles and colorful eyeshadows isolated on grey
Back view of young beautiful woman with vitiligo posing isolated on beige
Cheerful women with skin issues looking at camera isolated on grey
African american man with vitiligo in white shirt holding glass of whiskey while sitting in bathtub
Attractive woman with skin disease gesturing while speaking in clinic
Back view of woman with melanoma on diseased skin isolated on white
Partial view of woman with vitiligo and bare feet sitting on grey background
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Smiling woman with vitiligo holding calla lily isolated on grey
Woman with acne and redhead model with freckles using jade rollers isolated on turquoise
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African american man with vitiligo sitting shirtless on high stool on grey
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Smiling young woman with vitiligo lying on pillow in bed with blurred foreground
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Young woman with vitiligo touching neck and closing eyes isolated on grey
Portrait of brunette model with vitiligo in satin dress looking at camera on grey background
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Types of skin hyperpigmentation and their characteristics.
Lentigo, melasma, chloasma, melasma, post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation
Pigmented spots or streaks that are darker in color appear imperceptibly on the skin. They are unevenly distributed and can have a different shape and color. The only thing they have in common is ugliness. Age spots spoil the appearance and mood. Skin hyperpigmentation is not only an aesthetic flaw, but also indicates a pathology, so a dermatologist should study its nature and causes.
The nature and causes of hyperpigmentation
Dark spots on the skin are an accumulation of melanin pigment. In response to intense exposure to sunlight, melanocytes secrete this pigment to protect skin structures from destruction. Ultraviolet radiation has a detrimental effect on skin cells, so the body protects them as best it can: melanin is released, the epidermis thickens. The rays of the ultraviolet spectrum B activate the reproduction of melanocytes and an increase in the amount of pigment they produce. Melanin is a powerful antioxidant and neutralizer of solar radiation. Its granules are distributed unevenly in the epidermis layer. Excessive exposure to sunlight causes damage to melanocytes, as a result of which they produce an increased amount of pigment, which accumulates in those places where the skin is most vulnerable. This is how pigment spots are formed.
Additional causes of skin hyperpigmentation are:
- Fluctuations in the levels of hormones and enzymes in the body.
- Taking drugs that increase photosensitivity.
- Genetic predisposition.
- Disorders of the nervous system and stress.
- Diseases of internal organs.
Whatever the cause of skin hyperpigmentation, it is always necessary to consult a dermatologist to rule out skin cancer at an early stage. Modern diagnostic systems, such as the FotoFinder dermatoscope, make it possible to detect even minimal mutations in skin tissues and prevent the development of oncology.
Types of skin hyperpigmentation
Depending on the cause, hyperpigmentation is divided into hereditary (primary) and acquired (secondary). A person is born with hereditary pigmentations, even if they begin to appear at a certain age. For example, freckles (afalids) become noticeable after about 3 years, and appear brighter with the onset of spring. There are more acquired hyperpigmentations, and they can be a concomitant symptom of metabolic diseases, hyper- or hypovitaminosis, various conditions, such as pregnancy.
Types of secondary hyperpigmentation
On the face and body. Often in women during pregnancy – on the stomach.
Irregular, well-defined patches of light or dark brown, symmetrically distributed.
Located mainly on the arms, chest, forearms.
Small flat hyperpigmented spots. It often occurs in older people. It is a sign of age-related skin aging.
On the face, body, mucous membranes of internal organs. On the head in the area of the ears.
Accumulation of pigment in organs or tissues in the form of foci or diffusely.
On the face, neck and body.
Generic name for hyperpigmentation due to chronic ultraviolet exposure in women and men.
Post-inflammatory (post-traumatic) hyperpigmentation
At the site of damage to the integrity of the skin.
It is caused by prolonged inflammation and frequent trauma when the pigment accumulates epidermally and dermally.
The following hyperpigmentations are distinguished according to the depth of the pigment:
- Superficial (epidermal)
- Deep (dermal)
- Mixed (dermal and epidermal).
Elena Olinichenko, dermatologist, cosmetologist, coach of the Academy of Cosmetology Premium Aesthetics, comments:
“Hyperpigmentation (hypermelanosis) is primarily caused by excessive exposure to ultraviolet rays. Melasma, chloasma, lentigo, post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation can appear in a person at any age. Their treatment at the Academy of Cosmetology begins with skin dermatoscopy using the FotoFinder system. To remove hyperpigmentation of the skin, the clinic uses combined protocols using hardware, injection and cosmetic methods aimed at restoring the protective properties of the skin and destroying pigmented cells.