Although we often spend the most time, energy and funds on our face, the skin on our body is prone to similar conditions, be it acne, eczema or dryness. But one of the most common conditions is body hyperpigmentation, and it affects those with darker skin more prominently.
Hyperpigmentation is the umbrella term for when areas of the skin — whether on the face or body — become darker, and this is a result of melanin overproduction. Dija Ayodele, advanced aesthetician, darker skin expert and founder of West Room Aesthetics, explains that there are several causes of hyperpigmentation: "It could be due to sun damage, inflammation or any type of trauma to the skin," she says, and affected areas tend to vary in size. Thanks to stimulated melanocytes (which are the pigment-making skin cells), hyperpigmentation can develop on any area on the body.
Of course, hyperpigmentation is universal, but for those with darker skin, it manifests much more noticeably. According to Dija, this is because of the increased levels of melanin. "Whenever there is any inflammation or trauma, the melanocytes quickly go into action to produce more melanin to defend and protect against that trauma," Dija explains. Despite not having experienced obvious trauma such as acne scarring or burns, many women of colour may typically notice body hyperpigmentation on their inner thighs, bum, armpits and neck, which Dija explains is completely normal. "These are typically high-friction areas, which are subject to rubbing and chaffing," she says. "Equally, the underarms are often prone to pigmentation due to hair removal methods like shaving, which is a type of repeated mechanical trauma to the skin," adds Dija.
"You are not the value of the colour of your inner thigh. Period."
Dija Ayodele, skin expert and founder of West Room Aesthetics.
Regular pigmentation on the body is entirely normal and part and parcel of having melanin in the skin. As Dija explains, we all have bumps and knocks that will create a cycle of hyperpigmentation that then fades over time. "It isn't anything to fix or cure," adds Dija, "this is skin doing its job." But normal as it may be, many women turn to lotions and potions to lighten areas of discolouration, some of which can be incredibly harmful if they contain potent (and in some cases illegal) concentrations of bleaching agents, such as mercury and high doses of hydroquinone.
Aisha Lakhdari, of Caribbean and North African descent, admits that she considered treating her body hyperpigmentation after reading about cosmetic treatments and various solutions. She ultimately chose not to. "My bikini line and bum were always darker and I definitely struggled with this. But I found issue with the idea of altering my skin's natural state and healing process. Nowadays I'm very accepting of my darker areas and see them as a welcome addition to my varying complexion as opposed to an insecurity." Aisha adds that when she was younger, she felt pressure to lighten her body hyperpigmentation due to images portrayed by celebrities and social media. "Mainstream connotations of beauty equals 'perfection' — whatever that means. Having flawless, unscarred, uniform skin is easily obtained via Photoshop, and for a long time (and still to date), most models, influencers and adult entertainers are all portrayed as blemish-less mannequins," she tells me.
Aisha's body hyperpigmentation darkened during her three pregnancies. According to Dija, hormonal triggers from pregnancy, oral contraception or certain medication can all potentially result in body hyperpigmentation, as the cells are stimulated by female sex hormones, oestrogen and progesterone. Aisha is now at five months postpartum and those areas are still significantly darker. "It's one of those pregnancy afflictions that is talked about much less that it should be," says Aisha. "It's difficult not to become self-conscious with the many changes that occur during and after pregnancy, but for me, darker areas of skin are a very small price to pay for the privilege of having a beautiful family."
Nowadays I'm very accepting of my darker areas and see them as a welcome addition to my varying complexion as opposed to an insecurity.
With the global skin lightening industry, set to be worth almost $9 billion by 2024 (approximately £7 billion), Priya* has vowed not to contribute to that growth. "In Indian culture with a history of having a caste system, it's commonplace for older relatives to talk about skin tone and say that lighter skin is more beautiful," she tells me. "My inner thighs and armpits are darker and my mum and aunties said I could always get rid of it when I got older. I never understood why."
Growing up in the UK and watching Bollywood films, Priya says it's easy to see why so many women feel compelled to turn to lightening creams. "The majority of South Asian women in mainstream media are incredibly fair and could almost pass for being European," she says. "For me, it was so important to stand my ground and learn to love every inch of myself, regardless of the colour. Not only is it normal but who cares if some areas are darker?"
While hyperpigmentation in areas such as thighs, neck and armpits is completely harmless, Dija is quick to point out that you might want to get it checked if the skin appears darker and thicker. "This can be a sign of skin condition Acanthosis Nigricans (AN), which must be examined by your GP," says Dija. "This is because it could possibly be a symptom of an underlying condition such as diabetes or polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)."
As we finally start to realise that chasing a false idea of perfection is simply a waste of time, our acceptance of body hyperpigmentation is heading in the right direction. Our bodily shade fluctuations are nothing out of the ordinary. Of course, while many women may choose to invest in treatment options to prevent body hyperpigmentation, it truly isn't a must. Often, a severe hyper-critical analysis of our skin is potentially damaging to our mental health, self-esteem and confidence. As Dija excellently puts it, "You are not the value of the colour of your inner thigh. Period."
*Name has been changed.