Hyperpigmentation is the umbrella term for when areas of the skin — on the face or the body — become darker as a result of melanin overproduction. Dija Ayodele, advanced aesthetician, dark 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. Affected areas tend to vary in size, and 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. This, Ayodele explains, 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," she says. Despite not having experienced obvious trauma such as acne scarring or burns, many Black and brown women may typically notice body hyperpigmentation on their inner thighs, butt, armpits, and neck, which Ayodele says is completely normal. "These are typically high-friction areas, which are subject to rubbing and chaffing," she says. "The underarms are also prone to pigmentation due to hair removal methods like shaving, which is a type of repeated mechanical trauma to the skin."
Regular pigmentation on the body is entirely normal and part and parcel of having melanin in the skin. As Ayodele 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," she says. "This is skin doing its job." But, normal as it may be, many women turn to lotions and potions to lighten areas of discoloration, 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, an author of Caribbean and North African descent, admits that she considered treating her body hyperpigmentation after reading about cosmetic treatments and various solutions but 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," she says. "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." Lakhdari 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," she says. "Having flawless, unscarred, uniform skin is easily obtained via Photoshop, and most models, influencers, and adult entertainers are all portrayed as blemish-less mannequins."
"You are not the value of the color of your inner thigh. Period."
Dija Ayodele, skin expert and founder of West Room Aesthetics
Lakhdari's body hyperpigmentation darkened during her three pregnancies, and Ayodele explains that 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 estrogen and progesterone. Lakhdari is now five months postpartum, and says those areas are still significantly darker. "It's one of those pregnancy afflictions that is talked about much less that it should be," Lakhdari says. "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."
With the global skin-lightening industry set to be worth almost $9 billion by 2024, 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 color. Not only is it normal, but who cares if some areas are darker?"
While hyperpigmentation in areas such as the thighs, neck, and armpits is completely harmless, Ayodele 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 doctor," she says. "It could possibly be a symptom of an underlying condition such as diabetes or polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)."
As we finally start to realize 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, and while many women may choose to invest in treatment options to prevent body hyperpigmentation, it is in no way a must. A severe, hyper-critical analysis of our skin is potentially damaging to our mental health, self-esteem, and confidence — and as Ayodele puts it, "You are not the value of the color of your inner thigh. Period."