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Postinflammatory Hyperpigmentation

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Last Update: October 3, 2022.

Continuing Education Activity

Postinflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) is a common acquired disorder occurring after skin inflammation or injury. It is chronic and is more common and severe in darker-skinned individuals (Fitzpatrick skin types III–VI). While the condition typically improves spontaneously, this process can take months to years, necessitating prolonged treatment. This activity reviews the evaluation and management of postinflammatory hyperpigmentation and highlights the role of the interprofessional team in educating and managing patients with this condition.


  • Identify the etiology of postinflammatory hyperpigmentation.
  • Assess the steps in the evaluation of postinflammatory hyperpigmentation.
  • Differentiate the management options available for postinflammatory hyperpigmentation.
  • Communicate interprofessional team strategies for improving care coordination and communication to advance the treatment of postinflammatory hyperpigmentation and improve outcomes.
Access free multiple choice questions on this topic.


Postinflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) is a common acquired cutaneous disorder occurring after skin inflammation or injury. It is chronic and is more common and severe in darker-skinned individuals (Fitzpatrick skin types III-VI). While the condition typically improves spontaneously, this process can take months to years, necessitating prolonged treatment. Combination therapy is the most effective.[1][2][3]


While any inflammatory skin condition can result in hyperpigmentation, the most common causes of PIH in patients with darker skin color are acne vulgaris, atopic dermatitis, and impetigo. Other etiologies include[1][4]:


  • Viral exanthems
  • Fungal infections
  • Impetigo


  • Contact dermatitis
  • Atopic dermatitis
  • Scleroderma
  • Sarcoidosis
  • Systemic lupus erythematosus
  • Dermatomyositis
  • Insect bite reaction

Papulosquamous Disorders

  • Psoriasis
  • Lichen planus
  • Pityriasis rosea
  • Lichen simplex chronicus

Cutaneous Injury

  • Laser/light therapy
  • Burns
  • Cryotherapy
  • Chemical peels
  • Radiation therapy

Medication Hypersensitivity Reactions


  • Acne vulgaris
  • Mycosis fungoides
  • Erythema dyschromicum perstans


PIH can occur at any age in all skin types but is more common in Fitzpatrick skin types III-VI. The darker the skin color, the more intense and persistent hypermelanosis tends to be. There is no gender difference. The incidence of PIH in darker-skinned patients with acne can be as high as 65%.[4][5]


Postinflammatory hyperpigmentation, or hypermelanosis, results from the overproduction of melanin or abnormal melanin deposition in the epidermis or dermis following inflammation. Inflammatory mediators trigger melanocyte hypertrophy and activity, which increases melanin production in the epidermis. In deeper processes extending to the dermis, basal keratinocytes are damaged and release large amounts of melanin. The melanin is phagocytosed and deposited, causing a blue-gray discoloration of the skin, which may be permanent. Hyperpigmentation limited to the epidermis has a higher likelihood of resolution than dermal hyperpigmentation.[1][6]


If a biopsy is performed, epidermal PIH histopathology is significant for increased melanin in keratinocytes. The presence of melanin in dermal macrophages is noted in dermal melanosis. A biopsy may also be useful in determining the etiology of the underlying inflammation.[7][8]

History and Physical

Patients with PIH have a history of an inflammatory disorder of the skin or skin injury in the same distribution. Once the underlying inflammation has resolved, PIH is asymptomatic. However, psychological distress and impact on the quality of life may persist.

On physical examination, PIH appears as irregular, hyperpigmented macules or patches in the initial inflammation or injury distribution. Epidermal hyperpigmentation is tan, brown, or dark brown and may persist for months to years without treatment but does tend to improve over time as the underlying inflammatory disorder resolves. Wood’s lamp examination of epidermal PIH may reveal fluorescence. Dermal hyperpigmentation is blue-gray and may be permanent. Dermal and epidermal hyperpigmentation may both be present. If the inflammatory process is still active, erythematous papules, plaques, or nodules may also be visible.[1][7]


The diagnosis of PIH is clinical. Wood’s lamp evaluation can help distinguish between epidermal and dermal PIH. A biopsy may be useful for confirming the diagnosis if the diagnosis is uncertain or if the underlying etiology has yet to be determined. Laboratory evaluation to rule out Addison's disease and systemic lupus erythematosus may be necessary if signs and symptoms are present.[4]

Treatment / Management

Treatment of PIH is typically stepwise and includes multiple modalities in addition to daily protection against ultraviolet radiation. The first step is treating the causative inflammatory disorder if it is still active. Topical lightening therapy, often in combination, is next, followed by chemical peels and/or laser therapy for severe or refractory cases. Treatment, lasting months to years, is often required; patient education should set the expectation that improvement of hypomelanosis is slow and recurrences are common.

Topical Therapy

Tyrosinase inhibitors: prevent melanin production.

The mainstay of treatment is a topical lightening agent such as hydroquinone. Mequinol can be used if a less irritating agent is needed. It is often combined with a topical retinoid with or without a topical steroid to enhance and speed effectiveness. A commonly used triple combination includes hydroquinone 4%, tretinoin 0.05%, and fluocinolone acetonide 0.01%. The topical steroid can lessen the irritant effects of the skin lightener and/or the retinoid. Still, it should only be used for up to 8 weeks to minimize the likelihood of steroid-induced skin changes. Topical retinoids include tretinoin, adapalene, and tazarotene. They effectively treat underlying acne and PIH and may be used long-term. Azelaic acid can also treat both acne and PIH.

Chemical Peels

Chemical peels work by removing the epidermal cells containing excess melanin. They must be used with caution by experienced clinicians as they can cause skin irritation and additional hyperpigmentation. Glycolic, salicylic, and trichloroacetic acid peels are common. 

Laser Therapy

Multiple laser types, including Q-switched ruby lasers, Q-switched Nd:YAG lasers, and picosecond (short, intense pulse) lasers have been used to treat PIH as has fractional photothermolysis. However, experienced clinicians should also use them cautiously, as they can cause skin irritation and additional hyperpigmentation.[4][9]

Differential Diagnosis

The differential diagnosis of postinflammatory hyperpigmentation includes:

  • Melasma
  • Solar lentigines
  • Tinea versicolor
  • Acanthosis nigricans
  • Lichen planus pigmentosus
  • Macular amyloidosis
  • Ochronosis (patchy hyperpigmentation)
  • Erythema dyschromicum perstans morphea
  • Discoid lupus erythematosis[7]


Epidermal hyperpigmentation typically resolves or significantly improves within 6 to 12 months, whereas dermal hyperpigmentation improves slowly and may be permanent. No morbidity beyond psychological distress is associated with it, although recurrences are common, especially if photoprotection is not employed.[6]


Complications of untreated PIH include worsening hyperpigmentation and psychological distress. Complications of treatment include skin irritation and post-procedure hyperpigmentation.[6][10]


Dermatologic consultation may be helpful in refractory cases or if chemical peels or laser therapy are therapeutic considerations.

Deterrence and Patient Education

Broad-spectrum, year-round ultraviolet radiation protection with sunscreen and protective clothing should be initiated at diagnosis and throughout treatment regardless of skin color. Patients with darker skin types may be less likely to use sun protection without education due to a lack of perceived importance.[7]

Pearls and Other Issues

Combination therapy is more effective than monotherapy. Aggressive treatment likely leads to skin irritation and further hyperpigmentation; patience is necessary. Patients should use broad-spectrum photoprotection daily.

Enhancing Healthcare Team Outcomes

All healthcare team members should work together to prevent and treat PIH by educating patients on using broad-spectrum sunscreen and protective clothing when sun avoidance is impossible. Education on the usually self-limiting nature of PIH is also helpful. Primary care providers may initiate treatment with topical agents and may choose to refer to dermatology for chemical peels or laser therapy.[4][6]

Review Questions


Davis EC, Callender VD. Postinflammatory hyperpigmentation: a review of the epidemiology, clinical features, and treatment options in skin of color. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2010 Jul;3(7):20-31. [PMC free article: PMC2921758] [PubMed: 20725554]
Chaowattanapanit S, Silpa-Archa N, Kohli I, Lim HW, Hamzavi I. Postinflammatory hyperpigmentation: A comprehensive overview: Treatment options and prevention. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2017 Oct;77(4):607-621. [PubMed: 28917452]
Zubair R, Lyons AB, Vellaichamy G, Peacock A, Hamzavi I. What's New in Pigmentary Disorders. Dermatol Clin. 2019 Apr;37(2):175-181. [PubMed: 30850040]
Taylor S, Grimes P, Lim J, Im S, Lui H. Postinflammatory hyperpigmentation. J Cutan Med Surg. 2009 Jul-Aug;13(4):183-91. [PubMed: 19706225]
Huerth KA, Hassan S, Callender VD. Therapeutic Insights in Melasma and Hyperpigmentation Management. J Drugs Dermatol. 2019 Aug 01;18(8):718-729. [PubMed: 31424704]
Plensdorf S, Livieratos M, Dada N. Pigmentation Disorders: Diagnosis and Management. Am Fam Physician. 2017 Dec 15;96(12):797-804. [PubMed: 29431372]
Rossi AM, Perez MI. Treatment of hyperpigmentation. Facial Plast Surg Clin North Am. 2011 May;19(2):313-24. [PubMed: 21763992]
Isedeh P, Kohli I, Al-Jamal M, Agbai ON, Chaffins M, Devpura S, Mahan M, Vanderover G, Lim HW, Matsui MS, Hamzavi IH. An in vivo model for postinflammatory hyperpigmentation: an analysis of histological, spectroscopic, colorimetric and clinical traits. Br J Dermatol. 2016 Apr;174(4):862-8. [PubMed: 26663029]
Passeron T, Genedy R, Salah L, Fusade T, Kositratna G, Laubach HJ, Marini L, Badawi A. Laser treatment of hyperpigmented lesions: position statement of the European Society of Laser in Dermatology. J Eur Acad Dermatol Venereol. 2019 Jun;33(6):987-1005. [PubMed: 30873649]
Darji K, Varade R, West D, Armbrecht ES, Guo MA. Psychosocial Impact of Postinflammatory Hyperpigmentation in Patients with Acne Vulgaris. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2017 May;10(5):18-23. [PMC free article: PMC5479473] [PubMed: 28670354]

Disclosure: Elizabeth Lawrence declares no relevant financial relationships with ineligible companies.

Disclosure: Khalid Al Aboud declares no relevant financial relationships with ineligible companies.

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Bookshelf ID: NBK559150PMID: 32644576


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