Take clear, even toned skin for granted in your 20s, and you may be setting yourself up for “payback” decades later, experts warn. “The damage from ultraviolet radiation is usually cumulative, and pigments tends to develop years down the road,” says Dr Raymond Kwah, consultant dermatologist of Dermatology and Surgery Clinic.

In other words, even if you don’t see visible spots yet, pigmentation is stealthily developing beneath your skin. In fact, unchecked sun exposure in your teens or 20s damages pigment-producing cells situated deeper within the skin, explains Mah Mei Hui, managing director and pharmacist at The Skin Pharmacy. When this happens, these damaged cells may continue to produce dark pigments even when the skin is not exposed to the sun.

To help protect your skin, Mei Hui recommends sunscreen as your first line of defence. “Look for ingredients such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide that physically block out UV light, or ingredients such as oxybenzone that absorb UV rays and convert their energy to a less harmful form.”

If you’re already noticing visible dark spots, Dr Eileen Tan, dermatologist at Eileen Tan Skin, Laser and Hair Transplant Clinic, suggests using skincare products prescribed by doctors. These usually contain ingredients such as hydroquinone to lighten pigmentation and reduce its production, vitamin C for antioxidant and brightening effects, or tretinoin (a form of vitamin A) and hydroxy acids to boost and regulate cellular turnover so that new skin cells can reach the skin surface readily. However, while such lightening products may reduce light or moderate pigmentation, don’t expect them to eradicate dark spots entirely, says Dr Tan.
Be it preventing or reversing pigmentation, nipping the problem early on may save you a lot of time and heartache decades down the road.

You may notice more pronounced dark spots and uneven skin tone as pigmentation accumulated through the years start to surface. Hormonal changes associated with pregnancy and ageing may make a woman more susceptible to sun damage and pigmentation too, says Dr Patricia Yuen, consultant dermatologist at Pacific Healthcare Specialist Centre.

Adapt your skincare routine to keep up with your skin’s changing condition – move from basic care to advance care, and incorporate overnight products, masks and serums. To compensate for slower cellular turnover in your 30s, Dr Karen Soh, medical director of Prive Clinic, also recommends adding retinoids and retinols to your regimen.

Kojic acid, derived from various fungal species and used in food processing to prevent browning, can also be useful for topical skin lightening, says Dr Joyce Lim, dermatologist at Joyce Lim Skin and Laser Clinic. To further protect your skin from the sun, oral sunscreens or antioxidants give your skin an extra layer of shield.

After 40, pigmentation generally becomes more pronounced. So treat it promptly in your 30s, or invest in a good dermatologist who can tailor a treatment for your needs.

If you haven’t been diligent with sun protection and damage control, you’re likely to discover the extent of your negligence now.

“Extrinsic factors such as sun exposure, pollution, stress, and lifestyle choices in your 20s and 30s begin to take their toll and manifest as hyper-pigmentation,” explains Dr Lynn Teo, dermatologist at The Dermatology Practice. “This can appear as patches of brown, isolated brown spots, and isolated bluish brown spots on the peaks of cheeks.”

Hormonal changes will also cause skin thinning, slower cellular renewal and more visible pigmentation, adds Dr Ivan Puah, medical director of Amaris B. Clinic.

Retinoids, antioxidants and skin lightening ingredients are still your go-to fixes. But if these aren’t already part of your skincare routine, Dr Ang Por, consultant dermatologist at Dermatology Associates, recommends introducing them gradually.

“In addition to being more prone to pigmentation, skin in the 40s is also more sensitive and acne prone,” she explains. Start with one or two products to avoid skin irritation.

Dr Puah also suggests switching to high-performance skincare. “Consider a cleanser with a natural exfoliant such as lactic acid to help revive lacklustre skin, and pick a lightweight but effective sunscreen that won’t cause outbreaks.”

This article was originally published in Simply Her March 2015.