Spring has just turned to summer, and the first pool party is approaching. You decide to celebrate the season by buying a new swimsuit. In the dressing room you excitedly slip into the first swimsuit. As you lift your arms, you notice the dark color of your armpits. Your shopping enthusiasm quickly vanishes -- you just don't know what it is or how to make that discoloration disappear.
Underarm skin discoloration is either a familiar frustration you're intimately acquainted with or a problem you probably didn't even know existed. It's know as underarm hyperpigmentation -- hyper means "more," and pigmentation refers to color. Before you learn about the causes of underarm hyperpigmentation, it's helpful to know how your skin gets its color in the first place. Melanin-producing cells called melanocytes give skin its pigment [source: Mayo Clinic]. People with darker skin have more melanin than people with lighter skin, and someone with albinism has little, if any, melanin. Clusters of melanin cause freckles and moles [source: Mayo Clinic].
People with discolored underarm skin are often self-conscious and embarrassed by their underarms, and they don't know why their armpits are dark. Understanding the causes of this hyperpigmentation can often help prevent underarm skin discoloration, and there are ways to treat the condition.
Keep reading to learn about the most common causes of underarm skin discoloration and how to treat them.
Underarm Skin Discoloration Causes
There are three common causes of underarm skin discoloration. The simplest cause is dark hair growing under the skin that shows through your thin skin layers -- this isn't actually underarm hyperpigmentation.
Another common cause of underarm skin discoloration occurs when dead cells build up beneath the skin. As new cells grow, they typically push the old cells to the surface where they fall off, but sometimes these old cells can get caught in tiny crevices under your skin [source: Cosmopolitan]. If you have too many cells in one spot, you also have more melanin in that spot, which can make skin appear darker.
The third cause of underarm skin discoloration is documented in a study performed in Southeast Asia [source: James, et al.]. Scientists found that darker underarms can be caused by a chain reaction that begins when sensitive underarm skin becomes irritated. The irritated skin makes melanocytes produce more melanin, which causes skin to darken. Shaving, waxing, plucking and using certain deodorants and antiperspirants can all irritate the skin and stimulate melanin production [source: Skincare-news].
Avoiding skin irritants can help you prevent underarm skin discoloration, but what do you do if your underarms are already dark? Read on to learn about treatment options.
Underarm Skin Discoloration Treatments
If your underarm skin discoloration is actually hair showing through your skin, having the hair removed by a cosmetic waxing procedure will probably take care of the visible darkening.
If you suspect that dead skin buildup is the culprit, talk to a dermatologist. He or she can diagnose the condition and prescribe a strong exfoliant that will remove the dead skin without irritating healthy skin. Remember that this can take several weeks. Contact your dermatologist if the dark skin itches or becomes inflamed -- these could be signs of an allergy to the treatment or an infection [source: Cosmopolitan].
If your skin is discolored because stimulated melanocytes are producing extra melanin, the treatment process is more involved. You need to prevent the melanocytes from making more melanin, so you'll have to see a dermatologist. He or she may prescribe a topical ointment that contains hydroquinone, an ingredient that blocks one of the steps in melanin production. It's safe to use on a short-term basis in low- to medium-strength formulas, but it's not recommended for long-term use [source: Todorov]. Topical creams that contain alpha hydroxy acids are also often prescribed to treat this condition because the acids help remove old cells [source: Todorov].
If you know you're susceptible to darker skin caused by melanin overproduction, avoid irritating your skin. Don't use harsh hair-removal techniques, such as waxing or plucking, and try using a deodorant or antiperspirant that's designed for sensitive skin [source: Skincare-news].
For more information on underarm discoloration, check out the links on the following page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- Amazon.com. DERMAdoctor Total NonScents Ultra-Gentle Brightening Antiperspirant product listing. (Accessed 9/25/09) http://www.amazon.com/DERMAdoctor-NonScents-Ultra-Gentle-Brightening-Antiperspirant/dp/B0000ZREXG
- American Cancer Society. "Detailed Guide: Skin Cancer -- Melanoma: What are the Key Statistics About Melanoma?" 5/14/09 (Accessed 9/16/09) http://www.cancer.org/docroot/CRI/content/CRI_2_4_1X_What_are_the_key_statistics_for_melanoma_50.asp?rnav=cri
- Cosmopolitan. "Dimming Dark Underarm Circles. (Accessed 9/25/09) http://www.cosmopolitan.com/hairstyles-beauty/how-to/dimming-dark-underarm-circles
- DailyBeauty/NewBeauty Magazine. "A Special Solution for Dark Underarms." 5/25/09. (Accessed 9/25/09 http://www.newbeauty.com/DailyBeauty/Entry.aspx?ID=2168
- James, A G., et al. "Histological Evaluation of Hyperpigmentation on Female Filipino Axillary Skin." International Journal of Cosmetic Science. 8/28/06 (Accessed 9/25/09) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18489264
- Mayo Clinic. "Melanoma: Causes." 6/3/08 (Accessed 9/28/09) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/melanoma/DS00439/DSECTION=causes
- Mayo Clinic. "Moles: Causes." 6/23/09 (Accessed 9/28/09) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/moles/DS00121/DSECTION=causes
- Mayo Clinic. "Moles: Symptoms." 2/19/08 (Accessed 9/16/09) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/moles/DS00121/DSECTION=symptoms
- Mayo Clinic. "Vitiligo." 4/21/09 (Accessed 9/28/09). http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/vitiligo/DS00586
- Skincare-news.com. "Don't Be in the Pits: How to Deal with Underarm Discoloration." 7/10/06 (Accessed 9/25/09) http://www.skincare-news.com/a-2207-Dont_Be_in_the_Pits_How_to_Deal_with_Underarm_Discoloration.aspx
- Todorov, G. "Treatment of Hyperpigmentation Problems/Skin Lightening." SmartSkinCare.com. (Accessed 9/28/09) http://www.smartskincare.com/conditions/pigmentation/hyperpigmentation-treatments.html
- VMV Hypoallergenics. Illuminants Active Lightening Underarm Treatment and Antiperspirant product listing. (Accessed 9/25/09) http://www.vmvhypoallergenics.com/store/product.php?productid=179&cat=13&page=1