Speaking from personal experience, dark underarms are just downright annoying. As a woman of color, I’ve had to deal with an armpit shadow for my whole adult life. For the most part, I don’t think about it. I mean, they’re hidden 90 percent of the time anyway. Then the moment comes when I’m angling my phone over my head for the perfect summertime selfie, and my pits are on full display. A dark smudge on my photo moment. So, I started to wonder. What causes armpits to darken over time? And what the heck can I do about it?
According to the dermatologist I talked to, I'm definitely not the only person asking these questions. “People come in quite a bit complaining of dark underarms, elbows, and knees,” Carlos Charles, M.D., founder of Derma di Colore, tells SELF. He explains that discoloration often runs in families and can sometimes be associated with medical conditions such as diabetes. Overall, it is more common in patients with darker skin tones. “In darker skin, our cells are better at producing more pigment," he says. Because of that, skin issues that cause hyperpigmentation—the overproduction of pigment, or a darkening of the skin—are "much more obvious and much more common.”
And guess what can lead to hyperpigmentation. Shaving.
“People shave the underarms quite a bit, which can lead to inflammation, as well as repetitive trauma and friction,” Charles says. “Whenever there’s any repetitive friction on the skin, the skin responds by becoming a little bit thicker, and thicker skin is often a little bit darker, or hyperpigmented.”
OK, so if shaving is out. What about waxing? Charles explains that the process isn’t much better, and ripping away the hair with wax on the regular can actually make things worse—especially if you’re prone to ingrown hairs. “If you have thick, coarse hair—which can lead to trauma and inflammation through ingrown hairs—you may be more susceptible to dark areas on the body down the road,” he says. In fact, Charles says that thick, dark hairs can make armpits look darker even before they grow up through the surface of the skin.
Laser hair removal addresses all of these issues. “We will often treat people who have dark areas under the arms because of coarse hair with laser hair removal because it’s much less traumatic, and this type of hair removal helps to grow finer hair overall,” says Charles. Finer hair means fewer ingrown hairs and less shaving in the future, and both are good things when it comes to combating hyperpigmentation.
If laser hair removal isn’t in your future plan or budget (sessions can run you upwards of $200 each, and you need four to six to see results), there are things you can do to minimize trauma to the skin when you shave. Try to shave in the same direction the hair grows, and make sure to soften the skin and hair with shaving cream before picking up the razor.
Your dermatologist can treat existing dark underarms with retinoid or fading creams, but Charles says, "it’s definitely not an easy problem," because there's a lot of skin-to-skin rubbing under your arms that can cause irritation. So you should work with a pro if you want to lighten the skin, and in general show the area as much kindness as possible. Being gentle is your best bet for preventing more darkening in the future.
This story originally appeared on Self.
More from Self: