Lots of things in our body change with age. But one thing you might not have expected to change is the color of your skin around your genitals.
Like anything, this change usually doesn’t happen overnight. Instead it’s gradual — so gradual, in fact, that you might not notice it right away.
But then one day you do, and you find yourself wondering: Is everything OK?
It’s perfectly normal for the skin of your labia, scrotum, and anus to be darker than the skin elsewhere on your body.
This darkening is called hyperpigmentation.
“In most people post-puberty, the skin in the genital area will be darker than other skin areas,” explains Hadley King, MD, a dermatologist based in Manhattan, New York.
“The color will vary from person to person,” says King. “There is no ‘normal’ color in this area, but it tends to be darker than other areas.”
Your natural skin tone plays a role in how dark this area can be. Hyperpigmentation might be a subtle color difference if you have paler skin.
If you have darker skin, it might be more of a “true darkening of the skin, usually more brown in nature,” says Evan Goldstein, DO, anal surgeon and founder and CEO of Bespoke Surgical, a New York City practice specializing in sexual wellness.
Your skin has certain cells, called melanocytes, which form melanin. In your genital area, those melanocytes are particularly sensitive to hormones.
“The genital area gradually becomes darker in response to hormonal changes over time,” explains Tamika Cross, MD, a board certified OB-GYN based in Houston, Texas, and co-owner of Serenity Women’s Health & MedSpa.
“This can be during puberty, pregnancy, or aging in general,” adds Cross. “For example, estrogen is one of the hormones that can result in increased pigment in certain areas such as the labia.”
It can also darken the skin on or around your nipples, areolae, and anus, too.
“During puberty and pregnancy, estrogen levels are elevated, which results in increased pigmentation of those areas,” Cross says. “Most times if this happens, it doesn’t go away. If anything, it stays the same or darkens more.”
Friction and inflammation
An increase in friction can lead to an increased potential for melanocyte hyperactivity, says Goldstein.
In other words, friction can cause those cells to produce more melanin, leading to pigmentation.
For example, says Goldstein, “sex and all that comes with it brings elevated friction to the area,” leading to a color change. Both vaginal and anal sex can cause this kind of friction.
The labia and upper thigh area, particularly in the skin folds in your groin area, can also darken because of daily rubbing or the trauma of childbirth.
“With constant rubbing or trauma, the skin undergoes a process called keratinization, which matures the cells towards the outermost layer of skin,” explains Cross.
“These cells have melanin in them, [so] this process results in thicker and darker skin in those areas,” adds Cross.
Shaving and hair removal products can also lead to darkening of the skin for the same reason.
Friction can also lead to inflammation in the skin, which can in turn cause post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.
“We see this, for example, after a pimple,” says King, as well as “in the folds of the groin, [where] there can be inflammation caused by moist skin rubbing against moist skin — a condition called intertrigo.”
Yeast infections, ingrown hairs, and folliculitis can cause post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, too.
Darkening in your genital area usually comes with age, says Cross.
This is because your skin has experienced more years of repeated trauma or has gone through more hormonal changes.
Skin darkening can occur in lots of places on your body.
Hormonal changes during pregnancy can darken your nipples, areolae, and moles. It can also cause a dark line (or linea nigra) down the center of your lower abdomen below your belly button.
Hyperpigmentation can occur on your face, chest, back, and arms due to skin exposure. Usually this shows up as sun spots or freckles.
You might also experience darkening anywhere where your skin “folds” a lot, like your elbows, knees, underarms, and knuckles.
Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, such as after a pimple or rash, can also occur anywhere on your body.
Hyperpigmentation due to hormonal changes and aging are difficult to prevent. But you can do something to lessen friction.
“In theory, whatever can be done to help limit friction can potentially help minimize darkening of the genital area,” says Goldstein.
So, you can try decreasing chafing and friction by:
- avoiding tight-fitting clothing and underwear
- keeping your skin moisturized
- avoiding hair removal, like waxing or shaving, which can cause folliculitis and inflammation
- wearing sweat-wicking clothing
As much as you might not like the change, it’s usually not dangerous.
If you think the cause is inflammation, keep an eye on the areas to make sure they don’t get infected. Just try to keep the areas clean and dry.
“Sudden skin changes should always be addressed right away,” says Goldstein. “There are various systemic pathologies that can be responsible for sudden changes in the way skin looks.”
If the darker area itches, it’s usually a sign of inflammation caused by an infection or an allergic reaction to a product you might have used.
Abrupt skin color changes can also be caused by underlying conditions, like diabetes or polycystic ovarian syndrome.
“If the skin becomes darker and starts to become sick or rough, it may signify a condition known as acanthosis nigricans,” says dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, MD, director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.
“The same type of velvety appearing, darkly colored skin also occurs along the neck and under arms, [and] it is frequently associated with high blood sugar levels and diabetes,” explains Zeichner.
If the darkening appears suddenly and seems to be more spotted, bumpy or scabby, it could also be a sexually transmitted infection, like genital warts.
That’s why, Goldstein reaffirms, “if something doesn’t look or feel right, make an appointment to see a specialist.”
Remember: Darkening is completely normal, especially as you get older. And you’re not alone in going through it. Everyone will experience some degree of it at some point in their lives.
“It’s pretty rare to find someone who doesn’t have some degree of skin variation by a certain age,” says Goldstein. Don’t let Photoshopped images you see online or in magazines fool you into thinking you’re abnormal.
It’s also important to remember that change isn’t bad. So take some time to get to know your new body — it’s still beautiful, and no one should tell you anything different.
If you really don’t like how it looks, there are various cosmetic treatments available, including chemical peels or laser treatments.
A certified dermatologist can go over your options with you and safely advise you on what you can do. But just make sure you’re considering cosmetic treatments for yourself — not because someone else told you to.
If you do seek cosmetic treatment, “it’s important to see someone who treats your concern regularly, so do your research and don’t be afraid to get a second (or third) opinion,” says Goldstein.
“Sometimes you treat one issue while creating another issue, or you end up making the original problem worse,” adds Goldstein.
Be sure you speak with a certified specialist.
“Improper bleaching techniques and use of illegitimate products can lead to infections, skin damage, permanent discoloration, and anal strictures,” explains King.
If you have questions about your darkening skin, talk to a healthcare provider. Remember, they’re there to help.
And if you have questions about how to lessen darkening or possible cosmetic treatments, it’s always best to talk with a professional.
Your provider will get to know your medical history so they can best diagnose the root cause and give you personalized advice on next steps.
Simone M. Scully is a writer who loves writing about all things health and science. Find Simone on her website, Facebook, and Twitter.