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When it comes to achieving the flawless complexion that dreams are made of, nothing is more of a buzzkill than unwanted spots, whether it’s a singular dark spot or all-over patches of discoloration. The technical term is hyperpigmentation and it can be caused either by sun exposure or from trauma to the skin, like picking a pimple. Either way, the biological process that kicks in is somewhat complicated, but, ultimately, it boils down to an overproduction of melanin (color) in the skin.
And here’s the thing: This is a potential issue for anyone and everyone, no matter your skin tone. In fact, hyperpigmentation is a particularly common issue in African-American skin, which has more melanin to begin with. Also worth noting: No matter what product you’re using to try and tackle hyperpigmentation, it’s not going to do anything if you’re not extra diligent about sun protection. And finally, be patient. Depending on the active ingredient(s) in the product you choose, it can take up to six weeks of regular use to see an improvement, points out board-certified dermatologist Dr. Corey L. Hartman, founder of Skin Wellness Dermatology in Birmingham, AL.
As you continue your quest for clear skin, keep these best products for hyperpigmentation in your rotation.
Best Overall: Kiehl's Clearly Corrective Dark Spot Solution
Simple and straightforward, this gets the job done using a potent form of vitamin C that goes to work both fading existing dark spots and impeding the production of new ones. It also has white birch extract to hydrate and peony extract for antioxidant protection, making it a one-stop-shop for all of your skincare needs. Use it in the morning before sunscreen, or at night under a thicker moisturizer.
Runner-Up, Best Overall: SkinCeuticals Discoloration Defense
Hartman is a fan of this formula, which boasts a potent concentration of tranexamic acid, one of his favorite brightening ingredients. He also lauds it for containing HEPES, a synthetically-derived acid that gently exfoliates discolored cells from the surface of the skin. Also nice: He says this formulation is safe to use during pregnancy, a choice product for moms-to-be battling pregnancy-induced melasma.
Best Brightening: Sunday Riley Good Genes All-in-One Lactic Acid Treatment
One of the best-sellers from this cult-favorite brand, this relies on mega-gentle lactic acid to help fade spots and gently exfoliate the dead cells that impede your glow. Licorice and lemongrass also promote a more even complexion, while prickly pear extract soothes redness, making this a choice pick for those whose skin is easily irritated. Also nice: It works in just three minutes.
Best Without Hydroquinone: Murad Rapid Age Spot and Pigment Lightening Serum
Hydroquinone is effective, but has some drawbacks; it can’t be used for long periods of time and there are some concerns about its safety. This formula, one of the best-selling brightening products out there, recently got a revamp to eliminate HQ (as it’s called). Instead, it relies on a skin-brightening peptide, vitamin C, and a niacinamide complex. Bonus points for the inclusion of light-reflecting pearls, which instantly make skin look brighter.
Best Budget: The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution
Use this toner nightly, post-cleansing, to reveal clearer, more even skin. Glycolic acid exfoliates and breaks down discolored skin cells, and also has the added benefit of stimulating collagen production over time. And let’s not forget to mention that it costs less than ten dollars.
Best Intensive: Kiehl’s Clearly Corrective Accelerated Clarity & Renewing Ampoules
Byrdie Editorial Director Faith Xue loves this heavy-hitting, fast-active solution. You get 28, single-dose vials, each filled with a brightening formula that relies on a mix of vitamin C and alpha-hydroxy acids. Use one in the morning and once at night for impressive results in just two weeks, which will be even better if you layer the Clearly Corrective serum, or best overall pick, on top.
Best with Vitamin C: BeautyStat Universal C Skin Refiner
In the world of spot-fading ingredients, vitamin C is one of the best options, not only for its skin brightening abilities but because it has the added benefit of acting as an antioxidant and stimulating collagen production, too. Sign us up. This particular pick (developed by a cosmetic chemist) boasts a 20% concentration of the most potent form of the vitamin, l-ascorbic acid, to deliver brightening, firming, and smoothing benefits in one fell swoop.
Best for Sensitive Skin: First Aid Beauty Facial Radiance Niacinamide Dark Spot Serum
The hard truth of the matter is that many of the best brightening ingredients—hydroquinone, vitamin C, retinol—can be too irritating for sensitive skin. That’s why we appreciate that this serum relies on niacinamide instead, a great spot fading ingredient that just also happens to hydrate and even reduce redness and inflammation. And true to the brand’s sensitive skin-friendly vibes, it’s generally super gentle and fragrance-free.
Best Splurge: SkinMedica Lytera 2.0 Pigment Correcting Serum
Pricey, yes, but this is crazy effective at knocking out even the most stubborn dark spots and discoloration. It’s another one of Hartman’s recommendations, also relying on tranexamic acid, along with a litany of other ingredients that help to both fade existing marks and prevent new ones from forming. It works on all skin tones, too, and in a brand-backed clinical study, 100% of participants said it made their skin tone look more even after just over three months of use.
Best with Glycolic Acid: Bolden Brightening Glycolic Acid Toner
We’ve sung the praises of this toner time and time again, and TBH, will probably continue to do so because it’s just that darn good. Niacinamide and glycolic acid do the brightening heavy-lifting, simultaneously helping to minimize the look of pores and tamp down excess oil in the process. There’s hyaluronic acid in the mix, too, ensuring it always feels hydrating, never stripping. In short, it’s a great all-around multi-tasker.
As we said, hyperpigmentation can be an especially pesky problem for deeper complexions, which is why we love that this treatment is specially formulated to meet the needs of darker skin. It’s a bi-phase serum (so give it a good shake before using) that relies on a trio of proven brighteners: niacinamide, hexylresorcinol, and a retinoid. Satisfied users love the texture and report that, with consistent use, it works well to fade all kinds of spots.
Best for Dark Skin: MELE Even Dark Spot Control Facial Serum for Melanin Rich Skin
A hyperpigmentation product is worth trying if you’re battling acne marks, scars, sun spots, and more. The Kiehl’s Clearly Corrective Dark Spot Solution is our favorite formula, though the brand also makes a more intensive option that we like, the Kiehl’s Clearly Corrective Accelerated Clarity & Renewing Ampoules, that can help fade spots in just two weeks.
What to Look For in a Product for Hyperpigmentation
Ingredients, not formula
“The formulation doesn’t matter as much as the active ingredients, so choose the vehicle that works best for you,” says Hartman. In other words, it doesn’t matter whether you go with a serum or cream or mask—it’s all about the active ingredients. To that point…
This the undisputedly most effective skin lightener, and one that Hartman recommends. But as mentioned, can have some drawbacks. Good alternatives include vitamin C, retinol, kojic acid, and niacinamide.
Similarly, formulas that combine multiple brightening ingredients are a good choice, as each of the ingredients works in a slightly different way to ultimately yield the best brightening result.
Why Trust Byrdie?
Byrdie contributor Melanie Rud has over a decade of experience in the beauty industry, writing for some of the biggest magazines and websites out there. She’s a devoted sunscreen user, but still deals with some dark marks occasionally, and reaches for many of these products when they crop up.
Meet the Expert
Dr. Corey L. Hartman is a board-certified dermatologist and the founder of Skin Wellness Dermatology in Birmingham, AL. He’s an expert in cosmetic treatments, including Botox, fillers, and lasers, and specializes in treating patients from many diverse backgrounds.