When so many factors play into the condition of your skin tone and how even it is (or isn't), achieving the buttery smooth complexion of your dreams is just that—a distant dream. Something as small as a pimple or as complex as melasma equally contribute to the overall look of your skin, so when it comes to getting a totally even skin tone, you have to address all the factors at hand. Because this is no easy feat, we elicited the help of some top physicians to find out how to address all the factors that make our complexions uneven. According to New York dermatologist Neal Schultz, MD, two main categories make a skin tone appear to be uneven: texture and color. "For successful treatment, we need to smooth the texture, decrease the brown spots, and decrease the redness," he explains. And he says since the body can make excess pigment faster than we can remove it, we've also got to protect our skin to prevent it from returning so quickly. So just how do we go about doing all of those things? Keep scrolling to read all about it.
If the texture of your skin sounds like a weird thing to bring up when on the topic of skin tone, allow us to explain. If your texture isn't smooth due to either large pores or fine lines, that texture will not only prevent your products from applying evenly but also can cause shadows and darkness. "Skin tone is 75% about how the light hits it and what the light does when it hits it," Schultz explains. "Does it reflect back or does it get scattered? When the surface is smooth and the light reflects off, your skin tone appears more even because it gets brighter and the browns are not as obvious." In other words, the first step to an even skin tone is to have smoother skin, whether that's by removing dead skin cells, minimizing pores, or evening out fine lines, and the most effective way to do that is through proper exfoliation.
Most dermatologists agree that chemical exfoliation is more consistently effective than physical, and Schultz recommends using a gentle glycolic acid treatment as your chemical exfoliant to slough off dead cells that block the pores and encourage collagen production. Caudalie's Glycolic Peel ($39) tightens pores, improves the texture of your skin, and adds instant radiance.
Get a Peel
Schultz also recommends trying glycolic acid in the form of a peel for an immediate glow but cautions that not all peels are a safe route for those with hyperactive pigmentation. "The problem with many glycolic peels if they’re not gentle enough is they cause downtime, irritation, and redness," he says. "Facial peels have to be very gentle. Any facial peel that’s going to give you any downtime, flaking, or redness, is going to cause tantamount inflammation, and inflammation drives these overactive, hypersensitive pigment cells." He recommends his BeautyRx Skincare Tetrafoliant Peel ($65) or paying your dermatologist an in-office visit to see how best to approach your particular skin concerns.
Board-certified dermatologist Rachel Nazarian, MD, of Schweiger Dermatology group believes in the powers of glycolic acid but adds that you can’t forget one key step: “An easy method of achieving even skin is using topical wipes or washes containing glycolic acid or topical vitamins C and E, which minimize the production of melanin, the substance that causes skin darkening, and even out skin tone." One obvious downside to vitamin C serums is how quickly they can turn and oxidize and as a result, lose their effectiveness. Schultz also says that ascorbic acid is water-soluble and unable to penetrate deep within the pores, which are surrounded by oil. The fix? A lipid-based form of vitamin C called tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate that's able to easily penetrate. It's also stable, which means no funky colors or smells because this ester doesn't breakdown like the acid does. Try BeautyRx Skincare Triple Vitamin C Serum ($95).
Lighten Brown Spots With Hydroquinone
According to Schultz, brown spots are caused by too much melanin pigment being made in the skin and trapped there. "If you’re not exfoliating, you’ve got layer, over layer, over layer of dead skin cells and you’ve got extra brown in every layer," he says. "That adds up and gets more concentrated." So first, you want to exfoliate and get rid of all the extra dead cells that contain the extra brown pigment. You certainly don't need to do anything further after exfoliating, but if you still notice excess pigment in some areas and want to fade them for a more even complexion, Schultz says you'll want to use a product that decreases the production of the extra pigment in the bottom layer of skin. Hydroquinone is a controversial ingredient but can be very effective at temporarily lightening freckles, brown spots, and melasma.
The Murad Rapid Age Spot and Pigment Lightening Serum ($72) contains two percent hydroquinone, which lightens any unwanted dark spots on your skin in a shorter period of time than most products we've tried.
Try Topicals for Redness
If skin redness is more your concern, you have a few options for calming the splotches. To temporarily remove pesky red blotchiness from broken capillaries, Hadley King, MD, a dermatologist at Skinney Medspa, suggests taking a prescription route. “There is a prescription cream called Mirvaso that works similarly to how Visine works—it takes the red out by temporarily constricting the blood vessels that are causing the red color. It’s temporary, but the results can be remarkable.” Schultz agrees that a prescription topical such as Rhofade or Mirvaso can be great for a special occasion, but warns that those using it could experience a rebound of worsened effects after it's worn off after eight to 12 hours later.
For other causes of redness, like acne-based rosacea and eczema, speak with a dermatologist about the right solutions for you.
Make an Appointment for an In-Office Treatment
For a more permanent solution to skin redness, you'll likely need to commit to an in-office treatment, such as IPL (intense pulse light) according to both King and Schultz. "The red comes from the fact that the blood vessels have expanded and increased in diameter," Schultz explains. "These actually destroy the enlarged blood vessels that are causing the red."
IPL and the Fraxel 1927 also work to address brown pigment in the skin, and if you need to smooth texture from fine lines and pores, Schultz recommends the Fraxel 1550 setting or Vivace. "These are all different medical devices and lasers that will cause smoothing of the skin or reduction of the brown," he says.
However, it should be noted that if melasma is the root cause of your skin discoloration, lasers aren't the answer for you. Even if you saw improvement following a laser treatment, this complex pigmentary condition would likely return in a matter of months, according to Schultz.
Be Diligent With Your Sunscreen
Nazarian and Schultz both stress the importance of proper sun protection to stop an uneven skin tone from getting worse or prevent unevenness from returning. At the end of the day, any sun protection is better than none, but if you are someone who has melasma, you might want to swap out your formula that relies on traditional chemical ingredients for a physical sunscreen, which is one that is formulated with minerals such as titanium dioxide or zinc oxide.
Here's why: "Melasma is stimulation of the melanin, which are supersensitized usually by female hormone so that any injury causes darkening, the most common injury being ultraviolet light," Schultz explains. "The way that chemical sunscreen works is by absorbing bad light and turning it into heat. Well, the heat it turns it into can be construed by the skin as an injury and that can stimulate your pigment." On the other hand, a physical sunscreen doesn’t absorb any energy or make heat—it just reflects off that bad energy, which is exactly what you want. We love the sheer coverage you get from the Neutrogena Sheer Zinc Dry-Touch Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 50 ($9).
Ed note: Quotes have been edited for content.