Clear, glowy, doll-like skin san dark spots is always the goal, right? But like every other journey in life, you can't have a success story without jumping through a few hoops. Good skin is a process, and sometimes dark spots feel impossible to avoid, so we tapped experts to fill us in on what exactly they are, and how to get rid of them.
"Hyperpigmentation is a term used to describe areas of skin that have more pigmentation than intended by nature. These areas visibly contrast with the surrounding unaffected skin, leading to unevenness of color and/or tone" dermatologist Craig Kraffert, MD, explains. And there are a few different kinds of dark spots that are important to ID on your face prior to moving forward with the products or procedures necessary to banish them.
Vic Narurkar, MD, of Bay Area Laser Institute confirms. "Photodamage induced by chronic UV exposure can lead to the appearance of lentigos, often called sunspots, and a condition known as actinic bronzing where sun-exposed areas are darker and blotchy," says Narurkar. There's also melasma. "Melasma is a type of hyperpigmentation more common in women and often induced by birth control pills and pregnancy and exacerbated by both sun and heat," he explains. "Another type of hyperpigmentation is post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation or PIH. This is more common in darker skin tones. We see this after acne where dark spots are left after the acne lesions resolve and after any kind of trauma to the skin such as scars."
Depending on your skin tone, you can be more prone to certain types of hyperpigmentation. "Lighter skin tones are more susceptible to lentigos and actinic bronzing," says Narukar. "Darker skin tones more susceptible to post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, especially Asian skin. Melasma is more common in women and darker skin tones." According to Kraffert, melasma is the most common form of hyperpigmentation. "Hyperpigmented patches develop primarily on the cheekbones, forehead, and upper lip and can also be on the nose, chin, lower cheeks, and lateral neck," Kraffert points out. "Your tendency to develop melasma is based in both genetic and hormonal components and is also frequently exacerbated by sun exposure."
Now that we have a clear understanding of what hyperpigmentation is and the different types of dark spots, this is what experts say the key is to successfully zapping them. "The absolute best way to treat hyperpigmentation is first identify the cause and see if any exacerbating factors can be reduced," says Narurkar. "For example, with melasma, going off the pill can help. For sun damage, using a broad-spectrum sunscreen. Then, a combination approach using topicals, lasers, and peels is best."
The most tried-and-true way to keep your dark spots from worsening is by protecting them from the sun. "There is one key component necessary for successful at-home treatment of hyperpigmentation: Strict and obsessively consistent avoidance of sun exposure is mandatory," Kraffert reiterates. "Just one day of unprotected sun exposure can disrupt and even destroy the benefit from months of meticulously applied brightening creams. Effective broad-spectrum sun protection, sun avoidance, and sun protective clothing are essential for lasting results."
Now that you're also an expert on hyperpigmentation, keep reading for the products dermatologist recommend for nipping these in the bud.
This gel is blended with hydroquinone, which Joyce Imahiyerobo-ip, MD, notes is the traditional gold standard chemical lightening agent. "It works by inhibiting an enzyme called tyrosinase, which is required for melanin and pigment production," she explains. "It can be purchased over the counter in strengths of 1% to 2%. However, it is available by prescription at much higher doses." She suggests using this ingredient with caution, though. "The concern with hydroquinone is that it can also bleach normal skin, many experience skin irritation, and if it is used for an extensive period of time it can cause paradoxical skin darkening. However, it is a powerful pigment fighter."
Any topical product with vitamin C benefits the skin in countless ways. "It's a potent antioxidant—think prevention of free radicals that can lead to cancer and skin aging. It provides photo protection, and it has anti-pigmentary effects," explains Imahiyerobo-ip. "When it comes to hyperpigmentation, vitamin C works by interrupting a key step in melanogenesis (pigment production), thereby depigmenting the skin. The main challenge with vitamin C is that it is a very unstable molecule. The best way to incorporate vitamin C is a cosmeceutical that combines it with other skin-brightening agents."
According to Imahiyerobo-ip, tranexamic acid is a newer ingredient that is being used to treat hyperpigmentation. "It specifically addresses the role that UV light plays in melanogenesis," she says. "Tranexamic acid can be used orally or topically to treat stubborn pigmentary conditions like melasma. It is important to see a board-certified dermatologist before taking this medication orally. However, there are some great topical preparations that have become widely available."
Dendy Engelman, MD, is a fan of retinol because it targets tons of anti-aging concerns like your skin tone, texture, laxity, and texture. Once you find the right retinoid for your skin type, it smoothes fine lines and wrinkles, boosts collagen production, and helps banish hyperpigmentation. "Elizabeth Arden Retinol Ceramide Capsules are my new favorite for beginners, as the ceramide acts like a buffer to prevent any irritation," explains Engelman. "Also, the capsule form ensures that each capsule is one usage, so for beginners, they’re not confused about how much product to use."
This aqua cream is a blend of natural arbutin, purified elemental sulfur, brightening botanical extracts, and a 1% nano-encapsulated retinol, which Kraffert says works synergistically to improve hyperpigmentation in a safe, non-irritating, natural way. "The cream provides intense moisturization and effective results without compromising a super-light, luxurious feel," Kraffert explains. "It uniquely offers the enjoyable experience of a luxury cream and the results of a cosmeceutical product."
The Brighten collection from Amala is formulated with active ingredients, like organic narcissus, to improve the skin's tone and clarity. "The high potency formulations target and correct photo age damage while helping to ease the appearance of dark spots all while using fair and ethically sourced plant ingredients," explains co-founder of Amala, Joi Ruud.
"Lytera helps reduce skin discoloration and minimize the appearance of dark spots leaving the skin bright and fresh," explains David Shafer, New York-based Cosmetic and Plastic Surgeon. "Many key ingredients are essential for skin health. Vitamin C helps with collagen formation, vitamin B3 and squalene help with moisture, retinol promotes exfoliation, and tetrapeptide-30 helps brighten the skin."
This serum has sustained-release retinol, which helps with exfoliation. Shafer also explains that it contains heparan sulfate, which helps with skin rejuvenation and pigment correction.
"ProactivMD Adapalene Gel helps treat acne by treating multiple causes of acne and the post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation that results from acne," explains Shafer.
If you have stubborn dark spots that won't go away, Shafer suggests trying over-the-counter products that contain kojic acid, licorice root extract, or hydroquinone. "Consider Proactiv Dark Spot Corrector with hydroquinone 2%," says Shafer. "Use only after the area has fully closed and healed, and apply to the residual dark spot from the initial acne pimple. Remember to wear a sunscreen with at least an SPF of 30 daily."
For lentigos and advanced-sun-damage dark spots, Narurkar recommends a Clear + Brilliant laser treatment with the Fraxel Dual. "With over 10 years of clinical experience refinement and the largest number of FDA indications, this laser is the gold standard for treating photodamage induced hyperpigmentation in the face as well as neck, chest, and body. Two to four treatments are recommended. We prime the skin with SkinMedica Retinol in the evening and Revision vitamin C 30% in the morning. To speed recovery, I use SkinMedica ceramide cream."
"For post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, I alternate Clear + Brilliant Permea laser treatments with Vitalize Peels," says Narurkar. "We prime the skin with SkinMedica Lytera 2.0 twice daily and have recently started using LumiWave a.m. and p.m."
"We complete a multicenter laser trial using Lytera 2.0 with both SkinMedica Vitalize Peels and Clear + Brilliant lasers," explains Narurkar. "It produces a significantly better result in combination. All of these products are hydroquinone-free and non-irritating." For similar radiant results on your skin, try Dermaologica's at-home Rapid Reveal (pictured above). It will speed up your skin's cell turnover and leave you with a youthful glow.
Next: Find out how assistant editor Maya discovered the perfect skincare routine to fade her dark spots—every single product included.