Not everyone gets them, but for those that do, dark spots on the face, chest, hands or elsewhere on the body can be seriously frustrating to deal with as they don’t go away on their own and sometimes can’t be covered by the average concealer. So, what are these discolorations, and why do some people have them? For the most part, dark spots on the skin can be attributed to two causes: scarring and hyperpigmentation (technically, scarring is post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation). See, dark spots—aka hyperpigmentation—can be the result of a scar (due to post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation) and photo damage (due to sun exposure).
“Scars can be divided into two categories: dark marks that are actually a result of post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, which appear as dark or pink marks, or, a change in skin texture, resulting in depressed or raised scars,” explains board-certified dermatologic surgeon, Dendy Engelman. The pigmented scars are “caused by an injury in the pigment forming layer of the epidermis,” while textural scars are “caused by actual tears in the dermis,” she explains. Some people who scar more easily than others may be genetically predisposed (because they have more pigment). “Some people with more pigment are more prone to hyperpigmentation,” Engleman states. “Also, those with more pigment in the skin are more prone to hyperpigmentation and scarring.”
Meet the Expert
Dendy Engelman, MD, FACMS, FAAD, is a board-certified and nationally-acclaimed dermatologic surgeon and sees patients at MDCS: Medical Dermatology & Cosmetic Surgery in Manhattan and Hampton Bays, NY. Engelman is particularly known and celebrated for her expertise in neurotoxins, injectable fillers, and chemical peels. She is a fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology, American Society of Dermatologic Surgery, and American College of Mohs Surgery.
Exfoliate with Papaya
What’s a surefire way to brighten the overall tone of your skin? Rinse away that top layer with a natural exfoliant, like papaya. “Papaya has fruit acids known as alpha-hydroxy acids, which is a chemical exfoliant,” Dr. Engleman explains. “AHAs are used for dry skin and to anti-age, and works to improve skin by removing the top layers of the skin through weakening the lipids that bond them together, thus removing dull and dead skin cells and revealing healthy skin cells. It is very effective in breaking down skin cells and also increasing collagen production because of the removal of dead particles. Papaya specifically will help to brighten and give the skin a youthful radiance.” To treat your dark spots with papaya, simply mash ripe papaya in a bowl and apply as a mask to clean skin. When removing the mask, you can also use gentle, circular motions for a bit of added exfoliation to that dead top layer of skin cells.
Use Turmeric to Even Skin Tone
For ages, people in India, parts of Central America, and other subtropical areas have looked to turmeric for its many healing properties, from reducing inflammation to aiding the digestive process. Turmeric’s benefits also extend to the area of skincare, and it’s been shown to inhibit the skin's melanin production, which results in spots due to hyperpigmentation. To fade dark spots with turmeric, make a mask using one part turmeric to one part honey. If you wish, you can enhance the lightening process with a few drops of lemon juice, as long as your skin isn’t too sensitive, and the citrus won’t come into contact with open skin, like recently broken pimples.
Turmeric powder is made from the root of Curcuma zedoaria, a form of ginger native to Southeast Asia. Its active ingredient, curcumin, is what gives it that yellow-orange tinge; it's also what makes it such a potent anti-inflammatory. Turmeric is also found to lighten hyperpigmentation.
Soothe Skin and Reduce Spots with Almond Oil
Another skin-strengthening ingredient that’s used both in the kitchen and on the complexion is sweet almond oil, which Engleman likes to use to treat discolorations in the skin. However, the almond oil commonly used to cook isn’t quite the same as that used on the skin, which is often fortified with additional vitamins and minerals. “The presence of Vitamin E and niacin help with hyperpigmentation and improving skin tone,” she says. Because sweet almond oil is non-comedogenic (meaning it won’t clog your pores) you can add it to your nightly routine as a makeup remover or moisturizer to help protect the skin barrier.
Brighten with Yogurt
Another naturally skin-brightening item you may already have in your home is yogurt, which works to fade dark spots by exfoliating the skin. Like the chemically exfoliating properties found in papaya, yogurt breaks down dead skin cells thanks to lactic acid, which is found naturally in dairy products. “Using a yogurt with cow’s milk could be effective in calming the skin, since it has lactic acid. Lactic acid is an AHA, which improves discoloration and age spots,” Engleman says. “This acid is gentler on the skin than other chemical exfoliants. Since it is derived from dairy, it helps to correct pH imbalances. It works to improve tone, texture, and reduces redness.”
Yogurt can be applied to clean skin alone or mixed with additional ingredients known to improve the skin’s health—like honey—which is antibacterial and great for acne-prone complexions. Adding oatmeal to a yogurt mask will help slough and soothe dry skin, just be sure to rinse this mask away carefully, as not to tear or irritate the skin.
Reverse Photo Damage with Tomatoes
Rather than slather this ingredient on your face, tomato works best when taken systemically. According to a 2014 study, participants who ingested between 40 and 55 milligrams of tomato paste with olive oil per day saw protection from acute and long-term photo damage brought on by UV rays. Why is tomato paste so effective? Tomatoes are naturally rich in lycopene, which has multiple health benefits, including sun protection. Not a fan of tomatoes? Look to other similarly-hued fruits and veggies, like guava, pink grapefruit, watermelon, and red sweet peppers.
Reduce Scarring with Aloe
For some people, dark spots aren’t the result of hyperpigmentation, but scarring, which can be especially apparent on those with more melanin-rich skin. “Scars are unpredictable, which can make them difficult to treat. The most important thing is to treat right away,” Engleman explains. “The more pliable your skin is, the less chance there is that scars will occur, so adding moisture back into the skin with oils and lotions can reduce the appearance and prevent new ones from forming.” A tried and true ingredient that can be used to improve your skin’s health from the inside, or outside, is aloe. Aloe can be ingested in the form of aloe drinks, or applied to the skin as a moisturizer or skin healer by breaking the leaf of an aloe plant and dabbing the sticky substance onto your scar. Don’t have an aloe plant on hand? Aloe vera gel can be applied directly to the face, as can many cleansers or moisturizers that contain aloe, like the Mario Badescu Aloe Lotion, which reduces redness.
Aloe vera is a naturally derived ingredient known for its soothing and moisturizing properties. The aloe plant's inner gel mucilage (the part that's used in skincare products) is made up of 99.5% water.
Keep Skin Healthy with Vitamin C
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, vitamin C is one of the most effective natural ingredients that you can count on to lighten existing spots, and potentially prevent new ones from forming.
“For a dark mark scar, look for AHA peels or retinol that will help promote cellular turnover to remove the top layers of the skin,” Engleman suggests. “To fade hyperpigmentation, look for brightening ingredients like hydroquinone, kojic acid, phytic acid, and L-ascorbic acid.” The latter is a mighty skincare ingredient which is also found naturally in vitamin C-rich foods like oranges and spinach. While some people prefer to lighten dark spots with lemon juice, others find the high acidic content too intense for the skin and opt to ingest their vitamin C, reaping the benefits from within. You can also try niacinamide, arbutin, and bearberry, as well as resorcinol and tranexamic acid.
Know When to Turn to Formulated Products
The DIY routine isn’t for everyone, including some skin care professionals like Engleman, who says homemade remedies allow room for error as they aren’t formulated with the same ratios as formal products. If the natural masks and scrubs aren’t for you, there are a number of products designed with the same ingredients and packaged to last for more than a day or two.
Alpha-hydroxy acids are a group of acid compounds, most often derived from plant-based sources, which work to exfoliate the skin. They come in a variety of types (like glycolic and lactic acid) and differ in size, and subsequently, penetration and potency.
“SkinMedica Rejuvenative Toner contains lactic acid, glycolic acid, citric acid, and malic acid,” says Engleman. “Each is a natural, alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) derived from bilberry extract, sugar cane extract, sugar maple extract, and citrus extracts that provides mild exfoliation to help enhance skin texture and reveal healthy new cells.”
For hyperpigmentation on the skin, Engleman recommends a product that fights harmful free radicals that accumulate over time with exposure to the sun’s UV rays. “Melanin goes into overproduction in the sun to protect our skin from harmful UV/UB rays, causing spots to look darker than your natural skin tone,” she says. “These sunspots accumulate over the years. An antioxidant helps protect skin against free radical assaults by neutralizing oxidative stress that can cause cell damage, like SkinBetter’s Antioxidant Alto Defense Serum.”
And for the skin that’s tackling all of the dark spot issues at once, Engleman points to Skinceuticals Discoloration Defense, which is “clinically proven to improve brown patches, skin discoloration, and acne marks.”
As with any skincare routine, the best way to eliminate dark spots is through prevention, which is easily done by protecting your skin from the sun. If you're out and about during daylight hours, be sure to apply SPF (at least 30, an reapply throughout the day), and consider adding a hat, sunglasses, and even gloves, especially if the sunlight will hit your skin for an extended period of time.