hyperpigmentation
Skin

The Ultimate Skin-Care Routine to Get Rid of Dark Spots for Good

If you stick with this routine, you'll start to see clearer skin within a few weeks.

Hyperpigmentation is one of the most frustrating skin conditions to treat, largely due to its persistent nature and the chronic, unavoidable exposure to two of its main causes: the sun and hormones. Depending on your budget and motivation, treatment plans involve over-the-counter skin-care products, prescribed topicals, and in-office treatments. According to board-certified dermatologist and Docent medical advisor Dr. Farhaad Riyaz, the treatment plan needs to address the excess melanin production while also reducing inflammation.


What Are the Different Types of Hyperpigmentation?

There's hyperpigmentation that's induced by exposure to UV rays (think freckles and dark spots). Then there's melasma, a skin condition that can be triggered by hormonal shifts that shows up on your face in the form of splotchy, brown patches. It's also important to keep in mind that melasma, which is also aggravated by sun exposure and heat, can be treated and managed but never fully eradicated.

There's also post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) and post-inflammatory erythema (PIE), which usually crop up following an acne breakout. "When acne heals, it can leave behind discoloration which ranges from pink, red, purple, brown, or black," says board-certified dermatologist Dr. Christine Choi. "Although melasma and PIH are different conditions, my treatment approach is similar to both," says Dr. Choi.


What Ingredients Help Fade Dark Spots?

That means that you have to include ingredients like vitamin C and kojic acid in order to slow down the production of melanin-forming cells in the skin. Adding products with those ingredients into a skin-care routine that includes exfoliators like retinol or tranexamic acid can also help slough away dead skin cells, leaving behind more even-toned skin. The last part of the routine is sunscreen. "Protecting your skin from the sun is the most important action you can take to prevent sun-related dark spots," says board-certified dermatologist Dr. Hadley King. Exposure to UV rays can also rev up the production of melanin-producing cells, worsening your dark spots.

According to every expert we spoke to, when you're putting together a routine to fight hyperpigmentation, you should include an SPF of at least 30, as well as antioxidants. Beyond that, though, your individual regimen should be personalized to your skin. It can take a few different tries to find your favorite combination of products for long-term use, but experts recommend looking for products that include at least one of the following ingredients:


Vitamin C

This antioxidant protects your skin against environmental aggressors that can worsen inflammation. Also, according to clean cosmetic chemist and founder of KKT Consultants Krupa Koestline, by reducing melanin production, a cause of dark spots, while also helping to smooth fine lines and wrinkles.


Tranexamic Acid

Not only does tranexamic acid slow down excess melanin production, says Dr. King, it boosts your skin's luminosity while improving the appearance of discoloration.


Niacinamide

This ingredient, which is a form of vitamin B3, helps balance out your oil production to quell breakouts and blocks excess melanin from reaching the surface of your skin, says Koestline. Additionally, niacinamide reduces redness, strengthens your skin's barrier, and it has anti-inflammatory benefits, says Dr. King.


Kojic Acid

Kojic acid works to prevent dark spots by interfering with your skin's melanin production, fading discoloration and blocking new spots from reaching your skin's surface.


Phytic Acid

This plant-based antioxidant defends against sun damage while evening out your skin tone, says Dr. King. "It works as an exfoliator," says Dr. King, "and blocks melanin synthesis without being an exfoliating acid."


Retinoids

Retinoids do two major things: boost collagen production and increase cell turnover for brighter, plumper, and smoother skin, says Dr. Riyaz.


Azelaic Acid

Dr. Riyaz finds azelaic acid to be especially helpful for individuals with deep skin tones and for those who have super-sensitive or acne-prone skin.


Mandelic Acid

Mandelic acid is soluble in oil, says Dr. Riyaz, so it can penetrate the skin more deeply without irritating the skin. If your skin has trouble tolerating other acids, you might want to consider this one.


What Treatments Help Fade Dark Spots?

When it comes to in-office treatments, which can range from chemical peels to lasers, your treatment plan needs to be tailored to your skin tone as well as the type of hyperpigmentation you're dealing with (more on that later). According to Dr. King, because olive and deep skin tones contain more melanin-producing cells, certain treatments can trigger even more dark spots. Also, if you're pregnant or nursing, you want to check in with your doctor before testing out any of the products or treatments mentioned in this article.

According to celebrity aesthetician and dermatological nurse Natalie Aguilar, it's important to stick to a consistent skin-care routine before you try out a treatment. "It's important to start with appropriate skin-care products to see if they work," says Aguilar. "If they don't achieve your goals, you've at least prepared the skin for further treatments and worked to prevent the risk of burns."

If hyperpigmentation is your main concern, consider an intense pulse light (IPL) and broadband light (BBL), says board-certified plastic surgeon Dr. Catherine Chang. While these treatments don't affect the texture or firmness of your skin, they work like magic on dark spots. During the healing process, you'll notice that your spots may get a bit darker, but don't worry—they'll rise to the surface before flaking. IPL and BBL treatments shouldn't be used on melasma since it can be exacerbated by the heat. People with deeper skin tones should avoid it as well.

Consider a laser treatment like Fraxel, or layer your treatments with microneedling or other procedures for more intensive results.

Picosure is the only FDA-approved laser treatment for melasma, says board-certified dermatologist Dr. Corey L. Hartman. "It works like a sledgehammer, breaking up concrete to blast the pigment into smaller and smaller pieces until it's so small that it's carried away by lymphatic drainage," says Dr. Hartman. "It breaks up stubborn pigment that's nestled deep into the skin and more difficult to treat." To see results, you'll want to do three to six Picosure treatments.

Chemical peels are another popular option for treating unwanted pigmentation. "Peels come in various strengths and formulations," says Aguilar. "They could be a single-ingredient peel, like a glycolic acid peel, or they can contain a combination of acids, like a Cosmelan peel." The Cosmelan peel contains hydroquinone, retinoic acid, azelaic acid, kojic acid, arbutin, phytic acid, and ascorbic acid, and it's known for its transformative before-and-after results.

For deep skin tones, Dr. Riyaz prefers lactic acid and mandelic acid. "They offer exfoliating and moisturizing benefits while also safely fading hyperpigmentation on darker skin."

Tretinoin, or prescription-strength retinol, is another commonly prescribed treatment for hyperpigmentation. "It evens out pigmentation by exfoliating and stimulating cell turnover, reducing inflammation, and removing excess melanin from your cells," Dr. Riyaz explains.


How Often Should I Be Applying SPF?

Never underestimate the importance of regularly applying a broad-spectrum sunscreen—and re-applying it every two to three waking hours. "No dark-spot regimen is complete without a broad-spectrum sunscreen with high SPF. It is important to diligently use sun protection to prevent additional pigmentation from developing," says Dr. Riyaz. "And this is especially critical when using hydroquinone, tretinoin, and exfoliating acids, as it reduces chances of sensitivity."

Because inflammation can contribute to the formation of unwanted pigment, particularly in the cases of PIH and PIE, it's important to include anti-inflammatory products in your regimen, too. They help mitigate breakouts—and those lingering post-breakout marks—consistently and preventatively.


Shop the Story:

Earthbound Melasma Reparative Complex

If you are looking for a formula without retinol, this clean indie formula harnesses the powers of alpha arbutin to halt the development of excess pigment, while the peptides signal to the skin cells to boost collagen production.

Moonbeings
$48

Milk Marvel Dark Spot Serum

Developed especially for deep skin tones, this dark-spot-banishing elixir features hyperpigmentation-fighting active ingredients like niacinamide, amber algae, encapsulated vitamin C, and licorice root.

Eadem
$68

Skin Reset Serum

This vegan formula includes a blend of seven different plant stem cells, niacinamide, brightening vitamin C, and skin-plumping sodium hyaluronate.

Emma Lewisham
$110

Lytera 2.0 Pigment Correcting Serum

The dermatologist-loved skin-care brand formulated this pigment-corrective serum using tranexamic acid, niacinamide, phytic acid, and a marine extract blend, all of which work together to even out your skin tone and slow down excess melanin production.

SkinMedica
$154

Crystal Retinal 3 Stable Retinal Night Serum

Newly available in the United States, the cult-favorite product contains a form of retinoid that's even more powerful than a non-prescription retinol. When your skin comes into contact with most retinoids, it has to convert it usually two or three times in order for it to be absorbed; with this formula, your body only needs to go through one stage of conversion, making the product more potent.

Medik8
$59

Cyspera Intensive Pigment Corrector

Dr. Hartman is a fan of Cyspera, a topical cream containing the patented ingredient Cysteamine Hydrochloride, which treats all forms of pigmentation, from melasma to PIH.

Senté
$169

The Super Lift Vitamin C-more Treatment

"This treatment is another great option that is formulated with three types of vitamin C, niacinamide, tranexamic acid, ferulic acid, and peptides to brighten the skin," says Dr. King of the clean brand's brightening, antioxidant serum.

Maya Chia
$110

Liquid Gold Midnight Reboot Serum

The Aussie brand offers a collagen-boosting and brightening formula that's filled with deeply penetrating glycolic acid, a retinoid, peptides, and free-radical-fighting ferulic acid.

Alpha H
$99
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