These Dark Spot Treatments Actually Work
Consider this your first line of defense against hyperpigmentation.
As summer winds down, you may begin to notice post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) on your skin (a.k.a. dark spots 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. “The exact reason why dark spots appear ranges but most dark spots are a result of sun exposure.” For people looking to get rid of PIH, it can be difficult and frustrating largely due to its persistent nature and the chronic, unavoidable exposure to two of its main causes: the sun and hormones. However, don’t lose all hope just yet. Below, we spoke to experts about what causes PIH, the best ways to treat them, and how to prevent future dark spots.
What is Post-Inflammatory Hyperpigmentation?
Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation occurs when there’s excess melanin production, leading to dark spots, says Docent medical advisor Dr. Farhaad Riyaz. When you get a zit, your skin becomes inflamed and your body sends melanin to the area to help heal the skin trauma. Sometimes, especially for those with deeper skin tones, your body will often overproduce melanin, leaving behind an uneven skin tone. The most common causes for PIH are excess UVA/UVB ray exposure (hence why you may start to notice them on your skin toward the end of summer), inflammatory skin conditions (like acne or eczema), picking at your acne, or genetics.
What Ingredients Help Fade Dark Spots?
Ingredients like vitamin C and kojic acid work to slow down the production of melanin-forming cells in the skin while also protecting your skin from inflammation-inducing environmental aggressors. Gentle chemical exfoliants like AHAs (alpha hydroxy acids, like glycolic and lactic acids) and BHAs (beta hydroxy acids, like salicylic acid) work to “unglue” and dissolve the dead skin on your face, allowing your other skincare products to better absorb while evening out your skin’s tone and texture over time.
The last part of any hyperpigmentation-proof skincare 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. If you’re not wearing sunscreen, all that work you put into your skincare routine is basically ineffective when it comes to fading 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 serums. Serums are usually packed with a high percentage of active ingredients that work to even out and resurface your skin. For dark spots, look for a formula with at least one of the following ingredients.
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.
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.
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 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.
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."
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 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.
Should I Use a Retinoid for Dark Spots?
Retinoids do two major things, says Dr. Riyaz. They boost collagen production and increase cell turnover for brighter, plumper, and smoother skin. Retinoids can be irritating if you use too strong of a formula too quickly, so Dr. Riyaz recommends starting with a gentle formula, applying it twice a week for a few weeks in order to see how your skin reacts.
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, stick to a consistent skincare 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."
Intense Pulse Light
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.
Picosure is the only FDA-approved laser treatment for melasma, another type of hyperpigmentation, 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 Apply 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, 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.
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This serum has a lightweight texture that’s hydrating but not greasy. The 10% vitamin C is perfect for brightening dark spots and evening out skin tone without irritating your skin. Vitamin E and squalane are also in the formula to help lock in moisture and fight free radical damage.
This mineral sunscreen actually rubs in sheer, even if you have a deeper skin tone. It’s lightweight and thanks to the squalane in the formula, it leaves behind a smooth plump finish.
With 15% vitamin C, this serum helps repair and rebuild collagen—a protein found in skin that’s responsible for its firmness—while the lactic acid sloughs off dead skin cells to fade dark spots and smooth the surface of your skin.
Infused with avocado and jojoba oils, this sunscreen doesn’t just protect from the sun’s rays but it also works to hydrate and soothe the skin. It’s incredibly lightweight and it won’t leave a white cast or greasy residue behind on your skin.
This pre-cleanse treatment is formulated with 5% Cysteamine, an ingredient that decreases melanin production in the skin to help fade pigmentation and prevent new spots from forming. It’s also powered with niacinamide and vitamin E to boost hydration, smooth rough texture, and protect against environmental aggressors.
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.
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.
This vegan formula includes a blend of seven different plant stem cells, niacinamide, brightening vitamin C, and skin-plumping sodium hyaluronate.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.