If you’ve been seeing spots this summer, it’s not just you. Dark spots, also known as hyperpigmentation, can happen year-round — but they get even worse when you’re spending more time outdoors.
“I counsel my patients that any dark spot will get darker [more quickly than your normal skin tone] in the sun,” says Dr. Elyse Love, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. And it’s not as though there’s a single cause; that would be too easy. Rather, there are a number of various contributors to dark spots, and they all require their own approach. Here’s how to fade dark spots faster — and prevent them from getting darker in the first place.
Hyperpigmentation describes an increase in pigment, also known as melanin, in the skin. First, there are brown spots, also known as sun spots, which are caused by — you guessed it — sun exposure and, these days, pollution. “It can result from UV exposure and environmental stressors that lead to free radical damage, which can manifest as brown spots,” says Dr. Marisa Garshick, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City.
Then there’s post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, which is the spot or stain on skin that may show up after a pimple disappears. “Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation is the most common form of hyperpigmentation,” says Love. “It occurs in darker skin tones after almost any type of rash, with acne and eczema being the most common causes.” Depending on your propensity for dark spots, you may even get post-inflammatory after a mosquito bite or once a wound heals — really, any kind of inflammation counts. (Not-so-fun fact: Skin of color is more prone to hyperpigmentation across the board, whatever the cause.)
Finally, there’s melasma. “It typically occurs on sun-exposed areas of the face, and can be triggered by hormonal changes such as pregnancy,” says Garshick. It may look more like a patch than a singular spot, and can be really tricky to treat because of that hormonal factor. It’s also chronic, whereas post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation and sun spots may fade on their own. Even then, “it can take time — often months to years,” Garshick says.
Certain ingredients can help speed up that super slow fading process, but it won’t happen overnight, so manage your expectations accordingly. “Many topicals can take weeks to months to show an effect, so while some topicals may lead to some improvement even within a couple of weeks, it is normal for it to take several months — so it is important to stick with the treatments and be patient,” says Garshick.
Now for the good stuff: “Key ingredients used for lightening include hydroquinone, retinoids, azelaic acid, glycolic acid, kojic acid, cysteamine and licorice root extract, with many of these ingredients inhibiting tyrosinase, a key enzyme in the production of melanin,” Garshick says. “Hydroquinone is an ingredient used for hyperpigmentation, as it is a tyrosinase inhibitor [that] blocks the production of melanin.”
Hydroquinone is banned in the EU, Japan and Australia, but the FDA still permits it in the US at low concentrations. You can use it if you want, but proceed with caution. “While it can be effective, there is a concern for something known as paradoxical ochronosis, which has been described as worsening discoloration generally in the setting of prolonged use of hydroquinone at high concentrations,” says Garshick.
Another tip before you slather a zillion skin-brightening ingredients on your face: Take it slow. “If too high of a concentration or too many ingredients are started to treat the hyperpigmentation, there is risk of developing irritation, which will then lead to post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation,” warns Love. “This isn’t a worsening of the underlying issue but instead the creation of a new, similar issue.” Treating dark spots, especially if you have a darker skin tone, requires patience and time — as well as ample sun protection.
Which brings us to a second point: Sunscreen is a nonnegotiable. Since sun exposure intensifies hyperpigmentation, skipping it nullifies any benefits you would’ve gotten — like taking a multivitamin while eating nachos for breakfast, lunch and dinner — from products you used. Use one that has zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, which protect skin against blue light too. “This is important for those with melasma or hyperpigmentation, as some early research has shown pigmentation and discoloration to be associated with blue light exposure,” says Garshick.
Plus, ingredients like retinol and glycolic acid can make skin sensitive to the sun. So once you’ve got your SPF in hand, here’s where to begin.
CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum ($16.97, originally $17.99; amazon.com)
If you’re not yet using a retinoid, this is a good starting point. Retinol, a form of vitamin A, “is a multitasker with improvement in hyperpigmentation, acne and texture while also increasing collagen production to minimize fine lines and wrinkles,” says Love. (Now is also a great time to try a retinoid in the first place — here’s why.)
Isdin Melaclear ($82; amazon.com)
This dermatologist favorite has a variety of ingredients meant to actively brighten and prevent discoloration from getting worse. “This tone-correcting serum uses a combination of Vitamin C and phytic acid to improve discoloration by helping to fight free radical damage — in addition to its ROS Modulator System, containing green tea leaf extract and grape seed extract to help even skin tone,” Garshick explains.
The Ordinary Azelaic Acid Suspension 10% ($7.90; sephora.com)
For treating both melasma and hyperpigmentation, Love is a fan of azelaic acid. “It selectively targets overactive pigment production, which allows lightening of darker areas without lightening the normal skin tone,” she explains. Another perk? It’s safe to use during pregnancy and while breastfeeding.
Hero Cosmetics Mighty Patch Micropoint for Dark Spots ($15.89; target.com)
These tiny, near invisible dots contain the trifecta of dark spot-lightening ingredients: niacinamide, vitamin C and tranexamic acid. “Tranexamic acid, which traditionally has been used for those with increased uterine bleeding to help with clotting, has been shown to be helpful in the treatment of melasma,” says Garshick.
Obagi Clinical Retinol 0.5 Retexturizing Cream ($55; sephora.com)
This retinol formula is a safe bet for anyone who’s previously quit retinol due to redness and flaking. “It’s formulated with a slow-release technology that allows tolerability even by sensitive skin,” says Love, who’s a fan. However, if you’re using this to treat melasma, she recommends starting slow to avoid irritation.
Ole Henriksen Glow2OH Dark Spot Toner ($29; sephora.com)
“Exfoliating products, such as chemical exfoliants and peels, utilize ingredients such as glycolic acid or lactic acid to help improve skin discoloration and brighten the skin,” says Garshick. Newly available in a jumbo size — so, great value — this toner pairs glycolic and lactic acids for maximum exfoliation.
Differin Dark Spot Correcting Serum ($18.97, originally $19.99; amazon.com)
A low concentration of hydroquinone means you don’t have to go to the derm first. “While I do recommend speaking with a board-certified dermatologist prior to using a hydroquinone-based therapy, this product contains hydroquinone 2% and is a great option, as it works to help fade discoloration and improve post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation without a prescription,” says Garshick.
“Given the importance of sun protection when it comes to discoloration, it is especially important to remember to reapply — and I love this mineral-based compact for on-the-go sunscreen reapplication,” says Garshick. “This mineral sunscreen offers SPF 50 broad spectrum coverage and is great for those with sensitive skin.” It blocks rays with zinc oxide, which (bonus) also helps defend skin against blue light.
Dove Gentle Exfoliating Body Wash ($6.59; target.com)
Hyperpigmentation doesn’t just happen on your face.
“While exfoliating is helpful for hyperpigmentation, as it helps to break up the pigment cells and dead skin cells, it is important to avoid harsh scrubs or overexfoliation, as it can lead to worsening pigmentation,” says Garshick. “For this reason, I love this gentle exfoliating body wash, especially for those with blemishes or hyperpigmentation on their body, as it helps to brighten the skin without leading to irritation.”
ZitSticka Hyperfade ($34; ulta.com)
If your pimple has finally called it quits and left a dark spot on your face, press on one of these zit stickers. They’re embedded with microdarts to help the ingredients — niacinamide, kojic acid and tranexamic acid, to name a few — penetrate deeper into skin and help fade individual spots.
InstaNatural Skin Lightening Cream ($21.99; amazon.com)
Glycolic acid! Vitamin C! Niacinamide! Gang’s all here in this clean formula. It’s formulated to be powerful enough to fade dark spots quickly but won’t irritate skin or leave behind redness.
Algenist Blue Algae Vitamin C Dark Spot Correcting Peel ($85; sephora.com)
“Vitamin C has pigment-regulating properties, but it also helps to protect against sun-induced damage — in conjunction with an SPF,” says Love. “Vitamin C is helpful for melasma, PIH and sun spots, but it should be started slowly to minimize irritation.”
Urban Skin Rx Even Tone Resurfacing At Home Peel Pads ($23.49; target.com)
In just a few swipes of these pads, you’ll get a one-two punch of retinol and lactic acid to target dark spots from two angles. Retinol is known to speed skin cell turnover from beneath, whereas lactic acid can slough off the superficial layer of pigmented cells.
Note: The prices above reflect the retailers’ listed prices at the time of publication.