Allison Buckley, NP-C
Mar 06, 2020 · 9 min read
Dark spots, sunspots, melasma... There are many names and causes for hyperpigmentation—that is, areas of darker-than-usual skin.
These types of skin discoloration can happen for several reasons—acne, sun exposure, and hormonal changes, to name a few—and can be frustrating to treat. The good news? You have several methods to tackle your dark spots, even for those with darker skin tones. We’ll cover the basics of hyperpigmentation here and give some suggestions for treatment.
Hyperpigmentation (the technical term for dark spots) occurs when patches of skin become darker in color than the surrounding skin. Your skin naturally produces a pigment called melanin, which gives it its color. In hyperpigmented areas, your skin makes too much pigment.
And, as we said, there are actually a few different kinds of dark spots. Here are three of the more common ones:
Sunspots are the result of prolonged sun exposure. Two of the most common types of brown spots on the skin are freckles and age spots (known as liver spots, or solar or actinic lentigines). There are minor differences between freckles and age spots, so they’re often collectively referred to as sunspots. They’re found most often on the face and hands—since these areas are most often exposed to the sun—and may fade somewhat in the winter.
Melasma is a common skin condition in which patchy brown or grayish spots appear symmetrically on the face. It occurs primarily in women.¹ The cause of melasma is complex, but some known triggers include:
Sun exposure: This is one of the biggest, but preventable, risk factors.
Pregnancy hormones: Melasma often fades a few months after delivery, but not always!
Hormone treatments: Birth control pills, patches, rings, or hormone replacement therapy can trigger melasma.²
Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) results from the deposition of melanin into the epidermis following acne or other inflammatory skin conditions like eczema.³ If acne leaves dark spots behind, it’s probably PIH. PIH will fade over time—yay!—and several different treatments could speed that process along.
A few things can help prevent new dark spots and reduce the appearance of dark spots you already have.
Over-the-counter (OTC) products. Not every OTC product will work, but alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), niacinamide, or vitamin C can help, so seek treatments with these ingredients.
Prescription skincare. Where OTC products fail, prescriptions can succeed! At Curology, we’re big fans of tretinoin, a vitamin A derivative that increases cell turnover rate. Tretinoin has several skin benefits, and expediting the fading of dark spots is one of them.
Sun protection. Proper sun protection is important, especially when it comes to preventing dark spots. Consistent sunscreen use can help prevent hyperpigmentation from worsening and enhance other topical therapies in the case of melasma.⁴ Use sunscreen with at least SPF 30 (like the sunscreen by Curology) and reapply every two hours. Be sure to seek shade and wear UV protective clothing, wide-brimmed hats, and sunglasses to protect yourself from harmful UV rays.
Don’t pick! Squeezing, pinching, or picking blemishes may result in dark spots or worsen existing ones. Leave your skin be—often easier said than done, we know.
Understanding what ingredients work for dark spots can be challenging, and what works for someone else might not work for you. Here are common treatments used to brighten your skin. Some are available OTC while others require a prescription.
1. Hydroquinone products. Hydroquinone is considered to be the “gold standard” in treating melasma and can be helpful for other types of hyperpigmentation as well. Low concentrations of hydroquinone used to be available over the counter, but the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently changed its status, making hydroquinone available by prescription only in the U.S.⁵
Hydroquinone products should be used as directed by the prescribing medical provider. If you experience skin darkening, irritation, or other side effects, talk to your dermatology provider.
2. Retinoid products. Retinoic acid (aka tretinoin) accelerates cell turnover and stimulates new, healthy skin growth. Clinical research shows that retinoids can improve photoaging.⁶ It has been shown to significantly improve photodamaged skin by promoting collagen production⁷ and is one of the most prescribed ingredients for anti-aging. Products containing tretinoin are available by prescription, while those containing retinol are available OTC. At Curology, we use tretinoin in many of our custom formulas.
Products containing tretinoin can be dry and may increase sun sensitivity. It’s imperative you wear sunscreen every day—and be patient! Results can take several months or longer to show, but they’ll be worth the wait.
3. Chemical exfoliators. These products use topical acids to break up and buff away dead skin cells. Removing the top layer of dead skin cells can help reveal healthier, even-toned skin. Chemical exfoliants use AHAs like glycolic acid, lactic acid, mandelic acid, and beta hydroxy acid (BHA), salicylic acid.
Many of these products are available OTC. When incorporating these products into your routine, use them as directed. You need to give your skin time to repair between uses, so ease into using these products. More isn’t necessarily better. And be mindful of their intensity, as chemical peels may irritate sensitive skin.
4. Laser treatments. For some, laser treatments—though a more aggressive option—can work to remove dark spots. The results often last longer than those achieved with a topical.⁸
While laser treatment can be a quicker option than others mentioned here, it’s not without risks. Laser skin lightening can cause swelling, redness, tightness, and scarring. It can also lead to changes in skin texture. Talk to the professional performing the treatment about the potential risks and benefits!
5. Vitamin C. A 2017 review showed that topical vitamin C can effectively decrease melanin formation, helping to protect your skin against signs of premature aging—especially from UV exposure.⁹ The topical application of vitamin C is generally safe for all skin types over an extended period. It’s important to find a stable and permeable formulation to achieve results.
Products that fade hyperpigmentation work through chemical, biological, or physical processes. While the mechanisms of action may differ, their effects are often similar.
But some ingredients that produce these effects are harmful. Examples include bleach—which should never be used on the skin because it can cause serious burns—and mercury. Mercury might appear on ingredient lists by any of these names: mercuric, calomel, cinnabaris, hydrargyri oxydum rubrum, or quicksilver.¹⁰
To avoid accidentally purchasing products containing harmful ingredients, only purchase products from reputable sources. Use products as directed and watch for side effects, notably if dark spots get worse or your skin becomes irritated. Just remember that products developed to improve dark spots can initially cause irritation or make dark spots look worse temporarily, but those side effects will diminish. It’s when unwanted side effects hang for too long that it’s time to check in with your provider or stop using the product.
Who doesn’t like home remedies—especially when they actually work? Here are some popular ingredients found at home that you can add to your regular skincare routine or find in products. Look for these ingredients in your favorite lotions or moisturizers—and remember, use as directed and watch for signs of irritation.
Green tea extract. Green tea extract improves skin damage through its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects.¹¹
Pomegranate extract. The popularity of pomegranate extract owes to its antioxidant effects. Recent studies show that fermented pomegranate extracts can help protect the skin from oxidative stress and premature aging.¹²
Tea tree oil. A popular treatment for pimples, tea tree oil has antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, and antifungal properties. Be sure to dilute tea tree oil before applying it to your skin.
Soy. Soy has demonstrated abilities to help reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles as well as skin discoloration and dark spots. A study with 16 women diagnosed with melasma showed a 12% reduction in hyperpigmentation after three months of applying soy extract.¹³
Turmeric. Used in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years, turmeric, more specifically its active ingredient curcumin, is known for its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. We’ve taken the guesswork out of turmeric for you—here are the juicy benefits this herb has on your skin.
Licorice root extract. Most known for its digestive effects, licorice root extract is a popular anti-inflammatory with proven benefits against melanogenesis or skin discoloration.¹⁴ Mix with skin-healing ingredients like aloe vera to help relieve inflammatory conditions and reduce oxidative stress.
Dark spots won’t disappear overnight. The bottom line is that once you find and treat the root cause, you can begin to use products to treat dark spots. Just know that a spot a few shades darker than your natural skin color can take 6 months or more to fade. Discoloration from the deeper layers of the skin can take many years to fade. Using certain products can speed up this, but you’ll still need a heavy dose of patience.
The time it takes depends on what is causing your dark spots and your natural skin tone. With conditions like acne, eczema, and psoriasis, you’ll need to treat the cause of hyperpigmentation. Most dark spots associated with these conditions will fade over time—but it might take a while. If dark spots develop after a skin injury, they can also take time to fade.
Using a broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF 30 is your best protection against developing new dark spots and protecting against further damage. Curology’s sunscreen is a dermatologist-approved SPF 30 formula that’s designed for acne-prone skin and is great for all skin types. It just got easier to protect your face from harmful UV rays* that cause hyperpigmentation while also avoiding breakouts, thanks to its non-comedogenic, oil-free formula.
If you’re looking to treat your hyperpigmentation, Curology’s personalized prescription formulas are arguably one of the easier ways to get effective ingredients to help fade dark spots. Just check out what Curology has done for its clients. You can sign up for a free month if you want to try it out! (You’re only responsible for shipping charges.)
Hyperpigmentation (the technical term for dark spots) occurs when patches of skin become darker in color than the surrounding skin. Your skin naturally produces a pigment called melanin, which gives it its color. Here are three of the more common ones:
A few things can help prevent new dark spots and reduce the appearance of dark spots you already have.
Over-the-counter (OTC) products
To avoid accidentally purchasing products containing harmful ingredients, only purchase products from reputable sources. Use products as directed and watch for side effects, notably if dark spots get worse or your skin becomes irritated.
Dark spots won’t disappear overnight. The bottom line is that once you find and treat the root cause, you can begin to use products to treat dark spots. Just know that a spot a few shades darker than your natural skin color can take 6 months or more to fade.
Sheth, V.M., et al. Melasma: A Comprehensive Update: Part I. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (October 2011).
Sheth, V.M., et al. Melasma: A Comprehensive Update: Part I. Ibid.
Silpa-archa, N., et al. Postinflammatory Hyperpigmentation: A Comprehensive Overview. (October 1, 2017).
Sheth, V.M., et al. Melasma: A Comprehensive Update: Part I. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. Ibid.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. FDA works to protect consumers from potentially harmful OTC skin lightening products. (April 2022).
Zasada M, et al. Retinoids: Active Molecules Influencing Skin Structure Formation in Cosmetic and Dermatological Treatments. Advances in Dermatology and Allergology. (August 2019).
Baldwin HE, et al. 40 Years of Topical Tretinoin Use is Review.Journal of Drugs in Dermatology. (June 2013).
American Academy of Dermatology. What can get rid of age spots? (n.d.).
Al-Niaimi F., et al. Topical Vitamin C and the Skin: Mechanisms of Action and Clinical Applications. The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology. (July 2017).
Cleveland Clinic. Liver spots. (2021).
Koch, W., et al. Applications of Tea (Camellia sinensis) and its Active Constituents in Cosmetics. Molecules. (December 2019).
Chan, LP, et al. Fermented Pomegranate Extracts Protect Against Oxidative Stress and Aging of Skin. Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology. (August 2021).
Hollinger, JC., et al. Are Natural Ingredients Effective in the Management of Hyperpigmentation? A Systematic Review. Journal of Clinical Aesthetic Dermatology. (February 2018).
Searle T., et al. The Top 10 Cosmeceuticals for Facial Hyperpigmentation. Dermatologic Therapy. (2020).
This article was originally published on March 6, 2020, and updated on July 20, 2022.
*Cancel anytime. Subject to consultation. Subscription is required. Trial is 30 days + $4.95 shipping and handling.
Allison Buckley, NP-C
Kristen Jokela, NP-C