Aside from treating breakouts and visible pores, fading dark spots is one of the most requested column topics from readers.
To understand how to treat it, we need to know how this happens. Dark spots, or hyperpigmentation, is caused by an overproduction and uneven distribution of the melanin (pigment) in our skin. We usually want to fade or eliminate dark spots entirely, but it’s not that simple. Not every treatment or prevention method will work for every kind of hyperpigmentation.
There are four kinds of hyperpigmentation: sun spots (sometimes called age spots), which are caused by unprotected exposure to UV rays; post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, which is skin discoloration caused by trauma, including acne, eczema, rashes and wounds; freckles, which are genetic but get darker with sun exposure; and melasma.
Melasma is the trickiest of them all since how it develops isn’t well understood. It turns up in blotchy patches of discoloration on the cheeks, nose, forehead, chin and above the lips and also has hormonal factors. (It’s sometimes called “pregnancy mask.”) Treatment depends on the severity, cause and location, and treating it includes a nuanced, dermatologist-supervised approach.
Just keep in mind no matter what kind of hyperpigmentation you have, you might have to consult a pro, who has access to laser treatments and powerful topicals. For those trying to fade dark spots at home or supplement their doctor’s care, though, there are some ingredients to look for.
This skin care hero contains a property that stops your skin’s production of melanin, which makes it great for fading post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation and age spots. Vitamin C is extremely and inherently unstable, which means that it’s prone to go bad faster than your other products. The more vitamin C is exposed to air or light, the less potent it becomes, so you want to find a vitamin C with air-tight, dark/opaque packaging and store it in a cool, dark and dry place.
Topical retinoids are amazing for skin since they speed up cell turnover, which means they accelerate your skin’s natural process of shedding old cells and bringing new ones to the top. An antioxidant, it also works to combat the free radicals all around us that are responsible for the visible signs of aging, including hyperpigmentation. Because of this, retinoids are a great choice for fading dark spots.
Retinoids can sometimes come with unpleasant side effects, such as peeling and redness, so start by using them just once a week. Derms have the strongest topical retinoids available, but you also can find less potent (but more gentle) alternatives over the counter in tons of skin care products.
Another name for vitamin B3, niacinamide is your skin’s best friend and necessary for a healthy, glowing complexion. In addition to its anti-inflammatory properties and improving skin’s barrier strength, niacinamide reduces the impact of free radicals and has been shown to fade dark spots left behind by blemishes, sun damage and aging, as well as uneven skin tone. You can find it in lots of products, usually combined with other skin-loving ingredients.
Alpha hydroxy and beta hydroxy acids
Alpha hydroxy acids, or AHAs, such as glycolic and lactic acid, cause the shedding of the skin’s surface to reveal smoother, brighter skin. This exfoliation helps to fade the darker pigmentation on your most superficial layers of skin. Beta hydroxy acid, aka BHA or salicylic acid, works similarly at eradicating dead skin but penetrates deeper. BHA is oil-soluble, meaning it can dissolve the oil and sebum in your pores, which makes it a great choice for reducing breakouts. The fewer breakouts you have, the less hyperpigmentation old pimples leave behind.
Tranexamic acid, or TXA, is a relatively new ingredient in skincare. Orally, TXA was used as a drug to help reduce bleeding, such as for heavy menstrual periods or nosebleeds, though during the last decade, dermatologists noticed TXA also works for pigmentation disorders, especially melasma. TXA interferes with the interaction of pigment-producing cells in your skin and also decreases inflammation. TXA can be injected into the skin or taken orally — under a doctor’s supervision, of course. You also can buy it in lower doses in over-the-counter products, usually combined with other brightening ingredients.
Hydroquinone reduces the production of melanin in your skin. However, this topical is no joke. It’s available over the counter or by prescription, though the stronger stuff always will come from a dermatologist. Hydroquinone has some serious side effects, including sensitivity to sunlight and irritation, so proceed with caution and stay super protective of your skin while using it (i.e., wear lots of sunscreen, avoid unnecessary sun exposure, limit exfoliating acids, etc.).
Unprotected exposure to the sun triggers our skin to overproduce melanin as a means of protection. When it’s even, it’s a tan, but when it’s uneven (which is more common the more you expose unprotected skin to the sun), it causes dark spots and will darken freckles. Also, when the tan fades, it may make certain existing scars and spots more noticeable than before. Sunscreen not only can save your life but also is THE most non-invasive way to stop or decrease dark spots. The sun’s rays don’t take days off, so slather on sunscreen every day as the final step of your skin care routine before makeup.
Gia Mazur is an award-winning staff writer and beauty obsessive who joined The Times-Tribune’s Lifestyles department in 2015. She’s a product enthusiast who can’t live without an eyelash curler. A proud Virgo, Charlotte Tilbury Matte Revolution Lipstick in Pillow Talk is her go-to. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; 570-348-9127; @gmazurTT