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The thing about dark spots is that usually, they’re the aftermath of some kind of annoying skincare situation. Events like an acne breakout, unprotected exposure to sun, injury, and hormonal changes can all lead to dark spots—also known as post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) and, in some cases, melasma—and the spots can be quite stubborn. Couple that with the fact that as we age, our skin does not renew itself as quickly, and dark spots can linger longer than you’d like.
Nevertheless, there are options for treating dark spots, ranging from over-the-counter skincare topicals to in-office treatments. An approach tailored to your skin can help break up and dissolve dark spots and help you achieve a clearer, more even-toned complexion. We spoke to three top pros for their go-to fixes for dark spots, and this is what they told us.
Meet The Experts
Evan Rieder, board-certified dermatologist and psychiatrist
Sheila Farhang, cosmetic dermatologist, skin cancer surgeon, and aesthetician
Jess Bowers, NYC-based aesthetician
Topical Treatments for Dark Spots
Incorporating a topical treatment into your skincare routine can garner radiant results when it’s done regularly. In terms of when you should expect to see a noticeable difference, Rieder says, “I often recommend using lightening creams for six to 12 weeks to assess a response. The time will depend on the ingredients that are used.” Below, the brightening ingredients to look for in serums, creams, and other.
With its efficacious skin-brightening benefits and versatility—you can find it in serums, lotions, face washes, face masks, and more—vitamin C is an easy answer when the question is how to treat dark spots. Not only does it help fade existing hyperpigmentation, it also helps prevent further darkening of the skin and lends luminosity to the complexion. “I recommend products formulated with vitamin C for almost everyone, as this should be a product in someone’s daily skincare routine,” says Farhang. “Vitamin C is an antioxidant that helps brighten. Given that it is not an exfoliant, it is generally well tolerated.”
Exfoliating topical acids
Chemical exfoliators in the form of cleansers, serums, or toners are go-to dark spot brightening solutions that are easy to work into any regime. “Gently exfoliating topical acids like salicylic acid, lactic acid, and glycolic acid can also help to even and brighten tone,” Rieder says. Choose one that suits your skin type: Sensitive and dry skin do well with products that contain lactic and glycolic acids, while oily, acne-prone skin is better treated with salicylic acid.
This ingredient can serve as a brightening agent to reduce dark spots and improve hyperpigmentation by interfering with melanin production. Rieder favors SkinMedica Lytera 2.0 and Skinceuticals Discoloration Defense, which both contain tranexemic acid.
Hydroquinone is a tried-and-true lightening treatment, ideally used under the supervision of a dermatologist. “Hydroquinone is a skin ‘bleaching’ ingredient that I typically prescribe for my melasma patients. This should be monitored and not used within a few months of a holiday break,” Farhang says.
A derivative of hydroquinone, arbutin “lightens dark spots on the skin and promotes an even, radiant skin tone,” Bowers says. “It is known to be ideal for sensitive skin types and is effective at fading scars.”
The gold-standard anti-ager also treats dark spots, by removing the surface layers of skin and revealing fresh cells over time. “While retinoids don’t necessarily brighten the skin, they do increase cell turnover, which helps fade PIH faster,” says Farhang. “This also helps promote collagen, which helps the skin appear more radiant and less dull.” When starting on a retinoid for the first time, begin with using it one to two nights a week for at least a month, and then add in a day every couple of weeks. This strategy will help curb irritation.
If you do absolutely nothing else to treat your dark spots, experts agree that daily use of a broad-spectrum sunscreen of at least SPF 30 will at least help prevent them from deepening. Also note: Any effort to lighten your dark spots will be futile if your unprotected skin is exposed to UV rays (which increase melanin production). For very sensitive skin, Farshang suggests forgoing brightening treatments and using only sunscreen to treat dark spots. “Sunscreen, especially tinted sunscreen, is the most important product for dark spots, as it protects against further damage from ultraviolet and visible light,” Rieder says. “Both are known to make dark spots and pigmentary disorders worse.”
Prescriptions for Dark Spots
As an alternative to over-the-counter treatments, your derm can write you a prescription: “This is an area where I like prescription medications like Tri-Luma, which is a combination of a steroid, retinoid, and hydroquinone,” says Rieder.
What’s the Fastest Fix for Dark Spots?
How your dark spots respond to treatment depends on your skin type and the cause of the spots. In-office procedures can definitely be helpful when combined with topical treatments, especially if you’re looking for fast results and don’t mind the investment. “With all things being equal, and the skin being able to tolerate any procedure, pico- and nanosecond lasers very efficiently remove superficial brown spots, as do robust chemical peels like the Cosmelan peel,” Rieder says. Farhang typically recommends a series of three to four monthly peels to fade dark spots, followed by a few maintenance appointments throughout the year. She also likes resurfacing procedures such as fractional lasers, microdermabrasion, and microneedling, which help renew the skin and brighten the complexion over time.
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