If there's anything I absolutely *despise* more than breakouts, it's the dark spots they leave behind on my face and body. And if you're also someone who deals with hyperpigmentation, you know just how frustrating skin discoloration can be to cover up and/or treat. So to help you out (and let's be honest, to help myself out), I turned to board-certified dermatologist Peterson Pierre, MD, for expert advice on how to get rid of dark spots of all different kinds and causes. Keep reading for everything you really, truly need to know.
What causes dark spots on the face?
Dark spots seem to be pretty self-explanatory—they're spots darker than the rest of your skin—but the causes and treatments can be different. For example, that pimple that left behind a dark acne scar (aka post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation) is a common cause, but injuries, hormones, and sun exposure can all leave your skin with discoloration that may or may not go away on its own.
Dr. Pierre explains that post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation from acne, injuries, bug bites, or scratches can fade naturally in a few weeks or months, but things like sun damage or melasma (hyperpigmentation caused by hormones and sun exposure) will need topical or laser intervention, if you're trying to get rid of them.
How do you get rid of dark spots fast?
Fortunately for you (and me), we've got a few treatments. Buuut that being said, this is the part where I remind you that the first step to getting rid of dark spots is to see a dermatologist who can identify what type of discoloration you’re working with, figure out the cause, and determine the best treatment options for your skin. "The cause of the dark spots is actually an important consideration," Dr. Pierre explains. "Although there is definitely an overlap in treatment plans, different combinations will be used depending on the factors at play."
While you wait for that consultation with your doc, find out all about the best at-home products and in-office treatments for fading dark spots, below.
1. Glycolic acid
Ditch your face scrub (sorry, but scrubs are generally too aggressive for skin that's prone to dark spots and hyperpigmentation), and get yourself a chemical exfoliant/acid, instead. One chemical exfoliant that Dr. Pierre recommends for dark spots is glycolic acid, which is an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) that helps dissolve and shed the "glue" between dead, discolored skin cells, leaving you with a clearer, brighter, all-around glowier face.
Plus, by chemically exfoliating away surface-level dead cells, your skin will be better able to absorb any spot treatments or brightening serums you apply afterward, which helps make them more effective. Win-win.
2. Salicylic acid
Another type of chemical exfoliant is called beta hydroxy acids (BHA), which you might know as salicylic acid. As a general rule, dark spots from acne benefit from using chemical exfoliators with salicylic acid because it not only helps with redness and irritation, but it also helps clear excess oil from your pores. Basically, a treatment and a cure. And not only does salicylic acid gently exfoliate, but it also helps to encourage the formation of new skin cells to further help with dark spots.
Retinoids (either OTC or prescription) can work wonders for smoothing fine lines, exfoliating, and yup, improving dark spots by stimulating collagen production and speeding up cell turnover—i.e., churning out fresher, newer, brighter skin—but be sure to start low and go slow.
Retinol is notorious for irritating skin at first—something Dr. Pierre says you definitely don't want. "You should minimize any irritation to the area because inflammation can damage the pigment cells, causing them to leak out more pigment," Dr. Pierre explains. Basically, going too fast and applying too much at first can just make dark spots worse.
Instead, try applying your retinol one night a week for one week, then two nights a week for two weeks. If your skin isn’t responding with flakes and irritation, bump it up to three nights a week for three weeks, and eventually to every other night. Yes, the process is going to feel agonizingly slow (I've been there), but you seriously need to trust the process.
4. Hydrocortisone cream
Treat your pimples with a one percent hydrocortisone cream (you can get it at any drugstore). It's an anti-inflammatory, so it'll soothe redness, swelling, and inflammation—and unlike traditional acne treatments, it won't dry out or irritate your skin (which can end up creating more hyperpigmentation).
5. Vitamin C
If you aren't already using a vitamin C serum in your regular routine, wyd?? Never mind the fact that this antioxidant helps protect your skin against free-radical damage from UV radiation and pollution and stimulates collagen production, vitamin C also blocks pigment production and prevents existing pigment from getting darker.
6. Tranexamic acid
Another ingredient Dr. Pierre says would be the most effective at improving the appearance of dark spots is the skin brightener called tranexamic acid, which helps brighten skin and inhibit hyperpigmentation. It might not be as well-known (or as intense) as some of the other treatments on this list, but it's commonly paired with them to combat hyperpigmentation and melasma. Think of it like an extra shot of tequila to your spicy marg—it gets you ~results~ that much faster.
What Dr. Pierre refers to as the king for dark spots, hydroquinone is a v powerful bleaching ingredient for lightening hyperpigmentation, and can be especially helpful for melasma. That being said, hydroquinone can also be highly irritating and is slowly being discontinued from over-the-counter products—which is kind of a good thing, since you should see your dermatologist before trying hydroquinone so you can maximize your results while minimizing side effects.
8. Kojic acid
Another antioxidant to look for (and one of Dr. Pierre's top picks) is kojic acid, which is a favorite for brightening the skin because of its ability to inhibit the production of excess pigment. Committing to a dark-spot-correcting serum with any and all of the brightening ingredients we mentioned before (vitamin c, retinol, tranexamic acid, kojic acid)—can significantly speed up the process and help fade dark spots even faster.
9. Hydrocolloid patches
I know, it's nearly impossible to resist, but keep your hands off your face. If you've given into temptation in the past and picked a pimple, you know the aftermath: an inflamed red or brown mark that can stick around for months as a lovely result of skin trauma. Hydrocolloid patches (aka pimple patches) create a moist environment for wounds/pimples to heal quickly and help prevent scarring.
Is sunscreen good for dark spots?
If there's only one rule that you follow from this entire list, make it this one: Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 or more every. single. day. Not only does regularly using sunblock help to prevent skin cancer, it also shields your skin from harmful UV rays—the culprit behind most dark spots.
In response to the sun's UV rays, cells send out protective pigment (or melanin) to keep your skin from getting burned. You know this process as "getting tan," but it's really your skin trying to protect itself. So although you might like your summer bronze, know that deep within the layers of your skin, you now have damage that will later surface as tiny dark spots on your face.
Also important to note: Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation from breakouts is made worse by the sun, so wearing SPF is a must for keeping the cycle from occurring.
Can you microneedle dark spots?
Dr. Pierre also suggests microneedling with special topical preparations as another option for treating dark spots—as long as you leave it to the pros. The treatment involves tiny punctures with needles to encourage the body's wound-healing response and stimulate collagen and elastin production, which can be really effective when done correctly and safely. But remember how I said injuries or irritation could lead to extra dark spots? Yeah, exactly. Which is why this isn't something you want to experiment with yourself.
Does laser treatment work for dark spots?
Laser treatments aren't for everyone (the heat from lasers can actually make melasma worse on certain skin types), but for some, Fraxel and Clear & Brilliant can be beneficial for removing dark spots by creating tiny injuries in the skin to encourage new collagen and elastin growth. If you've got the money for it saved up (we're talkin' numbers in the thousands by the end of multiple treatments), ask your dermatologist if you'd be a good candidate.
What about chemical peels for hyperpigmentation?
Try a face peel for an even deeper exfoliation. They often use the same chemical exfoliants we talked about earlier in this article but at higher concentrations, so be careful. Word to the wise: An in-office peel will give you better and safer results.
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