Clear, glowy, doll-like skin sans dark spots is always the goal, right? But like every other journey in life, you can't have a success story without jumping through a few hoops. And for those with dark skin, at one point or another one of those hoops will likely be discoloration.
Dark spots on the skin, or hyperpigmentation, can be caused by a variety of medical conditions or external factors, but two of the most common causes for those with deeper skin tones are melasma and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. To learn how to address these causes and reveal a smoother, brighter skin tone, we reached out to dermatologists. Read on for their advice on revealing your most even skin yet.
What Causes Discoloration in Darker Skin Tones?
When spots or patches appear on your skin that are darker than your skin tone, it’s called hyperpigmentation. "Hyperpigmentation is a term used to describe areas of skin that have more pigmentation than intended by nature,” dermatologist Craig Kraffert, MD, explains. “These areas visibly contrast with the surrounding unaffected skin, leading to the unevenness of color and/or tone." For those with darker skin tones two types of hyperpigmentation, in particular, are the most common cosmetic concerns:
- Melasma: "Melasma is a type of hyperpigmentation more common in women. It’s often induced by birth control pills and pregnancy and exacerbated by both sun and heat," Kraffert explains. "Your tendency to develop melasma is based in both genetic and hormonal components.” It primarily develops on the cheekbones, forehead, and upper lip, but can also be on the nose, chin, lower cheeks, and lateral neck.
- Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation: Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation occurs when the skin’s cells overproduce melanin as a response to injury, resulting in discoloration and uneven skin tone. "We see this after acne where dark spots are left after the acne lesions resolve and after any kind of trauma to the skin such as scars," says Vic Narurkar, MD, of Bay Area Laser Institute. Since darker skin has more melanin, post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation is—you guessed it—more commonly seen in those with darker skin tones.
Conversely, when dark skin has lighter patches, it’s hypopigmentation. This may result from a reduction of melanocytes or from an inability of the melanocytes to produce melanin or properly transport melanosomes.
Now that we have a clear understanding of what hyperpigmentation is and the different types of dark spots, this is what experts say the key is to successfully zapping them.
Root Out the Cause
Before you can start treating your dark spots, it's important to know why you have them in the first place. "The absolute best way to treat hyperpigmentation is first to identify the cause and see if any exacerbating factors can be reduced," says Narurkar. "For example, with melasma, going off the pill can help.” If your post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation is caused by acne, make an appointment with your derm to clear up your breakouts before addressing your dark spots.
Protect Yourself From the Sun
The most tried-and-true way to keep your dark spots from worsening is by protecting them from the sun. "There is one key component necessary for successful at-home treatment of hyperpigmentation: Strict and obsessively consistent avoidance of sun exposure is mandatory," Kraffert reiterates. "Just one day of unprotected sun exposure can disrupt and even destroy the benefit from months of meticulously applied brightening creams. Effective broad-spectrum sun protection, sun avoidance, and sun-protective clothing are essential for lasting results."
Joyce Imahiyerobo-ip, MD, notes that hydroquinone is the traditional gold standard of chemical lightening agents. "It works by inhibiting an enzyme called tyrosinase, which is required for melanin and pigment production," she explains. "It can be purchased over the counter in strengths of 1 percent to 2 percent. However, it is available by prescription at much higher doses."
She suggests using this ingredient with caution, though. "The concern with hydroquinone is that it can also bleach normal skin, many experience skin irritation, and if it is used for an extensive period of time it can cause paradoxical skin darkening. However, it is a powerful pigment fighter."
Check Out Tranexamic Acid
According to Imahiyerobo-ip, tranexamic acid is a newer ingredient that is being used to treat hyperpigmentation. "It specifically addresses the role that UV light plays in melanogenesis," she says. "Tranexamic acid can be used orally or topically to treat stubborn pigmentary conditions like melasma. It is important to see a board-certified dermatologist before taking this medication orally. However, there are some great topical preparations that have become widely available."
Add Anti-Inflammatory Ingredients to Your Routine
Dennis Gross, MD, recommends using products with brightening and anti-inflammatory benefits like bearberry extract, mulberry extract, azelaic amino acid, and licorice root extract. Two other important ingredients to seek out are ferulic acid and vitamin C. Ferulic acid is a plant-based antioxidant that enhances the properties of other vitamins and provides protection from sun damage. Vitamin C is an antioxidant with powerful skin-lightening properties that helps protect against free radicals and UVA damage.
Dendy Engelman, MD, is a fan of retinol because it targets tons of anti-aging concerns like your skin tone, texture, laxity, and texture. Once you find the right retinoid for your skin type, it smoothes fine lines and wrinkles, boosts collagen production, and helps banish hyperpigmentation. "Elizabeth Arden Retinol Ceramide Capsules are my new favorite for beginners, as the ceramide acts like a buffer to prevent any irritation," explains Engelman. "Also, the capsule form ensures that each capsule is one usage, so for beginners, they’re not confused about how much product to use."
Ask About In-Office Solutions
If you're looking to speed up the process, or are battling more stubborn dark spots, you can always approach your derm about in-office solutions. Two options they will likely present are lasers and chemical peels.
According to one of our experts, however, these treatments aren't created equal when it comes to deeper skin tones. Gross says you shouldn’t look to lasers to take care of your hyperpigmentation when you have dark skin. While they work well for many with lighter skin, on darker skin, the laser may not accurately target the brown spots—potentially making your discoloration worse.
While lasers might be a no-go, Gross says the safest in-office procedure to treat hyperpigmentation on darker skin tones is a series of peels to resurface the skin. For post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation and melasma, superficial peels—such as glycolic acid, salicylic acid, lactic acid, and mandelic acid—are often among the go-to treatments.
Number 1 SV 21. Melasma and post inflammatory hyperpigmentation treatment update.
Davis EC, Callender VD. Postinflammatory hyperpigmentation. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2010;3(7):20-31.
Cavalcanti GR, Duarte FIC, Converti A, de Lima ÁAN. Ferulic acid activity in topical formulations: technological and scientific prospecting. Curr Pharm Des. 2021;27(19):2289-2298.
Telang PS. Vitamin C in dermatology. Indian Dermatol Online J. 2013;4(2):143-146. doi:10.4103/2229-5178.110593
Lee KC, Wambier CG, Soon SL, et al. Basic chemical peeling: Superficial and medium-depth peels. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. 2019;81(2):313-324.