If you’re a human being who has ever spent a day in the sun—or ever had an especially annoying, long-lasting pimple—then you probably have a few dark spots or red marks on your face. And you’ve probably realized by this point that no matter how many scrubs, masks, or gentle words of encouragement you heap upon those spots, they never totally fade.
But to get rid of hyperpigmentation (the catch-all term for dark spots and discoloration), you kinda have to know what you’re dealing with, first. “Essentially, hyperpigmentation is your skin’s reaction to injury,” says Mona Gohara, MD, dermatologist at Yale University. “For some biological reason, when you get injured, your melanocytes—the cells in your skin responsible for creating melanin—go into overdrive and create even more melanin at the site of your injury, giving you hyperpigmentation.”
But the thing is, those “injuries” can be anything as small as a pimple, or a shaving nick, or a patch of eczema, or even just hangin’ out in the sun for a few hours. And for some reason, your melanocytes turn into Chicken Little over the injury and create a shit ton of melanin like the sky is falling, leaving you with hyperpigmentation.
Of course, not all skin discoloration is the same on all people. On lighter skin tones, the response to injury tends to appear as dark patches and spots, called hyperpigmentation, while darker skin tones often produce light spots (called hypopigmentation) and melasma (large gray-brown patches due to hormonal changes from birth control and pregnancy). Of course, any of these can affect any skin color and type, so don’t get hung up on fitting into a box. Instead, figure out what type of discoloration you have (going to the derm is your best option for this, though looking in the mirror is a close second), and then try your hand at treating it.
“Annoyingly, hypopigmentation—the loss of skin color—can’t be fixed with over-the-counter creams; it just has to fade slowly on its own,” says Gohara. Yes, it’s an insane bummer, but we promise the spots will fade. If you’re dealing with hyperpigmentation, though, you’ve got options, the most powerful (and potentially irritating) being hydroquinone: “Hydroquinone is a skin lightener that inhibits your melanin productions, which, when applied at night in 3-to-4-percent concentrations, quickly lightens hyperpigmentation,” says Gohara. The downside? It can be hella irritating, and, if overused, it has been shown to cause a darkening in the skin of darker complexions. So, you know, the opposite effect of what you’re going for.
If post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (a.k.a. the redness and dark spots leftover from acne) is your bugaboo, try over-the-counter retinoids, like Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair, which are vitamin-A derivatives that trigger your cells to turnover, leaving you with newer, fresher, brighter skin…after, you know, six months to a year. They’re still just as effective at lightening spots, though they do take longer, and they have the potential to irritate your skin and dry it out, so make sure to only use a pea-size amount over your entire face twice a week to start out. Again, we’d really recommend you use retinoids and hydroquinone under your derm’s supervision, but since you’re not going to, promise us that you’ll take it slow, OK?
If we’ve scared you out of both of those excellent options, then your next best bet is an antioxidant. “Antioxidants, like vitamin C, work to brighten your skin and fade dark spots over time, and are generally safe on all skin tones at low percentages,” says Gohara, who swears by SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic Serum or Obagi Professional-C Serum 20%. Your irritation risk is far lower with vitamin C is far lower than with other options, but the results are also much slower. Still, with continual use (read: every single morning), you’ll notice a significant difference in your skin tone along with the start of dark-spot fading after six months.
Treating dark spots at home is the same for the lightest of light skin tones and the darkest of dark skin tones—though, as you learned with hydroquinone, dark skin can develop dark spots when it’s irritated; those with deep complexions need to be especially vigilant about using the lowest concentrations of lightening products and stopping at the first sign of irritation, lest you exacerbate the problem. And regardless of your skin type, Gohara (and literally every single dermatologist and doctor in the history of ever), urge you to use sunscreen, especially if you have dark spots.
“Sun exposure triggers melanin production, which means your hyperpigmentation will appear darker very quickly without sunscreen,” says Gohara. If you don’t use sunscreen when trying to treat your discoloration, you’re literally negating all of your efforts. Also, sunscreen is excellent and protects you from skin cancer, etc., etc. (Not sure where to start? We love Dermalogica Pure Light SPF 50, which won’t clog pores or mess with your makeup.) Now go forth into this world a brighter, younger-looking thing, armed with all of the info you never knew you needed.