Summer is officially over, and depending on how diligent you were with sunscreen, you might have ended the season with an unwanted souvenir on your skin: dark spots. Melasma, sun spots and hyperpigmentation are all types of discoloration that can seem worse after summer due to your increased time in the sun. And though dark spots appear quickly, healing them isn’t so simple ― but a few key ingredients can make a big difference.
Why does the sun make discoloration worse in the first place?
When our skin is exposed to the sun without the protection of sunscreen, most of us walk away with sun damage in the form of a burn or a darker skin tone, thanks to melanocytes — aka pigment-producing cells — going into overdrive. But continued exposure to the sun turns that tan to discoloration.
“Over time, this sun exposure can cause overproduction of melanin in certain areas, resulting in discoloration known as sun spots or solar lentigines,” said Geeta Yadav, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Skin Science Dermatology in Toronto.
The sun can also make the discoloration you already have even worse. “Other forms of hyperpigmentation can be caused by trauma to the skin (such as a healing pimple); when it’s exposed to the sun, the discoloration in this area will be exacerbated,” she added.
Applying sunscreen (along with other sun protection methods, like covering up and staying in the shade) is the best way to prevent dark spots from occurring in the first place. But once dark spots have already imprinted themselves on your skin, healing them is easier if you can identify the type of discoloration you have.
“Different types of discoloration have pigment located at different depths of the skin,” Yadav said. They also have different causes and triggers that need to be considered. Yadav explained that melasma, for example, is caused by hormones, heat and sun exposure, while post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation from acne forms deep under the skin.
For something like melasma, a multi-pronged treatment can be the best choice, and a visit to a dermatologist could help you access the best treatments (for example, a prescription for oral tranexamic acid to help brighten the skin’s appearance). A derm appointment or trip to an esthetician can also help determine whether peels, lasers or prescription products are a good option for your particular case.
In many circumstances, though, over-the-counter products can make a big difference in the appearance of dark spots. The key is knowing which ingredients to look for.
Which ingredients heal dark spots?
Fortunately, there are several powerful ingredients that can lighten discoloration. “My favorite ingredients for treating dark spots are hydroquinone, alpha hydroxy acids, retinoids, tranexamic acid, alpha arbutin, niacinamide, mulberry, azelaic acid, kojic acid, cysteamine and licorice root,” shared esthetician Tiara Willis, noting that sunscreen is her favorite product for its aforementioned ability to prevent dark spots in the first place.
While these can all be helpful at treating dark spots, how they work differs slightly. Yadav explained that some ingredients, like vitamin C, tranexamic acid and niacinamide, treat the root cause of dark spots by inhibiting excess melanin production. “Other ideal options include retinoids and exfoliants like azelaic and glycolic acids, as they can slough off the dead cells on the skin’s surface while promoting cellular turnover,” she said.
“I recommend having an ingredient that increases cell turnover, like retinoids; an ingredient that sloughs off pigmented cells, like chemical exfoliants; an ingredient (or multiple ingredients) that brightens, like kojic acid; and of course sun protection.”
– Tiara Willis, esthetician
This is why you shouldn’t rely on just one ingredient; Willis recommends products with multiple ingredients that target hyperpigmentation. “There are multiple pathways involved in melanogenesis, and different ingredients target different pathways. You definitely want to be sure to cover your bases,” Willis advised. “I recommend having an ingredient that increases cell turnover, like retinoids; an ingredient that sloughs off pigmented cells, like chemical exfoliants; an ingredient (or multiple ingredients) that brightens, like kojic acid; and of course sun protection to protect the skin from producing excess melanin,” she added.
This doesn’t mean it’s always a good idea to combine products yourself. Willis advises caution when combining exfoliants and retinoids, and suggests using all-in-one products instead. And it’s not just a risk of over-exfoliation or skin irritation; some products promising to clear dark spots are actually dangerous. “Illegal steroids and mercury are commonly seen in bleaching creams and should be avoided,” Willis said. “Hydroquinone is safe when used at the appropriate percentage and with the guidance of a professional.”
Your skin type and skin color should be taken into consideration, too, if you try more intense treatments. “Skin color especially matters with in-office treatments,” Yadav said. “Some lasers can increase the risk of hyperpigmentation in skin of color, or even cause hypopigmentation (lack of pigment). Microneedling can be a great pick for these complexions.”
The Best Products For Dark Spots
Willis and Yadav have several favorite products for targeting discoloration. Although it can be tempting to load up on discoloration treatments, they suggest starting slow.
“When beginning your journey, I recommend starting with one product at a time and adjusting the routine every two weeks by either adding a product, increasing the usage of current products or removing a step,” Willis said. “It’s important to do this process slowly in order to manage adverse effects. When in doubt, see a professional!”
Results won’t be immediate, but how long it takes to see them depends on the cause of the discoloration and the severity. “If you’ve had melasma that’s been worsening for decades, it’s going to be stubborn to treat. Meanwhile, recently developed post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation might not take as long,” Yadav said. To be safe, she recommends trying at-home treatment for at least three months before moving on to something new, and suggests taking before and after photos to accurately gauge your progress.
Below are some of the experts’ favorite products for fading dark spots.
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Both Willis and Yadav recommend Topicals’ Faded serum. “[It] contains tranexamic acid, niacinamide and azelaic acid to fight hyperpigmentation and can yield truly dramatic results,” Yadav said.
SkinCeuticals CE Ferulic
“[It] may be pricey, but it’s considered to be the gold standard vitamin C treatment,” Yadav said. Along with reducing discoloration, the serum can also reduce the look of fine lines and wrinkles.
SkinCeuticals Discoloration Defense
For those with melasma, Yadav recommends this product from SkinCeuticals, which is formulated with “tranexamic acid, niacinamide and another potent brightener, kojic acid.” It also uses HEPES, an acid that assists with even exfoliation.
Good Molecules Discoloration Correcting Serum
Willis recommends using this serum alongside other treatments in order to target multiple pathways. It uses tranexamic acid and niacinamide to target discoloration in a pH-balanced, fragrance-free formula.