The Best Treatments for Hyperpigmentation and Dark Spots, According to Skincare Pros
Here's how to finally get rid of your acne spots, sun spots, and melasma.
Hyperpigmentation, by definition, is a darkening of the skin’s pigment. This can be a temporary darkening—as in the case of post inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) due to acne or other trauma—or it can be a permanent discoloration in the form of sun spots (also referred to as age spots or liver spots) and melasma (often called pregnancy mask).
“The sun’s harmful UVB and UVA rays play a large role in the formation of sun spots and overall darkening of the skin’s complexion. Genetics and hormones can also be a factor, particularly in the case of pregnancy mask,” says Adriana Martino, an esthetician and the founder of SKINNEY Medspa in New York City. Additionally, inflammation (including acne) can create a red hyperpigmentation that lingers for months.
Whether you’re dealing with temporary or permanent forms of hyperpigmentation, it’s possible to expedite recovery and lighten the discoloration. Below we’ve outlined the best treatments for getting rid of dark spots—and other forms of hyperpigmentation—according to skincare experts.
Outside of sunscreen, which is the best preventative treatment for all forms of skin aging, including hyperpigmentation, dermatologists agree that topical retinoids are a key tool in anyone’s skincare arsenal.
“Retinoids fade dark spots by causing more rapid cell turnover, which makes them very effective in treating dark spots. As a bonus, they also help with acne and fine lines,” says Sapna Palep, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at Spring Street Dermatology in New York. “They’re a universal product that works for almost everyone, unless you have really sensitive skin.”
You can use either an over-the-counter retinol or a prescription retinoic acid. The latter is stronger, but the former is more accessible since it doesn’t require a dermatologist visit. For an OTC version, try Obagi Clinical Retinol 0.5 Retexturizing Cream ($55; sephora.com), which boasts a gentle but effective formulation. If you have super sensitive skin, consider using a product that contains bakuchiol, a plant-based retinol alternative. Herbivore Bakuchiol Retinol Alternative Smoothing Serum ($54; sephora.com) is a great option.
Whichever product you choose, note that it takes about three months before effects become apparent. You may experience some sensitivity in the first three weeks, including some light, flaky peeling and tenderness.
While retinoids work to fade hyperpigmentation by expediting cell turnover, hydroquinone is an agent that works by physically lightening dark spots on the skin. It’s available both over-the-counter and via prescription in more potent concentrations.
“I especially like to use hydroquinone on my patients who have melasma; the ingredient works wonders,” says Dr. Palep. “I recommend applying hydroquinone at night, and wearing sunscreen in the morning is a must. It generally takes anywhere from four to six weeks to see results when consistently using the ingredient.”
For an over-the-counter option, try Murad Rapid Age Spot and Pigment Lightening Serum ($72; sephora.com), which contains 2 percent hydroquinone as well as glycolic acid. It’s meant to be used across the entire face to brighten your overall complexion while fading spots. (Do note that hydroquinone shouldn’t be used by women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.)
Whether your end game is to lighten dark spots or fade acne-related hyperpigmentation, incorporating glycolic acid into your skincare regimen is a must. Dr. Palep says you can find it in all sorts of formulations and across a spectrum of products, including cleansers, creams, gels, serums, and more intense peels or masks.
“Glycolic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) that has exfoliating and renewing properties to provide a more radiant complexion and to brighten hyperpigmentation,” she says. “Generally, with daily use and depending on concentration, it takes about three months to see results.”
Try SkinCeuticals Glycolic 10 Renew Overnight ($80; dermstore.com), which contains a whopping 10 percent glycolic acid. It’s ideal for those who want to treat hyperpigmentation, dark spots, acne, large pores, fine lines, and other aging-related concerns.
IPL (Intense Pulsed Light) Photo Facial
If you’re seeking a quick way to get rid of hyperpigmentation and dark spots, an IPL Photo Facial is an excellent, instant-gratification treatment.
“An IPL Photo Facial uses scattered light to latch on to the hyperpigmentation and brings it to a more superficial state, where it will eventually begin to flake off. This process takes around three to seven days,” says Martino. “You can see significant results after the first session, though three to five sessions spaced over five months is recommended for optimal results.” She adds that in cases of severe hyperpigmentation, Fraxel (fractional laser) may be recommended instead of IPL.
The cost of an IPL treatment ranges from $200 to $500 per session depending on where you go and what you’re treating.