There's nothing worse than those dreaded dark spots (aka hyperpigmentation) popping up on your skin. You may want to slather on the concealer and buy every lightening and brightening cream and serum out there, but before you do, it's important to understand what hyperpigmentation is and why it's occurring.
What Is Hyperpigmentation?
Hyperpigmentation is patches of skin that become darker than others around it. It's caused by an overproduction of melanin in certain spots on the skin.
Causes of Hyperpigmentation
There are many causes of hyperpigmentation, but two of the most common are acne and the sun. "Melanin—what gives our hair and skin color—goes into overproduction in the sun to protect our skin from harmful rays, causing them to look darker than your natural skin tone," Dendy Engelman, MD, tells us. In addition to acne and sun spots, melasma is a specific type of hyperpigmentation that appears as discolored splotches on your face, primarily your cheeks, bridge of your nose, forehead, chin, and upper lip. Dealing with acne and brown spots can be frustrating, but if you have the right products and hyperpigmentation creams, you can even out your skin tone.
Meet the Expert
Dendy Engelman, MD, FACMS, FAAD, is a board-certified dermatologic surgeon in New York. Dr. Engelman has also been featured in the media as a consultant and is heavily involved in the MDSC Skinceuticals skin care line.
How To Treat and Prevent Hyperpigmentation
The best way to prevent future hyperpigmentation is by wearing sunblock. As for alleviating any discoloration you already have, you can try over-the-counter creams, prescription creams, chemical peels, and in-office lasers (for when the hyperpigmentation is not new and requires something stronger). There are a few ways that active ingredients in hyperpigmentation creams work. Some creams contain hydroquinone, kojic acid, and salicylic acid to improve pigmentation, some block the key enzyme responsible for pigment production, and others exfoliate and indirectly lighten the skin, explains Upper East Side dermatologist Estee Williams, MD.
Whether you prefer a hyperpigmentation cream, serum, or toner, there are numerous at-home options for tackling dark spots. “Fortunately, the options for treatment are expanding and becoming increasingly effective.” says Craig Kraffert, board-certified dermatologist and president of Amarte.
"This prescription cream specifically treats melasma. It works by exfoliating, blocking pigment production, and minimizing redness," Williams says. Williams also does the Lumenis M22 intense pulse light treatment in her office, which targets pigmentation, heats it up at the source, and causes it to flake off.
The skincare line you've relied on forever is a good choice for hyperpigmentation, as well as acne. "I urge my patients to incorporate these products as part of a more all-encompassing regimen for hyperpigmentation. Apply this serum at night after cleansing—it helps gradually fade dark spots, discoloration or blotches, and helps lighten post-acne marks," says Ted Lain, MD, a board-certified dermatologist.
This dermal repair cream contains heparan sulfate, an ingredient that works at the cellular level to rejuvenate the skin and reverse pigmentation. "It doesn't cause skin irritation, and has the advantage of other anti-aging ingredients to help with overall skin brightening," says David Shafer, MD, FACS, double board-certified plastic surgeon in New York City.
Apply this SkinMedica product at night after you cleanse. "It contains tranexamic acid, a powerful ingredient to reduce hyperpigmentation," says Michelle Henry, MD, clinical instructor of dermatology at Weill Cornell Medical College. Tranexamic acid is recommended for its rapid and sustained lightening.
These pads, containing 5% glycolic acid, are safe for pregnancy. "They are intended to safely exfoliate the top layers for a clearer, more radiant and even-toned appearance. Rub the pads on your skin in a circular motion, going around your face two to three times, then rinse," Engelman says.
If you prefer a toner over a cream, reach for this one by Dr. Roebuck's. It's got peppermint and grapefruit oils to tone, and glycolic acid to resurface and brighten the skin. "Glycolic acid has the smallest molecules in the AHA (alpha hydroxy acid) group, allowing it to penetrate the skin more deeply to treat uneven texture," says Kim Devin, co-founder of Dr. Roebuck's.
"Getting rid of melanin isn't always the answer, which is why using a natural beta-carotene, like Gold Botanical Healing Serum, with the occasional glycolic application is better, in my opinion," says Athena Hewett, owner of Athena Ellen skincare + apothecary. Use this serum during the day for added sun protection.
Finally, a retinol you can use during the day that won't irritate your skin. "This product combines natural arbutin, purified elemental sulfur, brightening botanical extracts, and a revolutionary 1% nano-encapsulated retinol, which work to improve hyperpigmentation in a safe, non-irritating, natural way," says Kraffert.