Dark spots, or hyperpigmentation, result from the overproduction of melanin in the skin. That extra melanin can be triggered by lots of different things, including sun exposure, hormones, and aging. Irritated skin that stems from acne, waxing, or harsh scrubs can also cause dark spots.
Which is to say that virtually everyone is bound to experience them to some degree.
For those frustrated by their uneven skin tone, take comfort in knowing there are plenty of effective treatments. I’ll highlight a couple you can try at home. If they don’t yield the results you’re hoping for, I’ll also touch upon some highly reliable in-office procedures.
Hydroquinone has been the gold-standard dark spot treatment for the last 50 years. It’s available over the counter in concentrations of 2% or less and by prescription in concentrations of 4% or greater. It works by inhibiting an enzyme called tyrosinase, which is integral to the production of melanin. Basically, the less tyrosinase there is, the less melanin that’s produced.
Hydroquinone can yield results in as little as a couple weeks in some cases, but it generally takes eight to 12 weeks to see a visible difference, depending on the severity of the hyperpigmentation and how long it’s been there, among other factors.
Start with a spot test because it can cause dryness, redness, and burning, which could signal a potential allergic reaction. “Ghosting” is another potential side effect. It’s the inadvertent lightening of the skin outside the targeted area. You can avoid it by applying hydroquinone sparingly to the center of the dark spot and feathering it toward the edges.
Apply it at night in the beginning. Once you’re confident you can tolerate it, increase to twice a day. Be sure to pair it with sunscreen during the day because it can cause sun sensitivity.
Applied topically, vitamin C inhibits enzymatic processes that produce melanin in the skin. And because it’s an antioxidant, it can help block free radicals from causing oxidative damage to the skin (which can lead to a dull complexion, fine lines, and wrinkles, among other concerns).
Vitamin C is a popular hyperpigmentation treatment also because it will lighten only targeted areas, not your entire face. Just apply a few drops to cleansed skin in the morning.
A chemical peel removes the upper layers of the skin, which will ultimately stimulate collagen production, enhance cellular turnover, and reduce the appearance of dark spots. At-home peels likely won’t get deep enough to lighten dark spots. While some professionally administered chemical peels can be too harsh, particularly on sensitive skin. So, be sure to discuss with a board-certified dermatologist how you may react before scheduling one.
It’s also important to keep in mind this is not a quick fix. Generally, three to six treatments spaced out by three to four weeks are needed to see results.
Lasers are the most impactful dark spot treatment available. But not all lasers are capable of achieving the result you want. A focused beam, as opposed to intense pulsed light, is ideal in this situation. It can break up and eliminate the pigment particles in the skin without causing any unwanted effects on the surrounding skin.
Still, you should anticipate several treatments, with three to four weeks in between.