Style: How to Get Rid of Dark Spots on Your Face

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Whether you’ve got acne or sun damage, some skin concerns don’t go away quietly—many leave dark spots behind. And figuring out how to get rid of dark spots can be just as challenging as solving what caused them in the first place. They’re hard to hide and slow to fade, and like in the case of melasma, some can be a long-term issue. But there’s good news: A little treatment can go a long way, especially if you know what led to your hyperpigmentation. Here’s everything you need to know about how to get rid of dark spots.

What Causes Dark Spots on Your Face?

Not all dark spots are created equal. The answer depends on the type of dark spot, of which there are three main causes, says Ted Lain, M.D., a dermatologist at Sanova Medical in Austin.

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Small freckles or slightly larger spots are the result of sun exposure. If you have acne-prone skin, you may already be familiar with post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, which is a dark spot that occurs when your pigment production goes on the fritz after any sort of inflammation in the area, be it breakouts or some other skin injury (like picking). Lastly, there’s melasma, which presents most often as dark, discolored patches on your cheeks, forehead, nose, and chin; it can be triggered by sun exposure or hormones, which is why many women develop it during pregnancy, says Miami dermatologist Alicia Barba, M.D.

While their originating sources may differ, these dark spots all have one major thing in common: inflammation, which “can trigger your skin to produce pigment,” says Lain.

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At-Home Treatments for Dark Spots

Good news: You’ve got a lot of options. There are three classes of ingredients that help fade dark spots. First up: tranexamic acid, which targets that inflammation. Secondly, “another class of ingredients blocks the cell's engine that produces pigment,” says Lain. “These include hydroquinone, kojic acid, licorice extract, and arbutin.” Vitamin C is also in this category. And finally, there are the exfoliators to remove the pigment that's already on your skin, such as glycolic, lactic, and salicylic acids.

It's not enough to pick just one from that list. In fact, “focusing on one of the classes of ingredients mentioned above comprises the most common mistake,” says Lain. You need to have an all-encompassing approach to take down dark spots quickly. And by quickly, we're talking a few weeks, although there's no set amount of time. “Improvement speed depends on the cause of pigmentation," says Barba. "Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation from acne, for example, takes about four to six weeks to fade after acne is controlled.”

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The exception here is melasma. “Melasma pigmentation is chronic, and this is the hardest point to drive home in my patients when they suffer from melasma," Barba says. "It's a constant tug of war.” That's because melasma is caused by an overactive melanocyte, the type of skin cell that produces pigment, so it requires constant treatment. However, studies show promise for the treatment of melasma with topical ingredients that are (bonus) easy to find. Experts surmise that tranexamic acid may interfere with the activation of melanocytes in one review, while a study exploring the effects of niacinamide on melasma found that it may keep melanocytes from sending their freshly made pigment to the skin's surface.

Last but not least, sunscreen is a nonnegotiable. (And, as Barba points out, avoiding the sun altogether costs $0.) Sun exposure is a major factor in both the development and worsening of dark spots across the board, be they from acne or melasma. Ultimately, she says, “nothing matters if you don’t tilt the balance towards brightening your skin by avoiding the factors that cause pigment formation.” So if you're serious about getting an even skin tone, a sunscreen should be a part of your skin care routine for dark spots.

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In-Office Dermatologist Treatments for Dark Spots

A board-certified dermatologist can help you figure out how to get rid of dark spots, too. The first line of treatment is a medium- to high-strength chemical peel. “Intense exfoliation may accelerate the lightening of dark spots," says Lain. “Since the production of pigment occurs in the lower levels of the epidermis, the most effective peels reach this depth.” It works by literally sloughing off the pigmented cells.

For sun spots and post-acne marks—think brown spots—both Lain and Barba recommend the photofacial, which uses intense pulsed light (or IPL). “This treatment uses a range of wavelenths, not just one as with most lasers, to target the pigment, eventually causing the pigment to rise to the very top of the skin and slough off about a week after the treatment,” says Lain. Barba's also a fan of the picosecond laser, which blasts the clump of pigment in question to break it up.

Melasma, ever the exception, doesn't respond well to laser treatments. “It always comes back,” says Barba. Sure, you'll remove the dark spots it creates—but those overactive melanocytes will keep chugging, only making more pigment. So, in-office treatments may not be financially sustainable, either. Your best bet is sticking with those topical ingredients.

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How to Treat Dark Spots on Black Skin

Skin of color warrants a more cautious approach, as certain treatments can actually make dark spots worse. “Those with skin of color need to be very careful of inflammation when treating pigmentation,” says Barba. “That's because inflammation or any burning of your skin can also cause pigmentation.” That's especially the case when it comes to lasers and peels, which are already risky for use on dark and deep skin, dark spots aside. For instance, IPL isn't typically recommended for medium to dark skin tones.

Your best bet is either to try topicals or seek out a board-certified dermatologist who has experience treating skin of color. Also, worth noting: “Just because topicals or procedures work short term does not mean that they work long term and provide lasting results,” says Barba. There are a lot of factors that determine how effective the treatment ultimately is, which is why it's worth seeing a derm to build a comprehensive skin care plan if dark spots are a persistent issue for you.

The Best Products for Getting Rid of Dark Spots

As mentioned above, there's no one singular product that's best for dark spots. Rather, you'll want to build out a top shelf of serums and creams with ingredients that fade dark spots in tandem. We've got a full run-down on the best hyperpigmentation treatments for women of color, as well as a list of the best dark spot correctors recommended by top derms. But if you're looking for a quick check list of products to get you started, here are a few of our favorites below.

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Skinceuticals Advanced Pigment Corrector

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Deanna Pai is a beauty writer in New York City. Follow her on Instagram @deannapai.

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