We know, you tried. You had the colossal sun hat, the cute Tory Burch rashguard, the organic mineral sunscreen that went on like toothpaste. Yet, somehow, those pesky brown sunspots still managed to creep onto your face. (And if you didn’t do all those things, they didn’t just creep, they belly flopped.) A little known and slightly depressing fact: “Even if you religiously applied sunscreen all summer, you can still get sun damage," says N.Y.C. dermatologist Dendy Engelman. The good news: With a few strategic tweaks to your skincare regimen, you can undo that ugly summer hangover.
What follows are five solutions from dermatologist Engelmen, and from my own experience in my 20 years researching, testing, and writing about beauty products. Our recommendations range, in order, from the least invasive to the most intense.
Get religious about retinoid use.
By now, you are probably aware that retinoids have long been the gold standard in terms of anti-aging. But, if you’re like many women, you still might not use one every night. Maybe you’re too tired. Or maybe you didn’t like the way it made the skin on your chin peel. But here’s the truth: If you really want to get rid of those dark spots, you need to commit. With a prescription product, start every other night, applying just a pea-size drop to the entire face. Gradually, as you build up tolerance, use it every night. As far as prescription formulas are concerned, I highly recommend Atralin because it contains a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory that makes it less irritating than other vitamin A derivatives such as Retin A. If you’re using an over-the-counter retinol (like Neutrogena's Rapid Repair Serum, $22; neutrogena.com) you might be able to use it every night right from the start because those products tend to be a little less potent than their prescription cousins.
In addition to a nightly retinol ritual, look for products with natural lighteners such as kojic acid. Dr. Engelman recommends Nugene Light and Bright Gel ($125; nugene.com), which contains kojic acid as well as growth factors and cytokines to help target dark spots.
Zap ‘em at home.
The newest at-home lasers use the same technology that dermatologists use in office to reverse sun damage and treat fine lines and wrinkles. Though it’s a bit of an investment, Dr. Engelman likes the Tria Beauty Age Defying Laser ($495; triabeauty.com) because it's clinically proven to treat multiple signs of aging (including sun spots and discoloration). Plus, you can use it while sitting on your couch watching Difficult People.
Try an in office peel.
For a quick fix, look for a one-step treatment with no downtime, like the Skinceuticals Advanced Corrective Peel ($195; find a location near you at skinceuticals.com). This derm fave combines L-ascorbic acid and glycolic acids to refine uneven skin tone (you will need 4-6 treatments for best results). To desensitize your skin, stop using any retinoids at least one week prior to the peel and wear sunscreen immediately after the treatment (and ideally every day afterwards).
Hit them with the big guns.
If, after all this, you’re still not seeing results, you may want to consider a fractionated Co2 treatment. Unlike traditional carbon dioxide lasers, which leave your skin looking like it's been through a meat grinder, the newer procedures target the deepest layer of the skin—where collagen is formed—without injuring the top layer of skin. That said, the treatment is still pretty intense. Downtime is 5 to 7 days, and you definitely won't want to leave the house during this time as your skin will be crusty and red (check out this YouTube video for a disturbing but accurate visual). A word of warning: This treatment can cause hyperpigmentation in darker skin tones. If you have a deep complexion, ask you doctor about Fraxel, a slightly less aggressive treatment that costs $750 to $1,000 per session—and you'll need four to six treatments. Cost for the fractionated laser treatment range from $2,500 to $5,000, and it is relatively quick (only one to two sessions). The pay off: Your skin will look like a baby's bum (or at least 47 percent less blotchy than before treatment, according to a 2012 study by the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery). The best part? Assuming you don't start aggressively sun bathing again, results can last 8 to 10 years. Yup, that's right, you just bought yourself a decade. Cheers to modern technology!