Find out how to treat discoloration — and prevent it in the first place. 

By Kayla Greaves and Marianne Mychaskiw
Updated Apr 06, 2020 @ 6:00 pm
Each product we feature has been independently selected and reviewed by our editorial team. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
Advertisement
Credit: Getty Images

When your complexion somehow produces a dark spot that not even the best concealer can color-correct, don't panic. Many forms of hyperpigmentation will eventually fade on their own, but there are plenty of ways to speed up the process.

To find out more on how to actually get rid of dark spots, ways to prevent it from happening again, and why discoloration occurs in the first place, InStyle turned to dermatologists Dr. Elyse Love and Dr. Patricia Wexler for their expert insight.

What Causes Hyperpigmentation?

"Hyperpigmentation in the skin comes from melanin," explains Dr. Wexler. "Sometimes too much is stimulated, and the pigment is found within the cell."

Dr. Love adds that there are three main reasons why this occurs. "Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation can occur after a rash, pimple, or other inflammatory condition has healed," she shares. "This is more likely to occur in skin types that tan easily, as there is higher melanin production at baseline."

The second is a result of primary pigment disorders, such as melasma. "These present with pigmentation without a prior rash or inflammation," she says. "Melasma is still not fully understood, but we know hormones through pregnancy or birth control, sun exposure, visible light exposure from computers and cell phones, and pollution all play a factor."

Finally, sun damage can also cause skin discoloration — or make existing spots worse. "Sun-induced pigmentation is a form of photo-aging and is most often seen in lighter skin tones that are more sensitive to sun damage," Dr. Love explains. "People with darker skin are more prone to post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, while lighter skin individuals are more prone to sun induced pigmentation. Melasma can occur in any skin type, but is more common in darker skin types."

What's the Difference Between Acne Scarring and Dark Spots?

When it comes to marks left behind from acne, many use the terms "scarring" and "dark spots" interchangeably. But there should be a clear distinction between the two.

"Acne scarring occurs when the inflammation related to a pimple destroys collagen focally," Dr. Love explains. "This leads to a dimple or divot in the skin. Treatment requires procedures that increase collagen production, such as microneedling or ablative lasers."

As for dark spots, that can simply be classified as post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. "In darker skin tones, when there's inflammation in the skin, the cells that normally produce and store pigment, called melanocytes, respond by dumping some of their pigment into the dermis — imagine if someone frightened you while you were holding something," she says. "Often, post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation is the thing that stresses my darker skin acne patients out the most because it lasts longer than any given pimple, so I always reassure them that it is not scarring. It can be treated relatively easily."

How Can You Get Rid of Dark Spots?

"This pigmentation will naturally resolve with time and diligent sun protection as the skin naturally exfoliates over months," Dr. Love explains. "However, it can be sped up by using topical lightening agents and/or exfoliators." Dr. Wexler adds that while sun spots will not go away on their own, she agrees that treatment products can work wonders. "These will help fade the mark by possibly 50%," she says.

Dr. Wexler recommends using products with chemical exfoliants like salicylic and glycolic acid or ingredients like niacinamide to gently even out skintone. Her picks: Replenix Acne Solutions Gly/Sal 2-2 Pads, Clinique's Even Better Clinical Dark Spot Corrector, and Verso's Dark Spot Fix.

However, before you start using any of these products, remember that while it's important to exfoliate regularly to slough away the dead skin cells, don't overdo it, as you could end up with irritation.

Credit: Courtesy

To buy: $26; dermstore.com

Credit: Courtesy

To buy: $84; ulta.com

Credit: Courtesy

To buy: $150; dermstore.com

Dr. Love adds that wearing sunscreen daily is a must. "Any dark spot will get darker in the sun," she exclaims. In terms of treatments, she says to look for products that include ingredients that help regulate pigment such as kojic acid, tranexamic acid, retinoic acid, vitamin C, glycolic acid, licorice, and azaleic acid. Ingredients that increase cell turnover such as retinoic, and lactic acid are vital as well when it comes to fading dark spots. The MD swears by the Obagi Clinical line for treating discoloration.

Credit: Courtesy

To buy: $58; sephora.com

Credit: Courtesy

To buy: $90; sephora.com

Credit: Courtesy

To buy: $145; sephora.com

"The key is patience with any over the counter routine," Dr. Love says. "Results usually start after six weeks of continued use."

But if you aren't seeing results after two month of using OTC products, Dr. Wexler recommends heading to the dermatologist for a peel. "In-office peels may use combinations of multiple acids that include salicylic and glycolic acids at higher concentrations, and trichloroacetic acid," she explains. "We may even add liquid retinol for cases of severe hyperpigmentation. Additional treatments like laser therapy or DermaSweeping may also be recommended, but regardless of the method you choose, the after-care process remains the same. Your dermatologist may give you a hydroquinone-infused product to prevent further spots from forming, and, once again, we always recommend layering on the sunscreen or using SPF-infused makeup for extra insurance.

VIDEO: Ask Dr. Pimple Popper

Should People With Deeper Skin Tones Follow a Specific Treatment Plan?

While hyperpigmentation tends to affect people with darker skin tones differently than those with lighter skin, Dr. Love assures that there's no real difference when it comes to treating this condition. "The three-prong treatment strategy — SPF, pigment regulation, exfoliation — is the same for all skin types," she says. "But it usually takes a little counseling to get patients who don't normally develop sunburns to understand that SPF is a necessary treatment for their hyperpigmentation."

How Can You Prevent Hyperpigmentation?

It depends, since there are different ways to prevent each form of discoloration. "For post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, the most important thing is to treat the underlying condition as soon as possible and as aggressively as appropriate," Dr. Love advises. "For melasma and sun-induced pigmentation, sun protection is key."