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How to Treat Hyperpigmentation, Dark Spots & Uneven Skin Tone

Hyperpigmentation/Melasma under Eye

Hyperpigmentation, or darkened patches of skin, goes along with discoloration and uneven skin tone as nagging skin conditions that may make you grab for high coverage makeup and foundations. Luckily, there are ways to treat hyperpigmentation, dark spots and uneven skin tone by using skincare products and treatments.

I’ve encountered issues with hyperpigmentation as I’ve aged and through much research, have discovered that there are many products to treat it, from budget to high-end. If your hyperpigmentation is severe and products aren’t enough, there are additional treatment options that can be provided by a dermatologist.

Before reviewing treatment options, let’s take a look at what hyperpigmentation is and how to prevent it from occurring in the first place.

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What is Hyperpigmentation?

Hyperpigmentation is the darkening of the skin caused by melanin, or skin pigment. Melanin is produced by cells called melanocytes. Within a melanocyte cell, there are sacs of melanosomes that contain melanin.

Melanin is usually brown or black in color to absorb UV light. It absorbs light to protect skin cells from damage caused by UV radiation. Skin gets its color when melanosomes leave the melanocytes and move to the outer layer of the skin (epidermis).

The enzyme tyrosinase determines how much melanin is produced by melanocytes through the oxidation of tyrosine. Keep this in mind when reading about treatment options, as treatments usually target tyrosinase or melanin transfer.

What Causes Hyperpigmentation?

An excess of melanin production causes hyperpigmentation. Some factors that contribute to hyperpigmentation are sun exposure, skin injuries, inflammation, and even changes in hormones.

Hyperpigmentation can often result from inflammation caused by acne. (If it weren’t enough to deal with acne alone.) Luckily, there are products that treat hyperpigmentation and acne at the same time.

Melasma is another pigmentation disorder. It presents as blotchy patches of darkened skin that usually occur on the cheeks, nose, forehead, and chin, as well as other areas of the body that gets sun exposure. It often appears during pregnancy due to hormonal changes. Melasma can also be caused by oral contraceptive use.

How to Prevent Hyperpigmentation

For hyperpigmentation that is brought on by the sun, the best and most obvious way to prevent it is to avoid the sun. You should wear sunscreen of at least SPF 30 every day and reapply when sweating or in water. This will also help existing hyperpigmentation from worsening.

If you have hyperpigmentation brought on from acne scars, you should try to avoid picking at scabs, pimples and spots from acne which will make inflammation worse.

You can also prevent hyperpigmentation by using skincare products that will protect from sun damage such as products containing vitamin C and niacinamide.

Related: The Best Mineral Sunscreens for Safe Sun Protection

Hyperpigmentation, Dark Spots and Uneven Skin Tone Treatment Options

Hyperpigmentation Skincare Products in front of Sweet Pea the CatSweet Pea insisted on being a part of the photo shoot!

There are many products that can help to reduce hyperpigmentation, dark spots and uneven skin tone, both over the counter and prescription:

Hydroquinone

Hydroquinone has been used for several years to treat hyperpigmentation and dark spots and even freckles by limiting excess melanin production in the skin by melanocytes.

Concentrations up to 2% hydroquinone can be purchased over the counter. Higher amounts are available by prescription at 4% concentrations. Consistency is the key, as this ingredient will help fade hyperpigmentation with continued daily use for a few months. Please keep in mind that hydroquinone is not meant to be used long-term.

Hydroquinone will lose its effectiveness when exposed to air so it is important that you use hydroquinone in a package that minimizes its exposure to air.

An effective over-the-counter treatment that contains 2% hydroquinone plus glycolic acid and vitamin C to aid in diminishing the appearance of hyperpigmentation is Murad Rapid Age Spot and Pigment Lightening Serum.

Glycolic Acid

The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution

Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) can also help hyperpigmentation. Glycolic acid has the smallest molecular weight of AHAs which means that it can penetrate deeply into your skin cells. Glycolic acid exfoliates these darkened skin cells in addition to helping to reduce acne and revealing brighter smoother skin.

Some low priced but effective glycolic acid treatments are available from The Inkey List and The Ordinary. Unfortunately, for those with sensitive skin, glycolic acid can also be irritating.

Lactic acid is slightly gentler than glycolic acid and can also help with not only hyperpigmentation but also radiance, wrinkles, and dullness. An all-time favorite lactic acid treatment that I talk about all the time is Sunday Riley Good Genes All-in-One Lactic Acid Treatment.

Related: Sunday Riley Good Genes Drugstore Alternatives from The Ordinary and The Inkey List

Vitamin C

Pixi Vitamin C Tonic

Vitamin C is a potent antioxidant that is another treatment that can help with hyperpigmentation and discoloration. It’s one of my favorites because it can not only treat these dark spots but also helps prevent melanin from forming new dark spots. Plus its antioxidant activity supports the production of collagen and elastin, leading to firmer, younger-looking skin.

While vitamin C is a potent anti-ager, don’t forget that topical vitamin C neutralizes free-radicals from UV rays that damage skin cells and can treat photodamage in the skin.

Vitamin C skincare treatments are plentiful, but if you want to go with a proven and studied vitamin C product, try the gold standard in vitamin C serums, SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic Serum.

Otherwise, you can save yourself quite a few dollars and pick up a more affordable drugstore vitamin C. Timeless Skin Care 20% Vitamin C Ferulic Acid Vitamin E Serum contains ingredients very similar to Skinceuticals at a fraction of the price! You can also check out this post on affordable drugstore vitamin C treatments for more options.

I recently purchased Pixi Vitamin-C Tonic with brightening vitamin C and exfoliating willow bark and probiotics. The fresh citrus scent from orange, lemon and grapefruit extracts is so uplifting. I use it after cleansing and toning.

Related: Drugstore Skincare Dupes for Best Selling Luxury Skincare Products, Tula Skincare Review

Retinoids

Neutrogena Rapid Tone Repair Night Moisturizer

Retinoids are vitamin A derivatives that can penetrate deep into the skin and interfere with melanin production. They also increase cell turnover to reveal fresh more even-toned skin.

Prescription retinoids, such as Tretinoin, are the strongest and will work more quickly to reduce hyperpigmentation. Over the counter retinoids such as retinol can also be used, although they will be less potent.

I love how Neutrogena Repair Tone Repair Moisturizer Night contains Accelerated Retinol SA (sustained action) plus vitamin C to help reduce the appearance of dark spots, discoloration, and blotchiness over time. It also contains hyaluronic acid for skin plumping and a Glucose Complex that boosts the effectiveness of Retinol SA.

Related: A Guide to Drugstore Retinol

Alpha Arbutin

The Inkey List and The Ordinary Alpha Arbutin Serums

Arbutin is a skincare ingredient that I hadn’t heard of until recently, but it is a very promising treatment for hyperpigmentation and dark spots. Arbutin originates in plant species such as bearberry, blueberry, and cranberry.

Arbutin blocks tyrosinase, the enzyme involved in melanin production. Arbutin is well suited for those with sensitive skin since its active element is released slowly.

There are two kinds of arbutin: alpha arbutin and beta arbutin. Alpha arbutin is considered to be more effective (and expensive) than beta arbutin. Alpha arbutin is an ingredient that is popping up in skincare products lately. I’ve been testing The Ordinary Alpha Arbutin 2% + HA and The Inkey List Alpha Arbutin.

The Ordinary Alpha Arbutin 2% + HA contains not only alpha arbutin at 2% concentration but also hydrolyzed sodium hyaluronate to deliver moisture deep into the skin.

The Inkey List Alpha Arbutin contains alpha arbutin at 2% plus hyaluronic acid, squalane at .5%, glycerin, and phospholipids, all super moisturizing to the skin. Even though it’s a small concentration (the last ingredient), it also contains tetrapeptide-30 known to fade hyperpigmentation.

Related: The Best The Inkey List Products for Hyperpigmentation and Dark Spots

Azelaic Acid

The Ordinary Azelaic Acid Suspension 10%

You may be surprised to learn that yeast that lives on normal skin produces azelaic acid. Azelaic acid offers several benefits for the skin, as it not only brightens the skin but also evens out skin texture, has antioxidant and antimicrobial qualities, and reduces the appearances of blemishes.

Azelaic acid also inhibits the enzyme tyrosinase and is often used to treat hyperpigmentation. It is particularly helpful in the treatment of post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.

The Ordinary Azelaic Acid Suspension 10% is formulated with a very high concentration of azelaic acid at 10%. The formula is that of a lightweight cream-gel and has a pH of 4.00 – 5.00.

The Ordinary Azelaic Acid Suspension 10% has a silky smooth formula. You can almost feel the silicone as it easily glides across the skin, so please take note if you prefer your skincare without silicones. Its smooth texture works well to prime your skin for makeup application. If you have pigmentation issues and oily and acne-prone skin, this gel-cream may help with acne scars as well.

Tranexamic Acid

The Inkey List Tranexamic Acid Night Hyperpigmentation Treatment

Tranexamic acid, a derivative of the amino acid lysine, is a skincare ingredient that works to reduce the appearance of dark spots, melasma, post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, and acne scars. Ideal for discoloration, if your complexion is uneven, tranexamic acid may be worth a try.

The Inkey List Tranexamic Acid Night Hyperpigmentation Treatment is an overnight treatment that brightens the skin by targeting hyperpigmentation, dark spots, and uneven skin tone. It contains 2% tranexamic acid, plus 2% acai berry extract to support even skin tone. Even better, it also contains vitamin C for additional brightening. The pH level of this treatment is 6.5 – 7.0. Please note that although it is not as irritating as some other skincare acids, tranexamic acid may irritate those with sensitive skin.

This product takes the place of a moisturizer in your nighttime skincare routine. Apply any serums prior to this treatment. I like to combine this treatment with The Inkey List Alpha Arbutin Serum for a double dose of hyperpigmentation fighting ingredients.

TIP: As with most hyperpigmentation treatments, patience is key. The Inkey List notes on the inside of the package that you should continue to use this treatment even if results are not immediately noticeable. It may take up to six weeks to start seeing results.

Kojic Acid

PCA Skin Pigment Bar Cleanser

Kojic Acid is another acid that inhibits the enzyme tyrosinase which is involved in melanin production. This acid tends to work best when combined with other hyperpigmentation treatments. Less dark spots being produced plus the break down of current dark spots through exfoliation creates a smoother complexion and skin tone.

Niacinamide does not inhibit the production of melanin but inhibits its transfer. So combined with tyrosinase inhibiting products like kojic acid, niacinamide will attack hyperpigmentation through a different mechanism.

PCA Skin Pigment Bar is a solid skin cleanser bar. It contains not only Kojic Acid but also Azelaic Acid and niacinamide to treat hyperpigmentation from multiple angles. I purchased it for the treatment of discolored scars. It appears to have helped fade them over time with daily use.

Dermatological Treatments for Hyperpigmentation

If over the counter or prescription products are not strong enough for your hyperpigmentation and dark spots, it may be worth considering a visit to your dermatologist to discuss treatment options.

  • Professional grade chemical peels exfoliate the upper layers of the skin and can produce quicker more dramatic results than their equivalent over the counter versions.
  • Laser therapy such as IPL (intense pulsed light), uses light to target and break up pigmentation.
  • Microdermabrasion uses physical particles to slough away dead skin and works best for milder cases of hyperpigmentation.
  • Microneedling uses a stainless steel roller injected with tiny needles causing micro-injuries to the skin. This coerces the skin is into building collagen. Microneedling combined with hyperpigmentation treatment products such as vitamin C is especially helpful as a one-two-punch to treat dark spots.

Final Thoughts on Treating Hyperpigmentation, Dark Spots and Uneven Skin Tone

As I age, see new dark spots and discoloration pop up and take residence on my face all too often. But I am using a combination of skincare ingredients above like vitamin C, retinoids, alpha-arbutin and niacinamide that continually treat, breakdown, and even prevent hyperpigmentation. The secret is to stay consistent with your skincare routine.

Remember, to reduce hyperpigmentation in the first place, it is important to wear sun protection every day to guard against UVA and UVB rays.

Have you used products or undergone procedures to treat hyperpigmentation? Let me know in the comments. I’d love to know what worked for you!

Thanks for reading, and until next time…

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How to Treat Hyperpigmentation, Dark Spots & Uneven Skin Tone

LaCadette

Friday 30th of April 2021

Wow! This is a fantastic article. Thank you so much for this detailed piece on how to treat hyperpigmentation, the help of your research has really helped me to take a different approach to treating my hyperpigmentation.

Sarah

Friday 30th of April 2021

Thank you! I'm so glad you found it helpful!!

Gicela

Wednesday 23rd of September 2020

Hello, thank you so much for writing about this products. I'm a bit confuse on how to use the list of products above. I'm i supposed to use only one of the products or use themes a combo? What would you recommend to use as a beginner that is looking into getting dark spot and uneven skin color.

Thank you in advance 😊

Sarah

Thursday 24th of September 2020

Hello! For a beginner, I would suggest starting with one or two products to treat hyperpigmentation to see how your skin reacts. A vitamin C serum or a retinoid is a great place to start. (Please note that some vitamin C and retinoid products can be harsh on sensitive skin.) Vitamin C will help reduce current hyperpigmentation and will also prevent dark spots from forming and a retinoid will interfere with melanin production and help even skin tone. Plus both provide anti-aging benefits such as brightening the skin and a reduction in the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. I like to use vitamin C products in the morning and retinoids in the evening.

Fatema

Friday 18th of September 2020

Nice writing way it's really helpful

Sarah

Saturday 19th of September 2020

Thanks so much! I appreciate the feedback!