Hyperpigmentation—the appearance of dark spots on your face or body—can be caused by a plethora of things, including environmental aggressors and your behavior.
Did you think those spots just happened for no reason? Not quite!
What Causes Dark Spots
While no one is born with hyperpigmentation (including freckles), certain people are genetically predisposed. Dark spots appear when your skin pumps up melanin production in response to feeling threatened. Like a warning flag, dark spots are your skin’s way of saying that it feels injured or under attack.
Dark spots don’t have one single cause, so the reason you have them is likely completely different from the person next to you. Here are five top reasons why dark spots show up on your face or body:
1. Not Wearing Sunscreen
Did you know that your tan is technically a broad form of hyperpigmentation? And when skin is assaulted by repeated exposure to UV rays, it can cause brown spots and hyperpigmentation from overproduction of melanin. Since brown spots are created by the sun – think of them as your skin telling you that it’s had too much exposure.
2. Using Skincare Treatments That Are Too Aggressive
If a skincare product has ever made your skin turn red, that’s grounds for possible discoloration later on, no matter what your skin type or tone. The visible aftermath of that irritation is known as Post-inflammatory Hyperpigmentation (PIH). Even certain products made to treat hyperpigmentation can actually cause PIH if it’s too strong for you, or if you apply it more excessively than instructed.
Think of the redness caused by a product as another warning sign of possible hyperpigmentation in the future, and lay off the harsh product.
3. Picking at Scabs and Improper Wound Care
All those who suffer from acne scars, listen up—if you wouldn’t pick at a healing wound, don’t pick your acne. Believe it or not, one of the ways your body responds to injury involves over producing melanin, possibly resulting in a brown patch.
Related: How to Treat Adult Acne
4. Smoking Cigarettes
In case you were looking for another reason to quit cigarettes, they’re ruining your skin. All of the toxic chemicals in cigarettes deplete the antioxidants in your body and produces more free radicals. Those free radicals damage your skin cells, which then replicate more damaged skin cells, so your likelihood of forming dark spots increases exponentially the more you smoke.
Yup, yet another way stress messes with your body and skin. When you’re stressed out, your body can send your hormones out of whack, triggering responses that lead to breakouts and rashes, while leaving you vulnerable to other ailments as your free radical numbers increase. It’s definitely in your best interest—inwards and outwards—to take the time to Zen out once in a while.
Other than always wearing sunscreen, ditching cigarettes and offending skin care products, and refraining from picking at your skin, it’s possible that you may still be plagued with hyperpigmentation beyond your own devices, such as hormone fluctuations.
Now that you know what might be causing your dark spots, here’s how to get rid of them.
How to Treat Dark Spots on Your Face or Body
In general, even tiny dark spots will keep growing bigger—meaning the sooner you tackle the problem, the less intervention will be required. To avoid complications, consider consulting a doctor before buying a dark spot corrector; you don’t want to use skin bleach on a potentially dangerous dark mark, such as melanoma.
Dark Spots Can Require Different Treatments Based on How Dark the Spots Are
The best treatment for any dark spot will depend both on how dark the spots actually are, as well as the depth of your own skin tone.
Home treatments work best for those with very light in skin tone and lighter brown spots. For those with medium to dark spots, chemical peels or laser treatments offer greater success rates.
Which Ingredients to Look for in a Dark Spot Corrector?
The trick to an effective at-home corrector is making sure it includes an ingredient that is known to inhibit the enzyme tyrosinase, which your cells need to produce melanin. Check for these ingredients when shopping for a hyperpigmentation corrector:
Hydroquinone has been the gold standard of treatment for hyperpigmentation for decades. This ingredient bleaches but does not remove the spots. Meaning that with enough UV exposure, they could reappear.
Soy works by inhibiting the transfer of melanosomes (small “packages” of melanin) into the top layer of the skin, which causes skin darkening and is available in many combination products.
Niacinamide is a form of vitamin B3 that acts like soy by inhibiting the transfer of melanosomes into the skin’s upper layer. It has the additional potential to prevent future dark spots by limiting how much pigments can come to the surface of the skin.
Ellagic Acid is a natural substance derived from strawberries, cherries, and pomegranates. It works as an antioxidant and also inhibits an enzyme needed for melanin production.
Lignin Peroxidase comes from a fungus and can break down melanin in the skin. It is currently available in an over-the-counter product, though studies on its effectiveness have not yet been completed.
Vitamin C is a beauty ingredient superstar for all-around skin brightening. It promotes brightening and also has antioxidants, further protecting your skin from damage caused by free radicals.
The holy grail of dark spot correctors, Retin-A is often recommended because, in addition to exfoliating away minor discolorations, the derm-approved ingredient also helps to prevent future dark spots through a photoprotective antioxidant. But to get your hands on a tube, a prescription is needed.
Also marked as effective, mild daily facial peels with glycolic acid provoke a wound-healing response that expels dark pigment. Just remember that to be effective, these treatments have to be used consistently in your regimen. Like exercise, you won’t see long-term results if you only treat dark spots every so often.
Preferred Over-the-Counter Treatments for Dark Spots
With potent natural extracts, over-the-counter skin remedies can help diminish brown spots. Here are a few all-star skin lighteners:
Physicians Formula Dark Spot Corrector & Skin Brightener is a fragrance- and paraben-free concentrated serum that relies on soy isoflavones and other plant-based compounds to lighten spots. ($19, walmart.com)
Garnier Skin Renew Clinical Dark Spot Corrector utilizes the natural fading properties of vitamin C to decrease the enzyme production that triggers melanin production while breaking up pigment clusters. ($17, drugstore.com)
Clarins Vital Light Serum leverages the power of hexylresorcinol, a molecule that helps block tyrosinase and peroxidase, two enzymes responsible for telling your cells to produce darker-toned melanin pigment. ($85, clarins.com)
Specific Beauty Skin Brightening Serum contains a complex of licorice and the B-vitamin compound niacinamide (both of which help inhibit the production of melanin) and antioxidants. ($25, specificbeauty.com)
Jurlique Purely White Skin Brightening Cleanser is a combo cleanser-exfoliator free of potentially irritating ingredients. It reduces the appearance of discoloration with the help of Kakadu plum extract, high in vitamin C. ($23, sephora.com)
Don’t Forget to Exfoliate
For the mildest cases of discoloration, exfoliating can be a quick fix. Additionally, using scrubs to manually remove dead skin cells or creams with acids (like the alpha-hydroxy acid found in fruit extracts) on affected areas can help fade spots and prepare the skin for deeper penetration of active ingredients.
Results of At-Home Dark Spot Creams May Vary
It’s estimated that topical treatments can eradicate about 50 percent of dark marks. But to see results, it’s important to be patient—and realistic. With daily use, it takes at least 45 days just to get rid of pigment residing in the epidermis (skin's top layer), and melanin can extend into the deeper levels, which is much harder to treat.
If over-the-counter creams aren't helping, it may be time to visit a dermatologist for a prescription treatment. With prescription-strength topical creams, most patients experience the first signs of skin lightening in a few days and the bulk of the effects in about six weeks. After that, you can switch back to an over-the-counter product for maintenance.
Watch Out for “Miracle” Dark Spot Creams?
The anti-aging industry is rife with overblown promises that may confuse shoppers who are new to searching for a particular fix. To get a better understanding of which products to avoid, read How to Never Fall for Another Anti-Aging Scam Again.
If you find yourself in a pigment predicament and don’t know which product to turn to, it’s best to either consult your doctor for a recommendation or stick to known brands.
An Ounce of Prevention Is Worth a Pound of Cure
It goes without saying that the most effective method for treating hyperpigmentation is to stop it from happening in the first place. Go for a broad-spectrum sunscreen, which shields against UVA rays (that lead to cancer) and UVB rays linked to wrinkling, aging, cancer, and discoloration. Don’t forget to use it on exposed areas every day to keep cumulative damage at bay!
Want to pick the best protection for your skin? Your Guide to Avoiding Sunburn During Summer Vacation offers important tips for choosing the best sunscreen for both daily application and trips abroad.