If you were to scroll through the camera roll on my phone, you'd notice two things. First, an embarrassing number of shots of my dog, Bernie, and second, a steep decline in selfies between 2014 and 2015. It's not that I was limiting my screen time during that period or even that I'd begun to get a grip on my vanity. (That's an ongoing journey!) The truth is that I experienced some crazy cystic acne that left my face covered in dark spots that I couldn't bear to look at. I ran from cameras and packed on so much concealer every time I left the house that it felt like I was wearing a mask. It was a rough time.
For anyone who's struggled with a skin concern that shows up so prominently on your face, you know how tempting it can be to put anything and everything on those trouble spots in an effort to nip the problem quickly. After my breakouts subsided, I would regularly use chemical exfoliators, vitamin C serum, and retinol and was obsessive about applying SPF and shielding my face from the sun in order to eliminate the dark spots that had taken up residence on my face. But the truth is that you've got to be careful with your skin because the harsh ingredients we have access to now can do more harm than good if not used properly.
That's why I consulted Vanessa Lee, the founder of one of L.A.'s top skincare studios, The Things We Do, to get her thoughts on the best dark spot treatments to even out the skin without causing even more damage. Get her expert intel ahead and place your orders for the products that will erase your dark spots for good.
"The leading cause [of dark spots] is definitely UV exposure," says Lee. "Even though we are savvier with sunscreen use now in comparison to 15 years ago, there is still a general misconception that, if you are walking around and runnings errands, your sun exposure isn't as bad as laying out. UV rays are damaging to your skin whether you are laying out or walking around." She recommends physical sunscreens and touts this one from Unsun as one of her favorites.
Lee is also a fan of Suntegrity, another tinted option that comes in a variety of shades for all skin tones. The formula includes vitamins C and E in addition to peptides for full-spectrum protection and nourishment.
I got serious about wearing sunscreen every day at the height of my dark spot dilemma. That was before sunscreen became the mainstream beauty behemoth it is now, so finding options that didn't leave a white cast was a big-time struggle. I've been a huge fan of Guards Up from Versed ever since it launched earlier this year. It's a velvety gel-cream that protects the skin with non-nano zinc oxide and looks completely sheer, even on brown skin. It's not at all oily and leaves my face soft and primed for makeup.
Next on Lee's list of dark spot–busting ingredients is kojic acid. "It helps stop the production of tyrosinase, which is great because that is an enzyme that is used in melanosome formation and can lead to hyperpigmentation," she explains. This top-rated serum by SkinCeuticals (the brand known for a cult-favorite vitamin C that you've likely heard of and that we will discuss momentarily) combines it with tranexamic acid and niacinamide to target dark marks and even them out without irritation.
Kojic acid is also the hero ingredients of this IS Clinical favorite that is often categorized as a vitamin C serum. While it does contain L-ascorbic acid, it also has a potent mix of other ingredients, including kojic acid, to heal and protect the skin.
Topicals isn't one of the coolest new brands on the block just because of its cool packaging. It's beloved because of its effective products, including this one formulated with tranexamic acid, azelaic acid, niacinamide, and, you guessed it, kojic acid to balance the skin tone and generally brighten the skin.
Vitamin C is among the most commonly cited ingredients of late for brightening the skin and evening out its tone. According to Lee, it does so by speeding up cell renewal and inhibiting tyrosinase that would otherwise be converted to dark spot–causing melanin. Of all the vitamin C serums on the market, this one from SkinCeuticals is, by far, the most famous.
Lee says arbutin is another tyrosinase inhibitor that works exceptionally well for keeping the enzyme under control, thus preventing hyperpigmentation. It's also a naturally occurring ingredient that's extracted from plants like bearberry. This serum from The Ordinary has a 2% concentration combined with ultra-hydrating hyaluronic acid.
"Licorice is a gentler ingredient that not only helps prevent brown spot formation but helps break up existing sunspots," Lee explains. In fact, she included it in a formulation in her own line, which shares a name with her beloved skincare studio.
"I was once prescribed a very strong Retin-A by a dermatologist that was admittedly not used to working with darker skin types, and even though I was compliant with use, I ended up with post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH). Two years later, I developed a skincare product called Pigment Remedy by The Things We Do, which is a gentle serum with brightening ingredients that include glycolic acid, licorice, kojic acid, and paired them with soothing ingredients to ease the delivery of the powerful ingredients. This serum was made with POC in mind, who may traditionally have a more difficult time finding safer formulations for their skin," she says.
As mentioned above, Lee is all too familiar with skin injuries leading to PIH. "The irritation and inflammation caused by harsh product use, breakouts, and adverse events from lasers and chemical peels lead to brown spots and patches. Skin that is medium to dark is much more susceptible to this type of hyperpigmentation," she explains. This licorice-forward serum is a gentle yet super-effective option for those with sensitive skin types.
Lee calls out glycolic acid as another ingredient to prioritize. "It helps speed up the cell renewal process and brightens the skin," she says. This Glycolic Acid Treatment from Sunday Riley is a perfect overnight treatment that deeply exfoliates the skin to tackle a number of issues, including hyperpigmentation and congestion, and that contains potassium lactate to boost hydration.
Of all the products I used religiously to lighten up my most stubborn dark spots, I found this serum to be one of the most effective. It does contain hydroquinone, which is a controversial ingredient, but it works so well that I was able to look past that. I was careful to only use this one as a spot treatment to ensure that the rest of my skin wasn't being lightened unnecessarily. I even would only buy the small bottle to force myself to be super conscious of my usage.
"Lighter skin types may be able to tolerate strong Retin-A effects and dodge PIH, but it usually isn't worth the risk for darker skin types with sensitive skin," Lee explains. "Instead, a gentle retinol or low-percentage glycolic acid mixed with vitamin E and hyaluronic acid can be beneficial in reducing hyperpigmentation while minimizing irritation risks." While this spot treatment is potent (it deploys a mix of glycolic acid and hydroquinone to banish dark spots fast), it also has vitamin E and rosehip oil to help replenish and moisturize the skin.
Aside from being the ingredient derms and skin experts call out the most as the key to refining the look of fine lines and wrinkles, making pores appear smaller, and brightening the skin, "Retinol promotes exfoliation and hinders melanosome distribution," says Lee.
Urban Skin Rx is known for its super-effective formulas that keep darker skin tones front of mind while helping people will all skin tones achieve their skincare goals. While it uses a super-potent blend of retinol and acids, this formula also incorporates anti-inflammatory niacinamide. Lee advises using products that do this. "I love when these ingredients are mixed with nourishing, anti-inflammatory ingredients to ensure a softer delivery of the product to the skin to avoid PIH," she says.
If you're ready to really go for it in the retinoid department, this is a tube you should reach for. It's an over-the-counter option but is stronger than any other retinol you'll find that's not prescribed by a derm.