Like an uncomfortable memory, discoloration can often linger on skin long after the original trigger has come and gone. Whether it manifests as a smattering of freckles, blotchy melasma, or post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, such dark spots are often exacerbated by sunlight, which can both spur the formation of new discoloration and deepen what already exists. This is where the best dark spot correctors can help.
First, there are age spots, which result from overexposure to UV rays—think of them as visible signs of cumulative sun damage. For that reason, you’ll often see them on the face, neck, chest, forearms, and hands, which are most often exposed to sunlight. Meanwhile, post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, or PIH, can occur in response to marks triggered by an injury, be it a skinned knee or a blemish.
Finally, melasma can be the most vexing of the three. “Melasma is a type of hyperpigmentation or darker discoloration that can happen due to hormonal influences or chronic sun exposure,” says Manhattan-based dermatologist Ryan Turner, MD.
People of color are disproportionately vulnerable to hyperpigmentation simply on the basis of having more melanin, or pigment, in their skin. “We all have the same number of melanocytes, but darker skin types have more melanosomes—and therefore more melanin that can leak whenever there’s trauma,” says Michelle Henry, MD, a dermatologist in New York City. (Melanocytes are the cells that produce melanin, whereas melanosomes are the small organelles that store said melanin.)
While many dark spots do eventually fade on their own, “it could take weeks to months to clear—and some types of hyperpigmentation can be semi-permanent, requiring in-office treatment,” says Turner. But an appointment isn’t the only way forward. Intervention with topical ingredients can often hasten the repair process and even inhibit the overdevelopment of pigment before it starts, ultimately minimizing future dark spots.
Vitamin C is the best known among these. “It works by blocking an enzyme called tyrosinase, which is necessary for the production of melanin,” says Turner. So do arbutin, kojic acid, licorice extract, and azelaic acid, which are commonly found in dark spot correctors. Newer to the scene is tranexamic acid, which has been used in the medical field and recently found new life as a skin-care ingredient; it works by impeding a separate interaction between skin cells and melanocytes, thereby mitigating pigment production. The science is promising: Research shows it to be comparable to hydroquinone, which was once the gold standard to treat hyperpigmentation but has fallen out of favor due to safety concerns.
Finally, niacinamide can also even skin tone. “It inhibits the transfer of melanin to the skin cells—so it is a slightly different mechanism, which is why there’s good synergy between niacinamide and other ingredients,” says Henry. “They’re blocking multiple pathways.”
Targeting those multiple pathways is essential for treating all forms of hyperpigmentation, but melasma in particular, which is notoriously “persnickety,” as Henry puts it. Since it tends to be a chronic issue, the treatment is “usually a combination of tyrosinase inhibitors and some sort of exfoliating product, so we can get deeper penetration,” she explains.
That tandem strategy is often employed by many dark spot correctors, which bottle up complementary ingredients. Don’t forget, too, that sunscreen is also nonnegotiable; as UV exposure is a primary instigator of hyperpigmentation, going without proper protection will only undo any efforts. With a good SPF and a well-chosen dark spot treatment, you’ll be on your way to clearer, more even skin.