By Elise Tabin
Blame hot summer days spent perfecting your tan poolside, inflammation, and out-of-control hormones as the cause for hyperpigmentation, a.k.a stubborn discoloration on the skin that, despite your best efforts, doesn’t want to lighten up.
Not all hyperpigmentation is equal.
It varies from superficial discoloration like freckles and mild sunspots to more stubborn age spots, acne scars (post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation), and melasma, which is perhaps the most challenging of them all to erase. Dr. Howard Sobel, a board-certified cosmetic dermatologist surgeon at Lenox Hill Hospital and the founder of SobelSkinRx, says hyperpigmentation can happen at any time but is most severe in the summer when UV rays are their strongest,” he shares.
Specific triggers, namely sun exposure, hormones, and inflammation, signal melanocytes, the cells that produce pigment, to kick into overdrive. Dr. Susan Van Dyke, a board-certified dermatologist in Paradise Valley, AZ, explains that hyperpigmentation results from an increase of the pigment called melanin, which is produced in the skin and deposited into skin cells (keratinocytes). “The life of a keratinocyte starts at the base of the epidermis as a basal cell. Then, over a few weeks, the cell flattens out and is pushed towards the surface as new cells are created and slough off,” she says. If that cell has excess pigment, then the pigment is shed with the cell. So while it may seem like you wake up to discolored skin overnight, that’s not necessarily always the case, although it can occur relatively quickly. After an inflammatory insult, hyperpigmentation can appear in days, and after sun exposure, it can occur within hours, says Dr. Corey L. Hartman, a board-certified dermatologist in Birmingham, AL.
“Yet, without treatment, hyperpigmentation can take as long as nine to 12 months to resolve.”
Treating hyperpigmentation requires patience and consistency—it’s not a quick-fix skin issue. And the darker the natural tone of the skin, the harder it is to treat since there’s inherently more pigment. Plus, the source of the pigment influences how to treat it best. For example, when it comes to melasma, Dr. Hartman says therapies include topical lightening agents like cysteamine, tranexamic and azelaic acids, lasers like Picosure and Fraxel, chemical peels, and microneedling. Once the discoloration lightens, it needs to stay that way. “Sun protection and avoidance are essential because some topical products or professional treatments can make the skin sensitive to sun damage and worsen discoloration,” says Los Angeles aesthetician Natalie Aguilar.
An arsenal of effective products is critical. These skin brighteners pack a powerful punch for brighter, clearer, more even skin.
Pigment-reducing ingredient: vitamin C
Vitamin C is one of those ingredients that seems to do just about everything: it brightens skin, stimulates collagen, protects against free radical damage, promotes cell turnover, and erases the signs of sun-induced damage. This supercharged formula offers up 35% vitamin C in three different forms, plus it quickly absorbs into the skin to reverse the appearance of dark spots while preventing new ones from forming, too.
Pigment-reducing ingredient: Retinol
Dermatologists love retinol for many reasons, one being that it increases the rate at which skin cells naturally exfoliate—the faster that dead skin holding pigment sheds, the less noticeable the discoloration is on the surface. This microencapsulated formula works wonders to improve skin tone while slowly releasing 1.0% retinol so there’s no redness, irritation, or dryness. Plus, it includes peptides, niacinamide, and sodium hyaluronate for youthful-looking skin all around.
Pigment-reducing ingredients: Salicylic and phytic acids
Gentle exfoliation is part of the formula for ridding the skin of unwanted discoloration, but it’s important not to irritate or inflame the skin. That’s why we’re partial to this cult-classic water-to-polish formula which activates with just a bit of water. With a blend of acids to help even out the skin tone, it soothes on contact thanks to allantoin and colloidal oatmeal for a total skin refresh.
Pigment-reducing ingredients: Glycolic, lactic, and citric acids and tranexamic acid
Pigment doesn’t discriminate, and all body parts are prone to developing it. These off-the-face pads target discoloration with a blend of skin brightening acids (including tranexamic acid) plus niacinamide. “Topical tranexamic acid has shown good efficacy and rivals hydroquinone without the need to take breaks from treatment,” Dr. Van Dyke says. “It reduces the amount of melanin transferred into the keratinocytes from the melanocytes, which means that the pigment is not concentrated in skin cells.”
In addition, this version is super easy to use—swipe a pad across the discolored area and massage it in while the formula does its magic.
Pigment-reducing ingredient: Kojic acid
A long-standing skin brightener, kojic acid is derived from mushrooms and illuminates the skin while reducing dark spots. As Dr. Sobel explains, bleaching creams that contain kojic acid help block the enzymes that increase melanin production, causing melasma or hyperpigmentation. This supercharged version, which also counts tranexamic acid and vitamin B3 as part of the brown spot-busting formula, works perfectly alongside in-office, doctor-administered treatments like laser treatments and chemical peels.
Pigment-reducing ingredients: Azelaic and kojic acids
Sun damage can surface on the skin as molted brown spots (not cute) that mar your complexion. However, this gel-serum works to safely fade away discoloration from the surface. It counts a plethora of proven discoloration busters in the formula, like azelaic, kojic, and tranexamic acids, which inhibit melanin production; melatonin for stopping the communication patterns between the melanocytes and keratinocytes; and licorice root to break down the excess pigment in the skin naturally.
You can even use this melasma must-have to spot treat more stubborn spots.
Pigment-reducing ingredient: Alpha-arbutin
We love this vegan serum because it harnesses the power of alpha-arbutin, a plant-derived antioxidant sometimes called ‘the natural hydroquinone,’ to break up excess pigment in the skin and eradicate on-the-surface discoloration. It also features hyaluronic acid for a plumping effect and vitamin E for anti-aging skin benefits.
Pigment-reducing ingredient: Niacinamide
Unlike the other products in the bunch, this unique skin-brightening system treats dark spots while simultaneously evening out the skin. The at-home device may sound more like weird science, it harnesses a personalized serum printer (bear with us here) to deliver microscopic droplets of a 5-percent niacinamide-based spot-fading formula with mineral pigments to even out the skin. As the device scans the skin via safe blue light technology, it hones in on areas where hyperpigmentation is evident to correct it on contact and prevent new bouts of hyperpigmentation from forming. There’s zero downtime and no laser technology either—simply innovative skincare in a precision-based delivery system.
Pigment-reducing ingredient: Cysteamine
Available through a dispensing physician, the key ingredient in this power-packed discoloration eraser is the biological antioxidant-rich compound cysteamine—Cyspera is the only topical on the market to contain it. This hydroquinone-free alternative works well for sensitive skin, which is one reason why many dermatologists, including Dr. Hartman, recommend it for melasma and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.
“It is a great non-hydroquinone alternative that works as well as hydroquinone to lighten dark spots and provide a more even complexion—it’s a game-changer for discoloration,” he says. Unlike other hyperpigmentation products available via a prescription, this active ingredient is safe to use long-term and should be used daily for 16 weeks to lighten up lingering discoloration.
Pigment-reducing ingredients: Tranexamic acid, bakuchiol, and niacinamide
There needs to be a mix of exfoliation (thanks to bakuchiol, here) and pigment reducers to erase unwanted discoloration. This potent serum packs a serious dose of hyperpigmentation inhibitors and exfoliating agents to lighten brown and gray spots and patches. Plus, it impedes new hyperpigmentation from forming to restore the skin’s natural tone.