What Derms Want You To Know About Using Retinol For Dark Spots

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Does retinol help with dark spots? Here's what dermatologists say.
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Retinol may have more research-backed skin-boosting benefits than any other beauty ingredient on the shelves. It fights acne, is an anti-aging superhero, increases cell turnover, improves texture, and boosts collagen production. But does retinol help with dark spots too?

According to dermatologists, treating dark spots is yet another function of the all-revered skin care ingredient. Dark spots — also known as hyperpigmentation — are really common BTW, and can happen for any number of reasons, from sun damage to acne scars. “Dark spots appear after inflammatory conditions that damage skin cells and release pigment into the deeper level of your skin outside of the cells,” says Dr. Corey L. Hartman, MD, founder of Skin Wellness Dermatology in Birmingham, Alabama, who points to sunspots, melasma, and scars from acne, eczema, and seborrheic dermatitis as skin disorders that can leave hyperpigmentation once healed.

The star ingredient’s dark spot-healing benefit is all due to its effect on your natural skin cell turnover process. “Retinols increase cell turnover and make skin cells cycle more efficiently,” says Hartman. They also inhibit the production of tyrosinase, he explains, which is the enzyme responsible for the development of dark spots. In other words, retinol works as a sort of exfoliant that sloughs off dead skin cells while speeding up the production of new ones, resulting in a more even complexion.

Retinol also stimulates collagen production, which is another way it diminishes dark spots. “Collagen helps promote skin cell turnover, which helps peel and fade away dark spots,” says Dr. Stacy Chimento, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in Miami, Florida. When your collagen production is thriving, you’ll get improved skin elasticity, radiance, and a stronger overall complexion, she says. Read on for intel on how to use the ingredient in your skin care routine, plus the expert-backed retinol products to stock up on.

How To Use Retinol For Dark Spots

All skin types and tones can turn to retinol for fighting hyperpigmentation. “Retinols have the same effect on dark spots and discoloration for all skin types,” Hartman tells Bustle. In fact, darker skin tones may notice this benefit more clearly: “Inflammatory conditions affect skin of color more profoundly, and retinols also help to control acne, which is the leading cause of post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation,” he says. One thing to note for darker skin tones, however, is that it could be more effective to add more brightening ingredients into your regimen along with retinol. Hartman recommends tranexamic acid or cysteamine for the job.

If you’re trying retinol for the first time, don’t apply it daily right off the bat. Chimento suggests using it one to two times a week at night to begin with. “See how your skin reacts, then you can bump up to three times a week,” she says. And be sure to use the ingredient in your nighttime regimen: “Sunlight breaks down retinol, which can cause it to be less effective,” she says. When you’re applying your retinol serum or cream, remember that less is more. “Typically, a pea-sized amount of product is enough for the entire face,” says Hartman.

You can also start with a lower concentration of retinol so your skin can get used to the ingredient. “High concentrations of retinol increase the chances for irritation, dryness, and redness,” says Chimento, who recommends looking for products with .25% retinol. That said, if your skin isn’t on the sensitive side, Hartman says a 1% retinol would be “more effective at controlling and managing hyperpigmentation.”

Also important? Be patient. Retinol takes some time to show its effects on your skin — Hartman says it can take four to six weeks on average to see results.

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Retinols That Can Help With Dark Spots

The Drugstore Option

Retinol newb? Chimento says this serum by Neutrogena — which you can get at the drugstore, BTW — is excellent for beginners. “It assists in treating dark spots, and it hydrates and smooths the skin,” she says. Plus, it’s a retinol oil — a glow-inducing way to get your dose of the ingredient.

The Anti-Aging & Dark Spot-Fighting Combo

Hartman’s a fan of cult-fave brand Drunk Elephant’s retinol cream because of its powerhouse trifecta of retinol, peptides, and linoleic acid. “It’s an innovative [formula],” he says, nodding to the three anti-aging MVPs that smooth and even out your skin in one go.

The Skin Brightener

Celebrity facialist Shani Darden launched her potent retinol serum, which works to exfoliate, combat dark spots, and improve your overall skin tone. It’s got lactic acid, an alpha-hydroxy acid that boosts exfoliation alongside the retinol, and apple fruit extract, which gives your complexion a dose of antioxidants for better overall health.

The Skin Repair Hero

Use this transformative retinol cream to get a serious boost in collagen production. Chimento loves this formula as it builds your collagen levels and “diminishes the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and age spots,” she says.

Studies referenced:

Bulengo-Ransby, S. (1993). Topical Tretinoin (Retinoic Acid) Therapy for Hyperpigmented Lesions Caused by Inflammation of the Skin in Black Patients. The New England Journal of Medicine.

Ebrahimi, B. (2014). Topical tranexamic acid as a promising treatment for melasma. Journal of Research in Medical Sciences.

Kafi, R. (2007). Improvement of naturally aged skin with vitamin A (retinol). Arch Dermatol.

Mukherjee, S. (2006). Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clinical Interventions in Aging.

Ortonne, J-P. (2006). Retinoid therapy of pigmentary disorders. Dermatol Ther.

Vashi, N. (2013). Facial hyperpigmentation: causes and treatment. British Journal of Dermatology.

Zasada, M. (2019). Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatments. Advances in Dermatology and Allergology.


Dr. Corey L. Hartman, MD, board-certified dermatologist and founder of Skin Wellness Dermatology in Birmingham, Alabama

Dr. Stacy Chimento, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in Miami, Florida