That Great Glow is a column from Bustle that focuses on skin and hair care tips for women of color. Each month, Fashion & Beauty Features Editor Kayla Greaves will help readers solve their biggest beauty woes by sharing her own experiences, listing her favorite products, and talking with experts. In this installment, Kayla discusses how she deals with hyperpigmentation as a woman of color who refuses to stop popping her zits.
Hyperpigmentation has been an issue for me for as long as I've experienced breakouts — and I know the same is true for many others. In fact, a few months ago, when I posed the question, "What is your biggest skin concern?" to PoC on my Instagram page, an overwhelming amount responded by saying, "Getting rid of dark spots."
Although people of all races may experience visible scarring any time the skin undergoes trauma, those of color are more likely are to deal with darker, more pronounced marks — a result of the higher levels of melanin found in our skin. "In darker skin, the melanocytes are more active," Dr. Dina Strachan of Aglow Dermatology explains to me. "After any irritation, they turn on and produce significantly more pigment." On the flip side, "In lighter skin tones, melanocytes are not as effective at making pigment, so there is less brown and more redness," the dermatologist adds.
The brown discoloration on my face was at its worst when I was a teenager. I dealt with regular breakouts, and had a ball squeezing each whitehead as it popped up. As an adult, my skin has certainly calmed down when it comes to acne, but my undying love for pimple-popping (don't judge me) remains. Yes, I'm completely aware of the consequences, and believe me, the scar it leaves on my skin has never failed to leave me feeling extremely self-conscious. Sometimes, it's been so bad that I have avoided photos, or edited the ones I ended up taking.
Although there's no medical reason to get rid of hyperpigmentation, many prefer for their skin to be one uniform color, myself included. Since I likely won't be kicking my pimple-popping habit to the curb any time soon (it's too satisfying), I had to find a skin care routine that would minimize the amount of hyperpigmentation I dealt with. Over the past year, I've mastered it, and quite honestly, my skin has never looked better.
The first step in treating my dark spots is trying to avoid trauma to the skin all together. Knowing that the root cause of my discoloration are blemishes, I now always wash my face with Boscia's Clear Complexion Cleanser two times a day, and it has been a game-changer. According to Dr. Fran Cook-Bolden, a dermatologist at Mount Sinai in New York City, "almost everyone" should be washing their face twice daily, unless your skin is quite dry. In that case, she recommends potentially limiting cleansing to once a day.
In the morning, I simply wash my face using my hands, but at night, I squeeze one pump of the gel onto my LUNA mini 2 from Foreo, which helps to gently exfoliate, without irritation, and gives me a deeper cleanse. "In general these types of devices are well tolerated, so they can be used in people with acne prone skin," Dr. Heather Woolery-Lloyd, a Miami-based dermatologist who specializes in skin of color, shares with me. However, it's important to remember that "these devices do not treat acne. They just assist with cleansing," she adds.
Since I've started using this cleanser — formulated with well-known acne fighter salicylic acid, derived from willow tree bark — I've noticed that I've had significantly fewer white and blackheads, which in turn has helped me to maintain overall clearer skin.
Aside from the occasional breakout, whenever I've dealt with eczema flare ups on my face from time-to-time, which can be further irritated by salicylic acid, I've long turned to CeraVe's Foaming Facial Cleanser or Cetaphil's Gentle Foaming Cleanser. Each of these products leave my face feeling clean, without drying it out, or doing any further damage. "Products like [these are] ideal, well-tolerated, and liked by most skin types," Dr. Cook-Bolden confirms.
After cleansing in the morning, I keep things pretty simple by sticking to two products: Moisturizer and sunscreen. First, I start by dabbing on Peter Thomas Roth's Potent-C Bright & Plump Moisturizer, followed by Elta MD's UV Clear Broad Spectrum SPF 46 all over my face and neck. The moisturizer includes THD ascorbate, a form of vitamin C that the brand says is "50 times more powerful than traditional vitamin C." Generally speaking, vitamin C helps to get rid of existing dark spots by continuously brightening the skin with regular use, so any marks are likely to vanish in a mere few weeks rather than several months. "Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant," Dr. Cook-Bolden explains. "This property alone is very important in combating hyperpigmentation." It works by inhibiting an enzyme called tyrosinase, she adds, which prevents melanin production.
As for the sunscreen, it's important to wear an SPF every day, especially if you're trying to combat discoloration. "Sunlight is the main driver of pigment production, so sun protection can really help to prevent hyperpigmentation, especially with continued use," Dr. Woolery-Lloyd shares. Of course, there are a plethora of facial sunscreens to choose from, but I opt for Elta MD's product for a few reasons: First off, its mineral formula is completely transparent, making it ideal for people of color. And secondly, it also contains niacinamide, an ingredient that Dr. Woolery-Lloyd is a fan of for its ability to "combat the overproduction of melanin."
Aside from those two products, I am also a huge fan of using La Roche-Posay's Anthelios Aox Antioxidant Serum SPF 50 during the day, which is essentially a 2-in-1 (and more affordable) version of the above products. This translucent, antioxidant-rich sunscreen is packed with vitamin C and E to combat dark spots, and will also protect you from harmful UVA and UVB rays that worsen hyperpigmentation. The formula boasts a light, yet creamy, consistency, which leaves my skin feeling wonderfully moisturized in just one step.
At night, after I wash my face with the Boscia cleanser, I take one pump of Drunk Elephant's T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Resurfacing Night Serum and spread it across my face, avoiding my eye and mouth areas. This is one of my all-time favorite products to deal with discoloration, not only because is it a non-drying peel, but it's also one of the most effective products I've ever used to continuously exfoliate my skin. But when I first began using this, I made sure to only apply it ever other day as my skin was adjusting. "It is definitely more harsh than vitamin C," Dr. Woolery-Lloyd says. "Although quite effective, care must be taken with glycolic acid to avoid irritation and unwanted post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation."
Over time, by using this particular AHA/BHA combo, I have not had to deal with any single dark spot for longer than three to four weeks, which has made a world of difference to me. And aside from just getting rid of discoloration, this serum has also done wonders for my skin overall, making it feel smoother than ever.
Another similar nighttime product I am also a huge fan of is Tatcha's Violet-C Brightening Serum, which offers a great 20% Vitamin C and 10% AHAs combo, that helps to gently brighten my skin.
While both of these serums work well to maintain an even skin tone, one product I've used for years — and still bring out on the rare occasions I deal with serious or stubborn hyperpigmentation — is Neutrogena's Rapid Tone Repair Dark Spot Corrector. This spot treatment uses an accelerated retinol plus vitamin C, both of which "can be effective in reducing unwanted pigmentation" fast, according to Dr. Cook-Bolden.
When I first started using this product back in 2017, it cleared up some spots that I had been dealing with for at least six months, in a matter of weeks. Needless to say, the formula is quite powerful, so I would recommend using it every other night at for the first two weeks, then once every evening before bed moving forward.
Last, but certainly not least, my go-to nighttime moisturizer for maintaining an even skin tone is Kiehl's Clearly Corrective Brightening & Smoothing Moisture Treatment. This gel-like cream is formulated with activated C, white birch extract, as well as glycolic acid to not only help to brighten over time, but also to smooth and hydrate the skin without leaving it feeling greasy. It's a true must-have, and completely worth every penny.
Whenever I do get a single stubborn pimple, of course I try to pop it, but I've found that if I apply a Mighty Patch Invisible+ by Hero Cosmetics immediately after, I end up with very, very minimal scarring and the blemish heals in a matter of hours. This product is great, not only because it's incredibly affordable and it works, but with the patch being nearly transparent for people of all skin tones, you can wear it day or night. These patches work by using hydrocolloid, which helps to draw out pus and fluids from inside the blemish, while keeping the bandaged area moist to promote healing.
However, if I'm having a full-on breakout, I actually avoid popping all together, and instead opt to use one of Peter Thomas Roth's Peptide 21 Amino Acid Exfoliating Peel Pads after cleansing in the evening. The formula contains a mix of phytic acid, salicylic acid, and sodium lactate to exfoliate the skin, which always leaves me with much clearer and smoother skin by morning. But whenever I use this particular product, I typically avoid layering on my regular serums afterwards — since this peel is pretty strong — and instead simply finish up by using my nighttime moisturizer.
While each of these products have certainly played a vital role in helping me to rid my face of discoloration — or at least speed up the healing time — it's important to note that everyone's skin is different.
"Any type of irritation in the skin can lead to hyperpigmentation in people of color," Dr. Woolery-Lloyd says. "People with eczema, for example, or very sensitive skin may be more predisposed to hyperpigmentation because of an increased propensity to skin irritation." Plus, environmental factors like "excessive sun exposure without daily sunscreen use can also make dark spots significantly worse," she adds. So if you're dealing with persistent hyperpigmentation or any type of long-term scarring on your face, it's best to consult with a dermatologist who can help you to explore a variety of treatments, or assist you in putting together a skin care plan that works best for you.