Black women will probably remember this well: You’re little and you plop down, knees first, on the floor or on a pillow, and your grandma (or someone else) scolds you with something like, “Don’t sit on your knees! You’ll turn them black.” Well, your nana wasn’t wrong. Hyperpigmentation of the knees happens — in melanated people, especially — for several reasons, including inflammation, genetic changes, sun exposure, and, yes, chronic friction. With shorts and sundress season basically here, maybe you’re looking to finally get rid of dark knees. If you’re nodding along, scroll on because Bustle pinged a few Black dermatologists for intel on how to lighten dark knees and prevent them from happening in the first place.
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Why Do Dark Knees Happen?
Dark knees can show up on anyone, but they’re most common in people with darker skin, explains board-certified dermatologist Dr. Ryan Turner, M.D. The New York City-based doctor says, “When a person’s natural skin pigment is darker, the chances of having dark knees increases, but darker knees may appear in people of all skin tones and types.” People of color are especially prone to hyperpigmentation of all types because darker skin has more melanosomes, or “packets” containing the natural chemical melanin. Even minor damage can cause those packets to “leak” or lead to an overproduction of melanin, resulting in hyperpigmentation.
Friction from physical labor, ground workouts, or any other task that requires regular kneeling can lead to knees that appear darker, due to an increase in pigment in the area and a “physical thickening of the skin itself,” notes Turner. Inflammatory skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis could also be to blame for dark knees. These itchy conditions themselves can lead to hyperpigmentation, and, ironically, scratching the areas can further exacerbate the issue, he adds. You’ve heard it before, but you should be protecting any exposed skin with daily SPF, and knees that go unguarded against sunlight and UV rays can become discolored over time. Dr. Elyse Love, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City, adds that chronic dryness, or genetic or hormonal changes like pregnancy, may also cause the knees to darken.
How To Treat And Prevent Dark Knees
To address dark knees due to dryness, Love says hydration with quality moisturizers is key. In your lotions, look for super hydrating ingredients like squalane — a natural antioxidant that mimics the body’s natural oils — petrolatum, shea butter, lipids, and jojoba oil, or hyaluronic acid — a humectant that pulls moisture from the air or from deeper within your skin. To help slough away dead, discolored skin to reveal brighter knees, consider incorporating a body scrub, chemical exfoliants (like alpha hydroxy, glycolic and lactic acids), or vitamin C into your skin care routine. “Similar treatments for facial hyperpigmentation may be used,” Love notes. Though, because the skin on your knees is naturally thicker, you may need to opt for more potent products and exercise consistency and patience.
Because friction is a common culprit for dark knees, board-certified dermatologist Dr. Heather Woolery-Lloyd, M.D. recommends that you wear leggings or long pants when working out or doing other activities where you spend a lot of time kneeling — like when gardening, doing house chores, or playing with your kids. “The knees experience more trauma than the rest of the skin on the legs,” the Miami-based derm says. And, of course, when out and about, SPF 30 or above is nonnegotiable for preventing darkening knees and improving overall skin health.
7 Products To Prevent & Lighten Dark Knees
The Moisturizing Sunscreen
From Venus Williams’ brand, this SPF 50 body lotion promises to hydrate your skin while protecting it against sun damage with a sweat- and water-resistant formula.
The Retinol Serum
Woolery-Lloyd recommends this formulation specifically designed for melanated skin. It contains retinol and vitamin C, the latter of which blocks tyrosinase enzyme, an important enzyme in the production of pigment.
The Powerhouse Treatment
Love is a fan of this treatment that can be used on your face, neck, and body for stubborn discoloration. Apply once per day for 16 weeks during the “intensive phase,” and then twice weekly during the “maintenance phase.”
The Chemical Peel
This enzyme peel boasts a blend of alpha hydroxy, beta hydroxy, and poly hydroxy acids to slough away dead and discolored skin on your knees and elsewhere.
The Daily Moisturizer
Woolery-Lloyd points to this daily all-over moisturizer that has 12% lactic acid and will help improve the absorption of other treatments.
The Sugar Scrub
Incorporating a body scrub into your shower routine can help with dark knees and deliver an overall glow. This one features organic sugar cane, turbinado sugar, shea butter, and a slew of nourishing oils.
The Hydrating Serum
For hyperpigmentation, Turner recommends this serum that boasts alpha arbutin and hyaluronic acid.
Callender, V. et al (2021). Effects of Topical Retinoids on Acne and Post-inflammatory Hyperpigmentation in Patients with Skin of Color: A Clinical Review and Implications for Practice. Therapy in Practice. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40257-021-00643-2
Zolghadri, S. et al (2018). A comprehensive review on tyrosinase inhibitors. Journal of Enzyme Inhibition and Medicinal Chemistry. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14756366.2018.1545767
Dr. Ryan Turner, M.D., NYC-based board-certified dermatologist
Dr. Elyse Love, M.D., NYC-based board-certified dermatologist
Dr. Heather Woolery-Lloyd, M.D., Miami-based board-certified dermatologist