Beauty

What To Look For In A Dark Spot Serum, According To Derms

Brighter skin, right this way.

Dermatologists explain how to remove dark spots on the skin — here's what to know.
Sofia Polukhina/Moment/Getty Images

As someone who dealt with moderate acne well into my teens and still suffers from the occasional period breakout, I’m well-acquainted with dark spot correctors. Ever since I began slathering mom’s vitamin C serum from Avon onto my skin when I was 13 years old, I’ve been on a quest to figure out how to remove dark spots on the face in the most effective way possible. And I’m not alone: Dark spots, also known as hyperpigmentation, are an incredibly common skin condition — but there are ways to treat them.

When applied consistently, the right serum — combined with a protective sunscreen — can help reduce some of the most common causes of skin hyperpigmentation, including those caused by UV light exposure, inflammation, and hormonal imbalances. To help, Bustle called on top dermatologists for tips on how to remove (and prevent) dark spots through your beauty regimen.

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What Causes Hyperpigmentation?

Hyperpigmentation is caused by an increase in the production of melanin, or the pigment responsible for the skin’s color. It can occur for a number of reasons, but among the most common is sun exposure. Solar lentigines — aka sunspots or liver spots — “are the little brown spots that come about from too much daily UV light exposure,” explains Dr. Mona Gohara, M.D., a Hampden, Connecticut-based dermatologist and associate clinical professor at Yale University. These are most common in lighter skin tones.

Acne or anything else that causes superficial damage to the skin (think cuts and scrapes) can also lead to discoloration. Those frustrating dark spots left behind after a pimple or wound is healed are called post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation and tend to be more common in darker skin (though all skin tones can experience it). Gohara says those affected will want to treat the underlying inflammatory condition first, i.e. the acne, before trying to tackle the hyperpigmentation, which means taking precautionary skin care steps that’ll help prevent breakouts.

Melasma is another type of hyperpigmentation, showing up in larger brown blotches on the face, cheeks, or around the jaw, explains Gohara. This kind is common with women on hormonal birth control or after pregnancy. “They’re thought to result from hormones in addition to UV and blue light,” she says.

How Dark Spot Correctors Work

To treat dark spots on the face, you’ll want to reach for actives that brighten and stimulate cell turnover. Dr. Jenny Liu, M.D., a Minneapolis-based dermatologist and assistant professor at the University of Minnesota, says dark spot correctors usually work in three different ways: First, some halt the production of pigments. “So, they often will inhibit the tyrosinase enzyme, which is a really important enzyme that is the first step in creating pigment,” she explains. Common tyrosinase enzyme blockers include vitamin C, kojic acid, licorice root extract, azelaic acid, and hydroquinone.

Other dark spot-correcting serums contain ingredients, like niacinamide (a form of vitamin B), that prevent the transfer of melanin to your skin cells by blocking multiple pathways. Or, some dark spot correctors — like those containing alpha and beta hydroxy acids or retinoids — encourage the shedding of old, discolored skin cells. “When you exfoliate that skin — because often pigments are kind of in the top layer of the skin — you expedite the removal of that (hyper)pigmentation,” says Liu. Gohara adds it also helps to look for dark spot serums that contain antioxidants, like vitamins C and E, as they prevent free radical damage — aka another cause of dark spots.

How To Treat Dark Spots

When applying topical treatments, both derms agree that consistency and patience is key. It may take weeks or even months before you start to see results, and everyone’s skin is different. Retinoids, for example, are helpful for many, but can be irritating, says Liu. “If you’re trying to remove pigment from somebody who is melanated, that inflammation from using these products can potentially worsen hyperpigmentation,” she says.

People of color are especially prone to hyperpigmentation because darker skin has more melanosomes, or the “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. For that reason, as Liu explains, treatments that cause inflammation can ironically make the situation worse. In this case, it helps to look for dark spot correctors that are specifically formulated with the uniqueness of melanated skin in mind.

Also remember: “SPF is non-negotiable,” Gohara insists. She recommends using a mineral sunscreen with at least SPF 30 and iron oxides. Reapply every two hours with outdoor exposure 365 days a year, regardless of weather, says Gohara. Even if the sun is not to blame for your hyperpigmentation, unprotected exposure can worsen the problem or counteract the effects of your dark spot corrector.

To help guide you, here are a handful of fan-favorite, derm-approved dark spot-correcting serums.

Shop Dark Spot Serums

The Melanin Protector

Gohana names this serum as one of her favorites for its use of antioxidants and a vitamin A derivative. Formulated specifically for melanin-rich skin by dermatologists of color, it helps reduce dark spots, smooth fine lines, and gently exfoliate.

The Potent Skin Brightener

This serum takes on dark spots with phe-resorcinol (an ingredient that inhibits tyrosinase) and ferulic acid, and uses lipo-hydroxy acid to exfoliate, visibly smoothing skin’s surface as it brightens.

The Budget Buy

This serum tackles dark spots, acne scars, melasma, and sun damage with tranexamic acid, and is one Liu recommends. It also contains niacinamide to improve skin’s texture and tone while reducing the appearance of pores.

The Vitamin C Treatment

With five forms of vitamin C, including from guava and seed oil, plus tranexamic and ferulic acids, this antioxidant-packed serum fades dark spots, improves your complexion’s elasticity, and quashes dullness — so you’re left with a plumper, brighter glow.

The Gentle Formula

If you have sensitive skin, this serum targets acne scars with a potent but gentle formula. Its combo of encapsulated retinol and licorice root extract resurface your skin’s surface to leave it more even and bright.

Studies referenced:

Bissett, D. et al (2006). Niacinamide: A B Vitamin that Improves Aging Facial Skin Appearance. Dermatologic Surgery. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1524-4725.2005.31732

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

Ciganovic, P. (2019). Glycerolic Licorice Extracts as Active Cosmeceutical Ingredients: Extraction Optimization, Chemical Characterization, and Biological Activity. Antioxidants. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6826613/

Davis, E. & Callender, V. (2010). Postinflammatory hyperpigmentation: A Review of the Epidemiology, Clinical Features, and Treatment Options in Skin of Color. The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2921758/

Dumbuya, H. et al (2020). Impact of Iron-Oxide Containing Formulations Against Visible Light-Induced Skin Pigmentation in Skin of Color Individuals. Journal of D in Dermatology.

Green, B. et al (2009). Clinical and cosmeceutical uses of hydroxyacids. Clinics in Dermatology. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0738081X09001564

Grimes, P.E. (2019). New oral and topical approaches for the treatment of melasma. International Journal of Women’s Dermatology. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352647518300431

Halder, R.M. & Richards, G.M. (2004). Topical Treatments Used in the Management of Hyperpigmentation. Skin Therapy Letter. https://www.skintherapyletter.com/hyperpigmentation/topical-agents/

Kim, B. et al (2017). The Improvement of Skin Whitening of Phenylethyl Resorcinol by Nanostructured Lipid Carriers. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5618352/

Silva, S. (2017). An overview about oxidation in clinical practice of skin aging. An Bras Dermatol. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5514578/

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

Experts:

Dr. Mona Gohara, M.D., board-certified dermatologist based in Hampden, Connecticut

Dr. Jenny Liu, M.D., board-certified dermatologist based in Minneapolis, Minnesota