While some folks are really into drawing fake freckles on their face, others are trying to figure out how to get rid of dark spots. (Such is life, amirite!?)
If you’re dealing with dark spots on your face, you probably have hyperpigmentation. This basically means your skin is going overboard producing melanin (the pigment that gives your skin its color) in a concentrated area.
Hyperpigmentation is typically caused by acne scars, excess sun exposure, or hormonal changes from pregnancy or menopause. But while these spots are harmless, you might wanna get rid of them for aesthetic reasons. (You do you!)
There are tons of topicals that can help lighten and brighten dark spots, but some products can actually be super dangerous. Here’s the deal on the best ways to treat dark spots on your face, plus how to spot any problematic treatments.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), most dark spots fade on their own over time, but it “may take a long time.”
Not patient enough to wait? No worries, there are lots of treatments that can help fade ‘em.
Hydroquinone is prob the most popular topical out there for dark spot lightening, but it’s also potentially dangerous. Plus it has a long, problematic history of being used as an all-over skin lightener, but we’ll save that story for another day.
A smallish 2013 study found 4 percent hydroquinone is an effective treatment for facial melasma, a condition that causes discolored patches. But because of its risks, it’s recommended people use hydroquinone on a short-term basis, and in targeted areas, if at all.
While previously available over the counter, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) changed its status in 2021, so you’ll only be able to get hydroquinone via a prescription. Though it’s considered safe for cosmetic use, there *are* potential safety risks at higher concentrations.
There are lots of concerns that hydroquinone could cause cancer. While more research is needed to know for sure, a 2021 research review concluded it’s highly toxic to aquatic life and rodents, and it may induce leukemia, liver cancer, or certain types of tumors in animals.
Since its safety is mostly a mystery, it’s not FDA approved. It’s also worth noting that it’s banned in places like the EU, Australia, and Japan. In Canada, it’s classified as toxic. In the U.K., the public has been urged by the government to avoid it “at all costs.”
If your dermatologist prescribes hydroquinone to treat dark spots, stop using it immediately if you experience:
- unusual skin darkening
- any other side effects
Kojic acid is another popular hyperpigmentation treatment. Though 2013 research determined 0.75 percent kojic acid cream to be less effective and slower-acting than 4 percent hydroquinone at combating hyperpigmentation, it still seems to do the trick.
FYI, it’s often more irritating to the skin than hydroquinone. In terms of safety concerns, there’s some limited evidence that it promotes tumors and is a weak carcinogen in large amounts. Researchers still maintain that it’s safe for cosmetic use in concentrations up to 1 percent.
Other side effects may include:
Retinoids are derivatives of vitamin A that aid in cell turnover and speed up exfoliation. It can take 3 months to see a big diff in your skin, but over time retinoids can help fade dark spots.
A 2019 review also linked retinoids to improvements in photoaging (which often includes dark spots caused by sun exposure — aka “age spots”).
Keep in mind that retinoids can be super drying and make your skin more sensitive to the sun. Applying SPF and moisturizer can help protect your skin from even more damage.
Other potential side effects include:
These symptoms often go away as your skin gets used to the retinoid. But if these symptoms persist, head to a doc.
Chemical exfoliants use gentle acids to break up dead skin cells and can be pretty effective at treating hyperpigmentation. These exfoliants include:
- azelaic acid
- glycolic acid
- lactic acid
- mandelic acid
- salicylic acid
These can be bought over the counter, but you can also go to a derm for stronger options.
If you’re opting for over the counter, it’s a good idea to do a patch test first. You’ll also need to lather on the sunscreen to protect your delicate skin in the interim.
Medical-grade chemical peels are in-office treatments that use stronger chemical exfoliants to penetrate deep into the layers of the skin but also come with longer recovery times. Your skin will take about 2 to 3 weeks to heal from a deep chemical peel.
Keep in mind that they may cause skin irritation. In-office treatments can also cause:
- temporary skin darkening
- scarring (very rare)
Zap! A more intensive way to lighten dark spots is seeing a dermatologist for laser treatment. This process uses concentrated light energy to break up the pigmentation or remove the skin layer by layer.
There are many laser treatments out there that are effective and work more quickly than topicals to lighten dark spots. That being said, there are risks, including:
- changes in skin texture
The lasers may sting or burn — how intense it feels depends on your pain threshold as well as your unique treatment needs.
Microdermabrasion is another treatment that sloughs off dead skin cells but this time, it’s a physical exfoliant. When you head to an aesthetician for this procedure, they’ll use a handheld device with an abrasive surface to basically sand off the top layer of skin.
A 2021 review concluded that microdermabrasion can help reduce the appearance of dark spots, wrinkles, pores, and improve the appearance of the skin.
Though microdermabrasion can take anywhere from 5 to 16 treatments to see results, the recovery is pretty minimal. Your skin will also be more sensitive to the sun, so load up on the SPF.
Potential side effects also include:
- skin redness
- skin swelling or bruising
- tingling/burning sensation
These symptoms should go away on their own within a few days.
There are at-home remedies that *might* help remove dark spots. But we’ll be real, the limited evidence points to mild rather than jaw-dropping results. That being said, since these methods are also pretty cheap and unlikely to cause any adverse side effects, they may be worth a try.
Hit up your local drugstore (or your kitchen cabinet) for these home remedies:
- Mulberry extract. A 2018 research review concluded that 75 percent mulberry extract resulted in “significant” hyperpigmentation improvements compared to the placebo.
- Licorice extract. That same 2018 research review found that products containing glabridin, the main ingredient in licorice extract, to effectively brighten skin.
- Aloe vera gel. Since aloe vera helps stimulate collagen production, it may help improve skin turnover and reduce the appearance of dark spots. Older research from 2002 also found it helps inhibit hyperpigmentation caused by UV radiation.
- Tea. There’s some research that 2 percent green tea extract in a cream is effective at treating dark spots. A 2015 study suggests that fermented black tea, green tea, or white tea may be particularly effective.
- Turmeric. According to a 2018 review, turmeric extract improved facial hyperpigmentation by 14 percent after 4 weeks of topical application in one study.
- Soy. That same 2018 review found decent results for soy, too. In a study, participants who applied soy extract to dark spots every day for 3 months experienced a 12 percent reduction in hyperpigmentation.
Since it’s possible to have an allergic reaction to any substance, it’s a good idea to do a patch test before trying any of these.
While we’ve outlined the potential risks of other treatments, there are some things we know are bad for your skin, like bleach. The AAD warns against using liquid bleach on your skin since it can cause super serious burns.
Some skin-lightening products might also have unlisted ingredients like steroids, which shouldn’t be used without medical supervision.
Many skin lighteners (especially those with hydroquinone) contain mercury, which is highly toxic. Mercury might be hiding on an ingredient list as:
- hydrargyri oxydum rubrum
Scope out reputable companies and online stores when shopping. When in doubt, visit a derm for support.
Keep in mind that even with safe products, you gotta use them as instructed and stop using right away if any weird side effects happen.
There are def a lot of dark potential side effects of skin lightening.
While you can’t necessarily avoid hyperpigmentation from hormonal causes, avoiding skin damage may help you prevent some forms of hyperpigmentation.
The best things you can do to protect your skin from dark spots include:
- wearing SPF regularly
- wearing protective clothing, hats, and sunglasses in the sun 😎
- keeping out of the sun during peak hours
- avoiding picking at pimples (to reduce the risk of scarring)
Though dark spots often fade on their own over time, many treatments can speed up the process. Since popular skin lightening agents like hydroquinone are potentially very toxic and banned in many countries, it’s smart to talk with a derm about the best and safest option for you.
Other treatments like retinoids, microdermabrasion, and chemical exfoliants are known to be pretty safe and effective.