Dermatologists explain how to get rid of spots on your face, and the best products to help you do it.
Age spots, freckles, and other skin discolorations can crop up after too much time in the sun, hormonal shifts associated with pregnancy or birth control, acne, trauma to the skin, or—sadly—getting older. And while they can appear for a variety of reasons, they all have one thing in common: they’re difficult to get rid of. “You can work really hard at lightening dark spots, and then an hour in the sun unprotected can bring them back,” says Francesca Fusco, MD, a dermatologist at Wexler Dermatology in New York City.
A good sunscreen should be your first priority in preventing more spots and keeping any current discoloration from getting worse. But can you get rid of dark spots on your face? Yes, if you invest in a dark spot corrector. The most effective skin-lightening ingredient is hydroquinone, says Bruce Katz, MD, a dermatologist at JUVA Skin and Laser Center in New York City. Start with an over-the-counter corrector with 1% hydroquinone, he suggests, and apply it to the dark spots at night before your moisturize. Hydroquinone can be drying, but if the 1% formulation doesn’t irritate your skin, you can move up to a 2% OTC product, then 4 to 6% with a prescription. Dr. Fusco agrees, and recommends Tri-Luma Cream as a Rx option. “Hydroquinone is the gold standard for dermatologists’ treatment of dark spots,” she says.
Note, however, that hydroquinone may not be the best choice for everyone. "Overuse or incorrect use of hydroquinone, or too high of a percentage of it, could cause reactions, including over-lightening or inflammation, leading to further darkening," says Dr. Fusco. People with dark skin tones need to be particularly careful. What's more, people wary of chemicals may choose to steer clear. In 2006, the FDA reviewed new data on hydroquinone that showed it caused cancer in rats and mice after being swallowed, and recommended that the National Toxicology Program conduct additional studies to determine if there's risk to humans. These products are still available in the United States and widely recommended by dermatologists, but they're banned in the EU and Japan.
If you'd like to try a hydroquinone-free product, you still have plenty of options. Look for ingredients like salicylic acid, alpha hydroxy acids, vitamin C, arbutin, lignin peroxidase, kojic acid, licorice or bilberry, says Dr. Fusco. “All dark spot treatments work by peeling to reveal lighter skin, or shrinking or de-clumping the pigment cells,” she says.
The products below feature derm-approved ingredients that can help improve your skin’s coloration. Try them out, watch the skin-evening ingredients go to work, and kiss your dark spots goodbye.
Patchology PowerPatch Dark Spot Corrector
“These tiny patches cover your dark spots and infuse them with botanicals,” says Dr. Fusco, “making sure you get a constant delivery of the product into the spot.” The hydroquinone-free patches contain retinol (the ultimate anti-aging ingredient), which helps exfoliate the skin, and alpha arbutin, a botanical that helps reduce the appearance of melanin.
SkinMedica Lytera Skin Brightening Complex
This hydroquinone-free product from SkinMedica uses licorice root as an alternative to smooth out discolorations in your complexion. “This product is full of a ton of great botanicals,” says Dr. Fusco. Plus, retinol speeds cell turnover, while vitamin E neutralizes free radicals.
Murad Rapid Age Spot and Pigment Lightening Serum
A clearer, brighter complexion will be yours fast with this serum. It contains 2% hydroquinone, the highest level you can buy over the counter. It also has glycolic acid to help exfoliate skin.
La Roche-Posay Mela-D Pigment Control Serum
This hydroquinone-free serum is ideal for sensitive skin or darker complexions. The blend of 2% kojic acid and LHA with glycolic acid reveals a clearer complexion in about two weeks.
Clarins Mission Perfection Serum
Another hydroquinone-free product, this serum features acerola extract, a fruit extract said to slow down dark spot production.
SkinCeuticals Phyto Plus
Kojic acid and arbutin help reduce discoloration, while cucumber and thyme soothe the skin. Apply twice daily to discolored areas.
Glytone Dark Spot Corrector
This corrector contains 2% hydroquinone and 1% kojic acid, which work together to help fade and exfoliate uneven pigmentation for a healthy glow.
Paula's Choice Resist Triple-Action Dark Spot Eraser
Hydroquinone and glycolic acid lighten and smooth dark spots, while vitamin E and rosehip oil help lock in moisture, making this corrector perfect for dry and sensitive skin.
Alpha Skincare Dual Action Skin Lightener
This corrector has 2% hydroquinone and 10% glycolic and alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs). The AHAs exfoliate skin and lift away dead cells, making it easier for the hydroquinone to reach and fade the hyperpigmentation.