Derms Say These Are THE BEST Ingredients To Fade Dark Spots
Dark spots happen — whether from pimples or caused by the sun or hormones — but that doesn’t mean you’re powerless against them. While expensive in-office treatments can fade dark spots quickly, there are also topical ingredients and products that help nix these unwelcomed areas of discoloration. We reached out to board-certified dermatologists about which ingredients are king when it comes to treating dark spots and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. Here are their faves (in no particular order), along with some product recommendations that contain each.
1. Tetrahexyldecyl Ascorbate
Tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate (THD ascorbate) is a stabilized form of vitamin C because of its fat solubility. In other words, it can be dissolved in oil-based products which helps keep it potent.
“Research has shown that THD ascorbate may penetrate the skin better than other forms of vitamin C because of its fat-solubility, making it up to 50x more effective than a vitamin C product formulated with L-ascorbic acid,” explains Dr. Tina Alster, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of The A Method.
Using a product formulated with THD ascorbate helps shield your skin from free radicals, which prevents dark spots from occurring. It also helps fade existing dark spots for an overall brighter, more even complexion. Aim for a 10 to 20% stabilized vitamin C formula.
2. Trichloroacetic Acid
Also known as TCA, trichloroacetic acid is a super powerful acid that exfoliates away layers of the skin. The stronger the peel, the more layers of skin you’ll remove. In its highest concentrations (40%+), TCA can resurface the entire face (this is done in-office and requires weeks of insulated recovery). In milder, over-the-counter formulas, it’s highly effective in terms of making dark spots disappear. See how the Ourself Dark Spot Peel with 13.6% TCA effortlessly removed a tricky dark spot here.
Retinoids — which includes retinol, retinal, and prescription retinoic acid — are high on the “must use” list for dermatologists.
“Retinoids work on dark spots by increasing cell turnover, sloughing off the old skin, and promoting formation of new skin cells,” explains Dr. Snehal Amin, board-certified dermatologist and co-founder of MDCS Dermatology in New York City. “Long term use — at three to six months— is needed typically to see the benefits of this treatment.”
The biggest challenge is working up your skin’s tolerance. You’ll want to start slow, with lower concentrations and alternating use every other day to avoid irritation. Dr. Amin specifically recommends .3% products for newbies, and then you can graduate up to .5 and then 1% and higher. (When used all over versus as a spot treatment, you can enjoy the other anti-aging effects, like fewer fine lines and improved firmness.)
“Hydroquinone is a topical skin lightening ingredient used to treat hyperpigmented skin conditions such as dark spots, melasma, and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation,” says Dr. Hadley King, a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City. She says it works by running interference on excess melanin production of the melanocyte, which helps prevent and lighten hyperpigmentation.
Do note that hydroquinone shouldn’t be used if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding and that it’s only available by prescription.
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5. Tranexamic Acid
If you’re not feeling hydroquinone but want to try an ingredient that’s just as effective (and OK to use while pregnant or breastfeeding), try tranexamic acid, says Dr. Alster. Like hydroquinone, it slows down excess melanin production. “It helps create an even-toned complexion without causing too much irritation. Also, you can use it with other powerful ingredients, like vitamin C and retinoids.”
Arbutin comes from the bearberry plant and also works similarly to hydroquinone. In fact, Dr. King says it’s a “glycosylated form of hydroquinone,” that’s extracted directly from the plant itself. “When applied to your skin, it inhibits the tyrosinase enzyme. This helps slow the formation of excess melanin, which is what causes dark spots.”
Niacinamide (vitamin B3) is a true multitasking skincare ingredient. Dr. King says it’s been shown to boost the skin’s production of ceramides and that it has moisturizing properties. “It’s also a powerful antioxidant that helps brighten the complexion by fading hyperpigmentation and reducing redness.” You’ll often see it combined with other ingredients on this list, including licorice root, retinol, and arbutin.
Try It: EADEM Milk Marvel Dark Spot Serum with Niacinamide and Vitamin C, $68, IT Cosmetics Bye Bye Dark Spots 4% Niacinamide Serum, $29, and First Aid Beauty Facial Radiance Niacinamide Dark Spot Serum, $42.
8. Licorice Root
For those who prefer an earthier, natural ingredient to fade dark spots, try licorice root. Its usage has roots in Chinese medicine and is often used in skincare to tackle discoloration. “Glabridin, an active ingredient in licorice root, acts as antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and skin-brightening agent,” says Dr. Amin. “It works in a manner similar to hydroquinone by stopping pigment production through tyrosinase blocking activity.”
It’s not as powerful as some of the other ingredients on this list, nor does it have as much scientific literature to support it, but it’s one of the better options for people with sensitive skin since it has anti-inflammatory properties.
Have you tried anything to fade dark spots? And did you see any results? Let’s chat in the comments!
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