Dermatologist-Approved Hyperpigmentation Treatments: Your Guide

From creams to serums to lasers that target dark spots, we've got you covered.

Dermatologist-Approved Hyperpigmentation Treatments: Your Guide
(Image credit: Delmaine Donson)

For about a decade, I had acne, on and off. And while I rarely get breakouts anymore, I still have post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, a.k.a. dark spots on my face. They are the bane of my existence. So even though I don't need to cover up pimples anymore, I slather on a full-coverage foundation (opens in new tab) to hide all those little red and brown dots. Of course, non-acne-sufferers get hyperpigmentation too. They're typically in the form of sunspots, dark spots, or age spots, and they're brought on by the usual suspects—too much sun damage, hormones, or aging.

What causes hyperpigmentation?

When there's inflammation, the first or second layer of skin cells produce extra pigment during the healing process. Trying to lighten the appearance of these dark spots is time-consuming, tedious, and annoying. In trying to get rid of mine, I've used many, many products, including drugstore brightening creams, hardcore spot treatments, and prescription products. In short: I know a bit about what works and what doesn't. Plus, I spoke with a slew of dermatologists for their expertise. Keep scrolling for a rundown on how to treat hyperpigmentation in the best way, including your best options, ranging from mild cases to severe. 

How can I treat hyperpigmentation?

Sunscreen

The easiest way to avoid pigmentation issues? Keep them at bay with sun protection. If you already have spots, sunscreen will keep them from darkening. "If you're not using a sunscreen every day all year long, you are wasting your time on other products," says New Jersey-based dermatologist Jeanine Downie, M.D., director of Image Dermatology.

Vitamin C Serum

Use an antioxidant-rich daily serum to help brighten skin's appearance all over, including those pesky marks. "Antioxidant serums help stabilize the skin after injury from UV and infrared light," says San Diego-based dermatologist Melanie Palm, M.D., director of Art OF Skin MD (opens in new tab). "I make sure my patients put this on every morning." Also great: Vitamin C (opens in new tab) helps fight fine lines and smooths texture.

BHA and AHA Cleansers

Typically, cleansers with beta hydroxy acids, like salicylic (opens in new tab), and alpha hydroxy acids, like glycolic (opens in new tab) and lactic (opens in new tab), are marketed to teens and those who suffer from acne (so perfect if your discoloration comes from pimples). But they can also help other skin types by gently exfoliating (opens in new tab) the surface and unclogging pores (opens in new tab), which could be causing your unwanted acne. So unless you have really dry (opens in new tab) and sensitive skin (opens in new tab), consider using a cleanser with either or both to help fade marks.

Spot Treatments

Target spots more effectively with a concentrated dose. There are many brightening ingredients to look for, but some of the more effective ones on the market right now are peony and licorice root extract, kojic acid (opens in new tab), vitamin C and E, niacinamide (opens in new tab), and alpha arbutin.

Acne Patches

There are lots of options on the market for acne patches that will de-clog your pores and fade your marks over time. In particular, the Patchology nightly patches have some pretty cool technology behind them: Basically, you stick a circular patch over a dark spot; this will send microcurrents down into your skin. The microcurrents help diminish discoloration via retinol, peptides, and niacinamide, which are all fused into the cloth sticker. 

Brightening Serum

Opt for an intense formula when spot treatments and vitamin C aren't enough. The most exciting brightening serums I've used for hyperpigmentation: SkinMedica Lytera 2.0 Correcting Serum (opens in new tab). The four hero ingredients—tranexamic acid, phenylethyl resorcinol, niacinamide, and tetrapeptide-30—work together for powerful correction and are safe for all skin types and tones. "It's a global product, so it evens out the entire face, not just the dark spots," says Downie.

Retinol or Retinoid

Retinol (opens in new tab) is a do-everything ingredient that also helps with pigmentation. "Not only does it speed up cell turnover, it penetrates really deep into the skin and interferes with pigment production," says Palm—meaning retinol can treat dark spots that aren't just on the surface level.

Antioxidant-Rich Hydrators

As we mentioned, antioxidants like vitamin C help protect the skin from damaging, aging-free radicals. But while you're lifting spots and toning up your complexion, it's important to keep the moisture barrier intact. Face oils (opens in new tab)lotions, and creams (opens in new tab) can keep your skin hydrated and happy while still providing a brightening kick.

Hydroquinone

Before we get to in-office procedures, the last step in the line of products that can treat hyperpigmentation is a prescription hydroquinone. It reduces the production of melanin in your skin. H

owever, this hardcore topical has some side effects—increased exposure to UV radiation, sensitivity to sunlight, and irritation—so it's best to proceed with caution and be extra protective of the skin while using it. If you don't want to go all the way with a prescription, the Murad Rapid Age Spot and Pigment Lightening Serum (opens in new tab) is a great OTC (and more gentle) option.

Microdermabrasion

As long as the microdermabrasion (opens in new tab) is gentle enough—it's important not to be too irritating, says Palm—this is a great option to buff away the top layer of the skin, revealing the new (and less pigmented) layers underneath.

Salicylic Acid Peel

A salicylic acid peel is another in-office procedure that can vastly speed up treatments and is ideal for acne sufferers. The salicylic acid is typically applied in the 20 to 30 percent range. "It has the ability to penetrate down into the oil glands, but it also [can] lift that stain left behind from the inflammation," says Palm. She recommends getting one once every month. If you don't want to head out for a treatment, there are some great peels you can do at home (opens in new tab) for a fraction of the cost.

Lasers

When pigmentation occurs in the second layer of the skin, it acts almost like a tattoo—a.k.a. it's really hard to get rid of. So dermatologists have turned to the Q-Switch Laser, originally used to remove tattoos. 

"It uses low heat and energy, so it won't make pigmentation or inflammation worse," says Palm. And, because it's a longer wavelength, it's safe for all skin tones too.

Taylore Glynn is the Beauty and Health Editor at Marie Claire, covering skincare, makeup, fragrance, wellness, and more. If you need her, she’s probably roasting a chicken, flying solo at the movies, or drinking a bad Negroni at JFK.