Dealing with acne is like dealing with an uninvited houseguest: You don't know why or how they ventured into your personal space, but you have no real choice but to put up with them until they're gone. When those breakouts start to fade but still leave dark spots behind, that's your clear cue that they've officially overstayed their welcome.
Those spots, better known as hyperpigmentation, are extremely common — especially in people of color. "Hyperpigmentation is one of the most common concerns in skin of color that we encounter in dermatology," says Adeline Kikam, DO, dermatology resident and founder of the popular Brownskin Derm Instagram account. Dr. Kikam explains that the condition is a broad term used to describe darkening of the skin due to the overproduction of melanin.
If you still have leftover dark spots from long-gone hormonal breakouts or an eczema flareup, it's most likely the result of melanin skin cells that are damaged or inflamed, according to Corey L. Hartman, MD, a dermatologist at Skin Wellness Center in Alabama. Once the pigment leaves the damaged cells, it's deposited deeper into your skin, which then forms those pesky spots. "People of color produce more pigment, which gives us our beautiful complexions," Dr. Hartman says. "On the other hand, it makes us more prone to experiencing a stain after the rash or breakout."
Not all hyperpigmentation scars are created equally, though. Some of them are relatively easy to get rid of and naturally fade over time. Others can stick around for longer stretches — we're talking months and years — if unaddressed. In some cases, scarring can be severe, and even occur on other parts of your body (like the back, arms, and chest).
Of course, just because the condition is normal doesn't make it any less annoying, or less damaging to your self-esteem. But the good news is that hyperpigmentation can be treated with the right skin-care approach. "Patience is key," Dr. Kikam says. "You need a regimen of protective and corrective steps to yield desired results. There is also the option of professional treatments, like microneedling and chemical peels, to help unwanted spots disappear. However, for some people, professional treatments aren't always an option.
But with a wide array of products on the market that claim to fade dark spots, where do you even begin? To help you sift through the clutter and really make a difference in treating your skin, we consulted Black dermatologists (who've experienced hyperpigmentation firsthand) to spill the skin-care products they rely on to keep their complexions clear. Next time those dark spots come knocking on your door, you'll know exactly what you need to drive them away.
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Corey L. Hartman, MD
Dermatologist at Skin Wellness Center
SkinCeuticals LHA Cleanser Gel
Not only is this cleanser clutch for brightening thanks to its cell-renewing blend of acids, but it also works double time to control blemishes — and fewer breakouts mean less scarring left behind. "This contains salicylic and glycolic acids, which will diminish dark spots," Dr. Hartman says. "What I love most about this is that it thoroughly cleanses the skin without making it feel dry and irritated."
SkinCeuticals LHA Cleanser Gel, $40, available at DermStore
SkinMedica Lytera 2.0 Pigment Correcting Serum
After cleansing, Dr. Hartman uses this advanced brightening serum to treat dark spots. "This is a lightening agent that has tranexamic acid, which is a great complexion-blending alternative to hydroquinone," he says. It's also formulated with marine extracts to help promote a healthy skin barrier, and peptides and niacinamide to balance skin overall.
SkinMedica Lytera 2.0 Pigment Correcting Serum, $123.2, available at DermStore
Elta MD UV Clear Broad-Spectrum SPF 46
Sun exposure can exacerbate the darkening and slow the rate of fading dark spots, Dr. Hartman says, so an effective sunscreen is an essential part of your regimen if you're working to nix hyperpigmentation (and even if you aren't). "This one is chemical-free and won't leave brown skin looking ashy," he says.
Elta MD UV Clear Broad-Spectrum SPF 46, $33, available at DermStore
Adeline Kikam, DO
Dermatology Resident and Founder of Brownskin Derm
Tizo Tinted Face Mineral SPF 40 Sunscreen
To protect her skin from harmful UV rays and prevent dark spots at the same time, Dr. Kikam swears by this formula. "This has 16% zinc oxide so it doesn't leave a white cast on skin of color," she says. "It also has antioxidants to help reverse signs of aging, and ceramides to strengthen the skin's protective barrier." With a silky finish that makes skin look satiny smooth, not greasy, it's perfect for oily types.
Tizo Tinted Face Mineral SPF 40 Sunscreen, $41.99, available at Amazon
SkinCeuticals Discoloration Defense
As far as Dr. Kikam is concerned, this new brightening treatment is 100% worth the hype. "It has some of the best ingredients proven to fade hyperpigmentation, like niacinamide ad kojic acid," she says. "Despite the potent ingredients, it's still super moisturizing and gentle for sensitive skin."
SkinCeuticals Discoloration Defense , $98, available at DermStore
Paula's Choice 10% Azelaic Acid Booster
If lingering hyperpigmentation leaves your skin's texture feeling rough, Dr. Kikam recommends using this gel-cream hybrid to smooth things out. "This has azelaic acid, which is particularly effective for my own chest and back hyperpigmentation," she says. A touch of salicylic acid prevents future breakouts from occurring, and allantoin and bisabolol work to soothe irritation at the same time.
Paula's Choice 10% Azelaic Acid Booster , $36, available at DermStore
CeraVe Renewing SA Cleanser
"This facial cleanser contains salicylic acid, which provides just the right amount of exfoliation without irritating skin," Dr. Kikam says. The gentle, fragrance-free formula is also packed with ceramides to add moisture back into a dry face.
CeraVe Renewing SA Cleanser , $13.99, available at Ulta Beauty
SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic
Dr. Kikam keeps her complexion clear and even by using this serum on the regular. "This is one of the best vitamin C formulas on the market," she says. "In addition to effectively suppressing the overproduction of melanin, it helps boost UV protection to minimize solar damage, which can make scarring worse." She's not the only pro who swears by it — it's a longtime favorite of derms, editors, and beauty buffs everywhere.
SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic, $166, available at SkinCeuticals
Michelle Henry, MD
Dermatologist and Dermatologic Surgeon at Laser & Skin Surgery Center of New York
Cane + Austin Miracle Pad 20% Glycolic Facial Treatment
To keep her skin bright and free of hyperpigmentaion, Dr. Henry opts for formulas with glycolic acid. She uses these easy-to-use medical-grade wipes, which also contain witch hazel and vitamins A, C, and E, to gently exfoliate her skin daily.
Cane + Austin Miracle Pad 20% Glycolic Facial Treatment, $78, available at Sephora
Supergoop! Unseen Sunscreen SPF 40
"I can't stress how important SPF is, especially when you want to treat hyperpigmentaion," Dr. Henry says. To protect her skin from the environment, she uses this sunscreen from Supergoop. "It dries down to a silky matte finish, and doesn't leave behind a cast so you can wear makeup and SPF — no excuses," she says.
Supergoop! Unseen Sunscreen SPF 40, $32, available at Saks Fifth Avenue
CeraVe AM Face Moisturizer with Sunscreen
"When my skin needs extra moisture, I use a few pumps of this lotion. It's extremely lightweight and will make your skin feel supple," Dr. Henry says. "It's also invisible on brown skin which is important." An under-$20 price tag and added dose of SPF 30 make it a must-have.
CeraVe AM Face Moisturizer with Sunscreen, SPF 30, $17.98, available at Ulta Beauty
Scientis Cysteamine Cream
To continually fade and prevent new dark spots, Dr. Henry has been using this new pigment-correcting face cream out of Switzerland. "It has cysteamine hydrochloride, which is a powerful lightening agent that some believe to be more effective than hydroquinone," Dr. Henry tells us. "I leave it on for 15 minutes and wash it off, and have been seeing significant improvement in fading dark spots."
Scientis Cysteamine Cream, $169, available at Scientis Pharma
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