One of the most common skin-care woes we hear from both readers and friends is an uneven complexion — more specifically, those dark spots leftover from our acne-ridden teenage years. (Or, um, three months ago.) To make matters worse, they are seriously difficult to get rid of and challenging to conceal, once you've got them.
Enter the dark-spot corrector. If you don't already have one in your skin-care regimen, it's time. There are plenty of over-the-counter options out there, but it's important to know what kind of formula to look for and how to use it properly. Hydroquinone is still considered the gold-standard lightening agent, says dermatologist Sejal Shah, MD, and you can find it in a variety of products. The over-the-counter strength tends to be 2%, while prescription-strength is somewhere around 4%.
But there are other options: Dr. Shah says you can also look for kojic acid, licorice root extract, vitamin C, niacinamide, soy, and retinoids when battling dark spots. Jessica Weiser, MD, of New York Dermatology Group, suggests formulas with turmeric, lactic acid, and papaya for their skin-brightening properties.
Once you've made your selection, there are some things to be cautious of. "The most common issue with many lightening agents is that they can irritate the skin, leading to redness, flaking, dryness, or even itchy or burning sensations," Dr. Shah says. Women with darker skin tones need to take extra care. "Whether citric, lactic, or glycolic, using acids on dark skin tones should be done with caution, as excess peeling of the skin can conversely lead to hyperpigmentation, or can cause burns that may lead to lightening or darkening of the skin," Dr. Weiser says.
Both doctors agree that before starting any lightening regimen, it's important to discuss with your dermatologist what course is right for you. Dr. Shah also stresses the importance of using sun protection in conjunction with your dark-spot treatment, as the active ingredients can make your skin more vulnerable to burns.
With all this in mind, we've rounded up a handful of dark-spot correctors, ahead, to help safely free your skin of dark marks. Click through to find the product that's right for you, consult with your derm, and you'll be kissing those dark spots goodbye in no time.
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Paula's Choice 10% Azelaic Acid Booster
Featuring Dr. Shah's beloved licorice root extract, which works to soothe skin and eliminate dark spots, this gentle azelaic acid booster targets uneven skin tone with a cloud-like formula that isn't sticky or slimy. You can add this to a moisturizer, or use it alone before sunscreen and makeup.
Paula's Choice 10% Azelaic Acid Booster, $, available at Nordstrom
Peter Thomas Roth Potent-C™ Vitamin C Power Serum
Though it smells like a literal campfire, this serum doesn't mess around. With its potent cocktail of THD ascorbate, which is 50 times more powerful for evening skin tone and texture than traditional vitamin C, and hyaluronic acid, spread just a tiny bit of this on your skin and wake up with a glowier, firmer complexion.
Peter Thomas Roth Potent-C™ Vitamin C Power Serum, $, available at Sephora
Renee Rouleau Triple Berry Smoothing Peel
Loaded with extracts from blueberries, raspberries, pomegranates, and strawberries, this gently exfoliates and brightens the complexion — while smelling like a delicious berry smoothie.
Renée Rouleau Triple Berry Smoothing Peel, $, available at Renée Rouleau
Peter Thomas Roth AHA-BHA Acne Clearing Gel
Both acne-prone and sensitive skin types will rejoice over this formula: It's loaded with gentle AHAs and BHAs, so it fights active acne and prevents future blemishes. It also helps to repair leftover acne marks and dark spots, so your complexion will appear smooth and clear.
Peter Thomas Roth AHA/BHA Acne Clearing Gel, $, available at DermStore
Kiehl's Clearly Corrective Dark Spot Solution
This little bottle contains activated vitamin C to clarify your skin and help to prevent future dark spots. Plus, it's 100% fragrance-free, making it ideal for those with sensitive skin.
Kiehl's Clearly Corrective Dark Spot Solution, $, available at Sephora
Is Clinical Pro-Heal Serum Advance Plus
This lightweight serum uses retinol, vitamin E, and a cocktail of antioxidants to diminish dark spots and fight free-radical damage.
iS Clinical Pro-Heal Serum Advance Plus, $, available at DermStore
Dr. Dennis Gross Ferulic Acid + Retinol Brightening Solution
You may have to pinch your nose as you massage this formula in, but the glowy results are well worth it. It contains retinol and ferulic acid, which not only helps brighten the skin but also fights fine lines and wrinkles.
Dr. Dennis Gross Ferulic Acid + Retinol Brightening Solution, $, available at Sephora
Osmia Organics Brighten Facial Serum
Osmia's dark-spot corrector is formulated with papaya extract (a favorite of Dr. Weiser's). Natural skin-care devotees will also love that it's made with 85% certified organic ingredients.
Osmia Organics Brighten Facial Serum, $, available at Osmia Organics
No BS Vitamin C+E Serum
From the name to the ingredients list, this hard-working serum gets straight to the point: Packed with collagen-boosting, dark spot-fading vitamins C and E, plus a hydrating boost from hyaluronic acid, it's a no-frills formula that does exactly what it says it will.
No BS Vitamin C + E Serum, $, available at Amazon
Clarins Mission Perfection Serum
Clarins' formula relies on acerola extract, which is high in vitamin C — making it a stepping stone on the path to skin perfection, indeed.
Clarins Mission Perfection Serum, $, available at Nordstrom
Neutrogena Rapid Tone Repair Dark Spot Corrector
This high-potency, reasonably-priced tone corrector combines both vitamin C and a concentrated form of retinol to improve skin texture and nix stubborn dark spots over time.
Neutrogena Rapid Tone Repair Dark Spot Corrector, $, available at Ulta Beauty
Fresh Peony Brightening Night Treatment Mask
Serums aren't the only way to rid yourself of dark spots: This overnight mask works while you sleep, so you wake up feeling (and looking) radiant.
Fresh Peony Brightening Night Treatment Mask, $, available at Sephora
Skinceuticals Phyto Plus
Kojic acid, which is made from mushrooms, is what gives this lightweight serum its brightening capabilities. People with sensitive skin might want to reach for this bottle first — it's made with hyaluronic acid to help keep skin hydrated and calm.
SkinCeuticals Phyto Plus, $, available at DermStore
La Roche-Posay Mela-D Pigment Control Serum
Mela-D utilizes both glycolic and kojic acids to diminish those dark spots. Glycolic, on its own, is a potent acne-fighter. The two paired together fight spots before they even start. It's the perfect team.
La Roche-Posay Mela-D Pigment Control Face Serum, $, available at Target
Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Resurfacing Night Serum
This gel-serum hybrid is packed with AHAs that help smooth out uneven complexions without irritating skin.
Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum, $, available at Drunk Elephant
Murad Rapid Age Spot and Pigment Lightening Serum
Remember how Dr. Shah called hydroquinone the gold standard of brightening ingredients? It's in here, along with glycolic acid to remove dead skin cells, which allows the hydroquinone to penetrate more deeply.
Murad Rapid Age Spot and Pigment Lightening Serum, $, available at Sephora
Verso Dark Spot Fix
In addition to dead skin cell-busting retinol, this highly-concentrated formula also contains niacinamide, which Dr. Shah says is one of the best ingredients you can slather on to help with hyperpigmentation.
Verso Dark Spot Fix, $, available at Barneys New York
Goldfaden MD Light Treatment Dark Spot Corrector
Have sensitive or dry skin? This formula is fragrance-free and packed with hyaluronic acid to keep skin hydrated, plus alpha arbutin, seaweed, red tea extracts, and grapefruit oil to brighten skin and fade dark spots.
Goldfaden MD Light Treatment Dark Spot Corrector, $, available at DermStore
100% Pure Dark Spot Remover
There's no such thing as a magic eraser for dark spots — but this option from 100% Pure comes pretty damn close. It's packed with vitamin C to help brighten away discoloration and aloe vera to hydrate skin, which is important, as well-moisturized complexions have better cell turnover.
100% Pure Dark Spot Remover, $, available at 100% Pure
Marie Veronique Lightening Serum
This organic face serum packs all the brightening ingredients you need in one environmentally-friendly, skin-friendly package.
Marie Veronique Lightening Serum, $, available at Credo
Sunday Riley Good Genes
There’s a very good reason that those in the know swear by this exceptional formula: It works. The high-potency lactic acid is crucial for exfoliating dead skin cells to reveal smoother, fresher skin that can’t seem to even remember a time it ever had a fine line or breakout.
Sunday Riley Good Genes All-In-One Lactic Acid Treatment, $, available at DermStore
Specific Beauty Accelerated Dark Spot Corrector
This correcting treatment is formulated with 2% hydroquinone to fade hyperpigmentation and melasma. Unlike other formulas, which tend to be harsh on sensitive skin, squalene and antioxidants work to soothe while the star ingredient increases cell turnover.
Specific Beauty Specific Beauty Accelerated Dark Spot Corrector Facial , $, available at Target
Differin Dark Spot Correcting Serum
We thought our clear skin journey couldn't get better after Differin's OG acne treatment became OTC, but then the brand launched this serum. It contains 2% hydroquinone to gradually lighten dark spots over time and sea buckthorn berry oil to keep skin feeling soft.
Differin Differin Dark Spot Correcting Serum, 1 OZ, $, available at CVS
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