Discoloration is not created equal. Hyperpigmentation is an umbrella term for all types of dark pigmentation on the skin. From sun spots to acne scars, they can vary in terms of how they look and why, exactly, they pop up. And while most fade on their own time, that can take (what feels like) forever, which is why some may want to treat them. Dark spots appear when skin produces excess melanin, a.k.a. the pigment in skin, that gets clumped up. It can also spill out between the skin cells, which is why — unlike a tan, in which pigment is actually in the cell — dark spots don’t usually fade in a matter of days.
The good news? The right approach tends to be the same no matter what kind of dark spot you’re dealing with. Ingredients like vitamin C and tranexamic acid (or both) can go a long way in speeding up the fading process. Here’s how to identify each one — the best way to treat them all.
You might also know these as age spots — either way, they’re the result of cumulative sun exposure over the years. (And it’s not just sunlight, by the way. Research has also found that pollution can contribute to them, too.) “Sun spots are small, discolored areas of flat skin that may appear tan or varying shades of brown, or black, and typically appear on the areas of the body that get the most sun exposure, such as the face, shoulders, back, and the backs of hands,” says New York-based cosmetic dermatologist Michele Green, M.D. “These brown patches often start to appear around the age of 40, though some people may develop them earlier or later in life, depending on the amount of sun exposure they’ve had.” They’re more common in people with fair skin.
So you popped a zit — or even just had a zit. Whatever the source of inflammation in question, be it a breakout or a mosquito bike, the inflammatory event can result in a brown or black dark spot left in its wake. “During the natural healing process of the skin, there is potential that cells involved with healing the area are also contributing to the overproduction of melanin, leading to the development of hyperpigmented spots of skin,” Green says. There’s a ton of evidence showing that post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) is much more common in those with dark skin tones, as they already have a higher melanin content to begin with.
Another thing that sets PIH apart? It doesn’t appear the same in all skin tones. “The color of the dark spots associated with post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation can vary, appearing as brown, black, red, pink, or purple patches of skin depending on the skin tone of the patient,” says Green. “PIH in fair-skinned individuals may present as pink, red, or purple, whereas PIH in darker-skinned individuals may present as brown, dark brown, or black.” Sunlight, not surprisingly, can make these darker, too.
Melasma is a chronic condition, and it’s not really an easy one to handle. “Melasma is one of the most common skin conditions associated with brown or gray-brown patches of skin that are darker than the rest of the face,” says Green. “The dark patches of skin that are related to melasma are typically found on the forehead, cheeks, and the upper lip.” (That’s why it’s often called the “mask of pregnancy,” FYI.) It’s typically linked to hormones and worsened with sunlight — which is why coordinating treatment with a derm is essential for addressing this particular condition.
The only type of dark spot that’s *actually* harmful — versus a cosmetic concern — is skin cancer, such as melanoma. Keep an eye out for the ABCDEs of skin cancer — Asymmetry, Border that’s irregular, Color that varies, Diameter greater than a pencil eraser, and Evolving shape — and make an appointment with a dermatologist ASAP should you notice any of these signs. And beyond melanoma, “a new, changing, or growing mole or dark spot on the skin is a sign of possible skin cancer, along with lesions that itch, bleed, or don’t heal,” says Green.
How to fade dark spots, stat
Besides skin cancer, sun spots, dark marks from PIH, and melasma are generally harmless. And again, says Green, “discolored areas of skin associated with PIH tend to heal on their own given time — but this process can take a substantial amount of time.” To speed up the process, she recommends considering targeted skincare products, such as a vitamin C serum.
Vitamin C is the gold standard for addressing all kinds of hyperpigmentation, as it blocks a key enzyme, tyrosinase, that’s required for melanin to form. You can find it in Guava Vitamin C Dark Spot Serum, which pairs not one, not two, but five forms of vitamin C with vitamin E and ferulic acid, which boost its effects and help stabilize it. (It’s one of a few key synergistic ingredient pairings in the skincare world.) It also contains tranexamic acid, which gums up the works in the pigment production process and soothes inflammation (making it a winner for PIH in particular). Studies have also put it on par with hydroquinone when in certain concentrations — without the risks associated with the latter. Our serum is also super-gentle, which is essential when you’re trying to tackle PIH. Even irritation can lead to PIH (makes sense, seeing as inflammation is a natural result of irritation); that means overly harsh treatments could worsen the very concern you’re trying to address, which is why a gentle approach is key.
And while that works its magic, don’t forget to apply SPF — since sunlight is a factor in both the development of and worsening of dark spots — and offset the darkness with a highlighting serum like Watermelon Glow Niacinamide Dew Drops. Not only does the formula instantly brighten skin and deliver a dewy glow, it does so without mica, glitter, or pearls. You’ll also find niacinamide in there, a.k.a. vitamin B3, which blocks the transfer of melanin from the melanosomes (the cells that make melanin) to the skin cells.
Also an option? In-office treatments, such as laser skin resurfacing. “Fraxel is a fractionated laser skin resurfacing treatment that is often recommended for patients who suffer from extensive sun damage and facial hyperpigmentation,” says Green. However, she warns, it’s not a great option for everyone, as “some laser treatments can potentially cause hyperpigmentation to become further entrenched in the skin, making it more difficult to remove.” And for pink-toned PIH in lighter skin tones, “the VBeam is the ideal treatment,” she says. “The VBeam Laser works by releasing a burst of light at a wavelength that exclusively targets the red pigment within the skin.”
Ultimately, the right treatment for your dark spots depends on which you’re working with and how quickly you want them to disappear. But topical treatments, paired with proper sun protection, can go a long way in preventing them from forming in the first place — so they belong in your routine, stat.
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