While some folks are really into drawing artificial freckles on their face, others are trying to figure out how to get rid of dark spots. This is life, am I right?
If you’re dealing with dark spots on your face, you probably have hyperpigmentation. This means that your skin is producing excessive melanin, the pigment that gives your skin its color.
Hyperpigmentation can be caused by acne scarring, excessive sun exposure, hormonal changes, and hormones. These spots are usually harmless but you may want to get rid of them for cosmetic reasons. (You do you!)
While there are many topicals that can lighten or brighten dark spots and some can even be dangerous, others can be extremely effective. Here’s the deal on the best ways to treat dark spots on your face, plus how to .spot .any problematic treatments.
How to get rid of dark spots on your face
According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), most dark circles will fade over time. However, it may take some time.
Are you not patient enough to wait? There are many treatments available to help you fade them.
Although hydroquinone is the most widely used topical for dark spot removal, it can also be dangerous. Plus it has a long, problematic history of being used as an all-over skin lightener, but we’ll save that story for another day.
A 2013 study that was small found that 4 percent of hydroquinone can be used to treat facial melasma. This condition causes discolored patches. Hydroquinone is not recommended for long-term use. It should be used in specific areas and only when necessary.
Hydroquinone was once available over-the-counter, but the FDA changed its status in 2021. Now, you can only get it through a prescription. Although it is safe for cosmetic purposes, higher concentrations can pose safety concerns.
There are lots of concerns that hydroquinone could cause cancer. While more research is needed to know for sure, a 2021 research review concluded it’s highly toxic to aquatic life and rodents, and it may induce leukemia, liver cancer, or certain types of tumors in animals.
It is not FDA approved because of its safety. It is also important to note that it has been banned in countries like Australia, Japan, and the EU. It is classified as toxic in Canada. The government has urged the public to avoid it in the United Kingdom.
Hydroquinone is prescribed by a dermatologist to treat dark spots. If you have any of the following side effects, discontinue using it:
- Unusual skin darkening
- Any other side effects
Another popular treatment for hyperpigmentation is Kojic acid. Though 2013 research determined 0.75 percent kojic acid cream to be less effective and slower-acting than 4 percent hydroquinone at combating hyperpigmentation, it still seems to do the trick.
FYI, it is often more irritating than hydroquinone to the skin. There is limited evidence that it can cause tumors and can be a carcinogen. Researchers still maintain that it’s safe for cosmetic use in concentrations up to 1 percent.
Some side effects may also include:
- contact dermatitis
Retinoids are a derivative of Vitamin A. They aid in cell turnover and accelerate exfoliation. Although it can take up to three months for you to notice a difference in your skin, retinoids can be helpful over time.
A 2019 review also linked retinoids with improvements in photoaging (which often include dark spots from sun exposure – aka “age spot”).
Retinoids can cause the skin to become more sensitive to the sun and dry out your skin. Applying SPF and moisturizer can help protect your skin from even more damage.
Other potential side effects include:
These symptoms usually disappear as your skin adjusts to the retinoid. If you have persistent symptoms, consult your doctor.
Chemical exfoliants use gentle acids to break up dead skin cells and can be pretty effective at treating hyperpigmentation. These exfoliants include:
- Azelaic acid
- Glycolic acid
- Lactic acid
- Mandelic acid
- Salicylic acid
You can buy them over-the-counter, or you can visit a derm to get stronger options.
It’s a good idea for you to perform a patch test first if you are going to use over-the-counter products. You’ll also need to lather on the sunscreen to protect your delicate skin in the interim.
Medical-grade chemical peels are in-office treatments that use stronger chemical exfoliants to penetrate deep into the layers of the skin but also come with longer recovery times. A deep chemical peel will take between 2 and 3 weeks to heal your skin.
They can cause skin irritation and some side effects:
- Temporary skin darkening
- Scarring (very rare)
For laser treatment, a dermatologist is able to provide a more thorough method of lightening dark spots. Concentrated light energy is used to remove or break down pigmentation.
Many laser treatments are more effective than topicals and can lighten dark spots faster. That being said, there are risks, including:
- Changes in skin texture
Lasers can sting or burn. The intensity of the pain depends on your tolerance and your treatment needs.
Microdermabrasion is another treatment that sloughs off dead skin cells but this time, it’s a physical exfoliant. This procedure is performed by an aesthetician who will use a handheld device that has an abrasive surface. It basically sands off the top layer.
A 2021 review concluded that microdermabrasion can help reduce the appearance of dark spots, wrinkles, pores, and improve the appearance of the skin.
Although microdermabrasion takes anywhere from 5 to 16 treatments, it is very quick and easy to see results. You will be more sensitive to sunlight, so make sure you have plenty of sunscreen.
Possible side effects are:
- Skin redness
- Skin swelling or bruising
- Tingling/burning sensation
These symptoms should disappear within a few days.
Are there home remedies that can get rid of dark spots?
There are some home remedies that might help to remove dark spots. We’ll be honest, there is limited evidence that these remedies can help remove dark spots. These methods may be worth trying, as they are relatively inexpensive and unlikely to have any side effects.
These home remedies can be found in your local pharmacy (or in your kitchen cupboard).
- Mulberry extract. A 2018 research review concluded that 75 percent mulberry extract resulted in “significant” hyperpigmentation improvements compared to the placebo.
- Licorice extract. That same 2018 research review found that products containing glabridin, the main ingredient in licorice extract, effectively brighten skin.
- Aloe vera gel. Since aloe vera helps stimulate collagen production, it may help improve skin turnover and reduce the appearance of dark spots. Research from 2002 also showed that it inhibits hyperpigmentation due to UV radiation.
- Tea. There’s some research that 2 percent green tea extract in cream is effective at treating dark spots. A 2015 study suggests that fermented black, green, and white teas may be especially effective.
- Turmeric. According to a 2018 review, turmeric extract improved facial hyperpigmentation by 14 percent after 4 weeks of topical application in one study.
- Soy. Participants who applied soy extract daily to dark spots for three months saw a 12 percent decrease in hyperpigmentation.
It is possible to have an allergic reaction to any substance. Before you try any of these, make sure to run a “patch test”.
You should not use dark spot treatments
While we’ve outlined the potential risks of other treatments, there are some things we know are bad for your skin, like bleach. The AAD warns against using liquid bleach on your skin since it can cause super serious burns.
Unlisted ingredients, such as steroids, may also be found in some skin-lightening products. These should not be used without medical supervision.
Many skin lighteners (especially those with hydroquinone) contain mercury, which is highly toxic. Mercury could be hidden on an ingredient list as:
- Hydrargyri oxydum rubrum
When shopping online, make sure you only shop at reputable businesses. If in doubt, consult a derm.
Remember that safe products can still have side effects. If you experience any, stop using them immediately.
Can you avoid dark circles on your face?
Skin lightening can have many negative side effects.
Although hormonal causes can cause hyperpigmentation, you can avoid some skin problems.
You can protect your skin against dark spots by doing these things:
- Wearing SPF regularly
- Protective clothing, hats, and sunglasses are essential when you’re out in the sun.
- Avoiding the sun during peak hour
- Avoid picking at pimples to reduce scarring
Although dark spots can fade naturally, there are many ways to speed up the process. Hydroquinone and other popular skin lighteners are banned in many countries. It’s a smart idea to consult a dermatologist about which option is best for you.
Other treatments like retinoids, microdermabrasion, and chemical exfoliants are known to be pretty safe and effective.