- Retinol is one of the best ingredients to treat hyperpigmentation due to its ability to speed up cell turnover.
- Azelaic acid is another ingredient that brightens the skin, but is gentler, making it great for those with sensitive skin.
- If you have hyperpigmentation, it’s also important to always wear sunscreen to prevent new dark spots.
- This article was medically reviewed by Debra Jaliman, MD, a board-certified dermatologist with a private practice in New York City.
- Visit Insider’s Health Reference library for more advice.
Hyperpigmentation is a skin condition that causes dark patches or spots to appear on the skin. This darkening is due to excess production of melanin â€” the pigment that controls skin colour.
Hyperpigmentation is common, especially if you have darker skin. Acne, hormonal changes, ageing, and sun exposure can all trigger hyperpigmentation. However, the condition can be treated. Here are the best ingredients in skincare products if you want to brighten an uneven complexion.
1. Vitamin C
What it does: Vitamin C can reduce hyperpigmentation by blocking melanin production. Heather Woolery-Lloyd, MD, a dermatologist practicing in Miami, Florida, explains that vitamin C blocks tyrosinase, an enzyme your body uses to produce melanin, making it a natural skin brightener. Vitamin C is also a potent antioxidant, which means it protects skin cells from further damage either from the sun or outside pollutants.
A small 2004 study found that using 5% ascorbic acid cream â€” a form of vitamin C â€” for 16 weeks reduced hyperpigmentation for 62.5% of participants.
How to use it: People with sensitive skin might see redness or feel stinging from using vitamin C. However, it’s safe to use vitamin C daily in your skincare products to treat hyperpigmentation caused by acne or inflammation.
There are multiple forms of vitamin C. Magnesium ascorbyl phosphate is a stable form preferred by dermatologists, because it hydrates and absorbs easily. Ascorbic acid sulfate and ascorbyl palmitate are other forms of vitamin C used in skin products like serums and creams.
2. Kojic Acid
What it does: Kojic acid is a byproduct of the fermentation of certain types of fungi. Similar to vitamin C, Kojic acid also works by inhibiting tyrosinase enzymes. It also protects the skin from environmental toxins because it is high in antioxidants. Kojic acid is popular because it comes from natural sources, but it can still cause side effects like swelling and redness.
How to use it: Kojic acid is found in creams, serums, gels, and exfoliating pads. It’s typically included in beauty products in concentrations from 1% to 4%. Not everyone’s skin will respond well to Kojic acid, so you may want to do a patch test on the inside of your wrist before you apply it over a large area of your face.
What it does:Raman Madan, MD, Chief of Dermatology at Northwell Health, says retinol is a form of vitamin A and their go-to ingredient for hyperpigmentation. Retinol is particularly effective at combating hyperpigmentation by encouraging cell turnover and bringing healthier, newer skin cells to the surface while exfoliating older, darker ones.
How to use it: Tretinoin â€” a powerful form of retinol â€” is available by prescription in concentrations of 1% and .05%. Milder versions, like retinyl palmitate and retinaldehyde, can be found in over-the-counter products. For best results, use retinol for several months or more. But avoid use while pregnant, as retinoids may cause birth defects.
What it does: Niacinamide is a form of vitamin B3, which is involved in cell metabolism. Topical application of B-3 can interrupt the process of cell pigmentation, thereby brightening the skin. It can also be used to treat acne, which can help prevent future hyperpigmentation or scarring.
How to use it: You can use niacinamide daily in over-the-counter products such as serums and creams. For best results, Raman Madan, MD, Chief of Dermatology at Northwell Health, recommends combining it with other proven skin brightening ingredients such as vitamin C and retinol.
5. Azelaic Acid
What it does: Azelaic acid is an organic acid found in grains, like barley and rye. It has anti-inflammatory properties and can suppress melanin production in the skin. Azelaic acid is gentler than some other acids, and Madan says that it’s safe to use during pregnancy, unlike retinoids. This makes it a great option as many women experience melasma â€” a type of hyperpigmentation â€” during pregnancy due to hormonal changes.
How to use it: Azelaic acid can be found in prescription-strength creams as well as a prescription gel. There are also lower-grade options available in over-the-counter serums and creams. It can be applied daily at a concentration of 20% to help with hyperpigmentation.
6. Mandelic Acid
What it does: Mandelic acid is an alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) used in chemical peels, but it can also be found in over-the-counter cosmetics. A small 2019 study found that a biweekly chemical peel of mandelic acid reduced post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation more effectively than other ingredients like glycolic acid or phytic acid.
How to use it: If you have hyperpigmentation due to acne, mandelic acid may reduce breakouts as well as brighten the skin. But overusing it could burn your skin, so stick to peels just once a week or biweekly.
What it does: Arbutin comes from dried blueberry, bearberry, or pear tree leaves. Arbutin is considered to be a natural form of hydroquinone â€” a chemical that bleaches your skin â€” and it may be just as effective. When used over time, arbutin may also be more effective than other natural ingredients, such as Kojic acid.
How to use it: Arbutin can be found in creams and serums over-the-counter. Clinical trials to demonstrate how long it takes to see results are lacking, but users report that it takes one to two months on average.
Make sure to wear sunscreen
While it’s important to wear sunscreen every day, it is especially important when using these products. That’s because these products make your skin more prone to UV damage as they expose newer, more sensitive skin cells.
Sunscreen may also help prevent and treat your hyperpigmentation. That’s because it prevents cells from producing melanin. This also helps existing hyperpigmentation fade more quickly, Woolery-Lloyd says.
Choosing the right ingredients for your skin type and the cause of your hyperpigmentation may take some trial and error. That’s why it’s best to team with a dermatologist and use skincare products consistently and as directed.
Related articles from Health Reference:
- The best facial cleanser ingredients for each skin type, according to dermatologists
- These are the best, most effective ingredients you should look for in a moisturizer
- The best anti-ageing ingredients for skincare, according to dermatologists
- The best exfoliating ingredients, according to dermatologists
- How to exfoliate your face based on your skin type, according to dermatologists