7 Ingredients Dermatologists Use to Treat Dark Spots

Sun spots, dark marks, age spots, liver spots…no matter what you call them, they’re signs of skin damage. So what to do when hyperpigmentation starts showing up? Go shopping.

Here, we’ve rounded up some of our founder’s favorites: Sandra Lee, MD (aka Dr. Pimple Popper) shares the top ingredients dermatologists recommend to treat dark spots.

A woman with dark spots like melasma

3 minute read

Retinol

What it is: an antioxidant derived from vitamin A that speeds up cell turnover and inhibits the production of tyrosinase, the enzyme necessary for melanin production
Common form: cream or gel
Benefit(s): reduces dark spots over time
Availability: over the counter (retinol) or prescription (tretinoin) in the United States
Side effects: possible redness, peeling and irritation during initial use that diminishes over time
Works well with: hyaluronic acid, salicylic acid, niacinamide, hydroquinone
SLMD Retinol Serum

Vitamin C

What it is: an antioxidant that neutralizes free radicals and inhibits the production of tyrosinase, the enzyme necessary for melanin production
Common form: serum, toner, gel, cream
Benefit(s): brightens skin and helps lighten dark spots over time
Availability: over the counter
Side effects: higher concentrations may cause irritation, especially in sensitive types
Works well with: glycolic acid, hyaluronic acid, ferulic acid, niacinamide
SLMD Bright Future

Glycolic acid

What it is: an alpha hydroxy acid that penetrates into skin’s outer layers and breaks down the bonds between dead skin cells
Common form: cleanser, serum, toner, cream
Benefit(s): exfoliates darker pigmented areas
Availability: over the counter, in-office chemical peels
Side effects: may cause irritation, peeling and redness; increases sun sensitivity
Works well with: vitamin C, salicylic acid, lactic acid, retinol
SLMD Resurfacing Acne Swipes

Kojic acid

What it is: an alpha hydroxy acid derived from fungi that inhibits tyrosinase, slowing down melanin production
Common form: serum, toner, cream
Benefit(s): exfoliates darker pigmented areas and reduces dark spots over time, reduces inflammation
Availability: over the counter
Side effects: may increase sun sensitivity; may cause irritation in sensitive skin types
Works well with: vitamin C, salicylic acid, retinol
SLMD Dark Spot Fix

Niacinamide

What it is: aka vitamin B3, an antioxidant that helps prevent melanosomes (packets of melanin) from being deposited in keratinocytes (outer layers of skin cells)
Common form: serum, toner, cream
Benefit(s): brightens, reduces inflammation, strengthens skin barrier, boosts efficacy of sunscreen
Availability: over the counter
Side effects: may cause irritation and redness in sensitive skin types
Works well with: vitamin C, retinol, sunscreen
SLMD All Bright

Hydroquinone

What it is: an antioxidant that inhibits the production of tyrosinase, the enzyme necessary for melanin production
Common form: cream or ointment
Benefit(s): reduces dark spots over time
Availability: prescription only in the United States
Side effects: possible redness and irritation; rarely, increased pigmentation if not used as directed
Works well with: retinoids and hydrocortisone

Tranexamic acid

What it is: synthetic version of the amino acid lysine, reduces melanocyte-stimulating hormone (MSH) and may decrease blood supply to melanocytes
Common form: serum, toner, cream, oral medication
Benefit(s): reduces dark spots over time, reduces inflammation
Availability: over the counter and prescription pill in the U.S.
Side effects: may cause irritation and redness in sensitive skin types
Works well with: vitamin C, hyaluronic acid, retinol

Dr Sandra Lee

Dr. Lee's Last Word

If you’re trying to get rid of dark spots, my best advice is to use sunscreen every day! Not only will it help prevent hyperpigmentation, it will also allow the active ingredients in your skincare to do their job. Some of my favorites for diminishing dark spots are retinol, hydroquinone, vitamin C, and kojic acid.

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