Hyperpigmentation, melasma, or dark spots on the skin can feel like a curse that prevents your face from looking clear and blemish-free. These dark spots come from an excess of melanin, your skin’s natural pigmentation compound. Hyperpigmentation can result from hormones and inflammation.
This is why sometimes people who are pregnant develop hyperpigmentation. In terms of inflammation, this can be caused by heat, sun exposure, over-exfoliation, picking at your skin, and popping zits. There are no overnight solutions, and products that do tout immediate depigmentation are likely fake or dangerous for your skin. Thankfully, with the right skincare, you can safely reduce your hyperpigmentation spots and lighten up your skin.
Skin Bleaching Products
Retinol is a synthetic form of vitamin A that primarily works to increase cell turnover to help unclog pores, brighten dark spots, and present a smoother, more youthful complexion. Studies found that using retinol and retinoic acids for four weeks also increased epidermal thickness and upregulated the genes for collagen and procollagen. Facial imaging found that retinol significantly reduced wrinkles after 12 weeks of application.1
Vitamin C is known to have powerful antioxidant properties to prevent oxidative stress in skin cells. Studies also suggest that vitamin C may reduce melanin formation, which can help to lighten hyperpigmentation. Vitamin C’s photoprotective properties can also prevent the formation of dark spots when exposing skin to UV rays.2 In one study, using a daily topical vitamin C treatment for three months was found to improve photodamaged skin.3
Niacinamide is one of the major forms of niacin, or vitamin B3. It acts as an anti-inflammatory and may reduce fine lines and wrinkles. Research theorizes that niacinamide may work as a precursor to two cofactors that are vital to the chemical reactions allowing for the normal function, propagation, and repair of skin cells.4 In one 12-week study, niacinamide was found to reduce hyperpigmentation, red blotchiness, yellowing, and wrinkles while improving general skin texture.5
Hydroquinone is a skin bleaching agent that works by interfering with melanin production. Specifically, hydroquinone inhibits the conversion of tyrosine to DOPA, preventing the production of melanocytes.6 While hydroquinone is generally well tolerated, it can come with some potential side effects, including skin irritation, dryness, and redness. Prolonged use of hydroquinone has been shown to potentially cause ochronosis, a discoloration of the skin that results in blue-black or gray-blue skin.7
Azelaic acid may help to even out skin tone, remove dead skin cells and debris, reduce blackheads, and brighten complexion. It can also kill P. acnes, the bacteria responsible for acne, resulting in fewer breakouts and less redness and inflammation.8 Studies have found that a topical 20 percent azelaic acid is as effective as 4 percent hydroquinone in reducing hyperpigmentation. These effects may be attributed to azelaic acid’s ability to inhibit the synthesis of hyperactive melanocytes, thereby regulating melanin production.9
Kojic acid is a compound that comes from types of fungi. It has been shown to inhibit tyrosinase, an intermediate compound necessary to the production of melanin.10 In one study, 60 patients with melasma were treated with either 4 percent hydroquinone cream or a kojic acid cream containing 0.75 percent kojic acid and 2.5 percent vitamin C. While the hydroquinone was found to be more effective overall, results showed that kojic acid had a comparable efficacy in reducing hyperpigmentation.11
The main active component in licorice extract that affects the skin is glabridin. Glabridin acts as a powerful anti-inflammatory and has been shown to prevent UVB-induced pigmentation and inhibit tyrosinase to regulate melanin production. Licorice extract also contains liquiritin, a flavonoid that may disperse melanin to induce skin lightening.12
Mulberry Root Extract
Mulberry root extract offers antioxidant properties and skin whitening potential. In a comparative study, 50 patients were given either a placebo or 75 percent mulberry extract oil for eight weeks. Researchers measured the severity of melasma and efficacy of treatment through melasma area and severity scores (MASI), Mexameter readings, and melasma quality of life scores. Results showed statistically significant improvements in those treated with the mulberry extract oil, while the placebo group showed minor to zero improvements. This suggests that mulberry root extract oil may be an effective topical treatment for skin hyperpigmentation.13
Kakadu Plum Extract
Kakadu plum extract is rich in polyphenols that may offer powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Kakadu plum extract is also high in vitamin C, which has previously been noted to help reduce hyperpigmentation and photodamage.14
Alpha-arbutin is one of the most commonly prescribed agents for skin lightening. Arbutin is actually a derivative of hydroquinone, and studies show that it may inhibit tyrosinase to reduce melanocyte production. Arbutin also prevents or reduces hyperpigmentation by inhibiting melanosome maturation. However, more controlled trials involving alpha-arbutin are necessary.15
Dark spots can be a pervasive issue, and using the wrong products can make them worse. However, with the right ingredients and some patience, you can brighten your dark spots and keep your skin looking youthful and vibrant.