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There are many joys that come with aging, like wisdom, perspective, and maybe even a padded savings account. But there is also a fair share of agony too, like a sore back, recessed hairline, and as I’ve discovered in my 30s — hyperpigmentation. Whenever any little thing occurs to my skin, such as a shave cut or pimple, it leaves behind a dark mark that lingers for months. And for half the year, I’m as pale as a ghost, so those marks are omnipresent.
The wound slowly heals, and it’s definitely not a scar, but a more surface-level epidermal issue (if not slightly breaching the next layer, the dermis). Suddenly, a pimple isn’t a two or three-day problem; it’s a three or six-month problem. And yes, I admit that it’s a superficial problem to have, both literally and figuratively, but I’m in the profession of discussing these things. So let’s talk about the best products for hyperpigmentation, and how I use them to counter it.
Not all hyperpigmentation is related to aging, as many cases are caused by genetics, hormones, or even skin trauma. But many of us experience hyperpigmentation as we age simply because of our skin’s melanocytes, which have endured decades of sun exposure, hormonal shifts, and pollution in the air. After all that, these melanocytes suddenly start overproducing melanin, et voila: You’ve got a new skincare condition to keep tabs on and to arm yourself against. Also, hyperpigmentation doesn’t just spring up as the remnants of wounds. It can also appear as splotchy patches and age spots.
Because I’m in the business of discussing these things, I am also in the business of trying the best products out there, in hopes of proselytizing the solution to folks like you. And I think I’ve tapped into some of the best products for hyperpigmentation, so read on.
Different Ways to Fight Hyperpigmentation Related to Aging
These tips focus on the type of hyperpigmentation that I am experiencing with aging skin, as opposed to those cases which others might experience genetically or hormonally. For example, a pregnant woman treating a patch of melasma will need significantly different solutions than the ones below. Please see a dermatologist in any severe cases, even if they pertain to aging.
Prioritize Vitamin C in the Morning
In skincare products, Vitamin C is heralded as a brightener, in that it can slow melanin production in the cells. So, it can help minimize or even thwart hyperpigmentation. It’s good to use it in the morning, too, since it can actively neutralize the impact of UV rays on the cells.
Vitamin C is a common skincare ingredient, but a volatile one at that; many of the cheap Vitamin C products out there are just selling you snake oil. Most notably, its shelf life is pretty short, like three to six months from production, which means that product inventory better be ripe and fresh. So how do you ensure that you get a good Vitamin C product? Easy: Look for a DIY-type product, such as the one I use from Drunk Elephant.
When you get the product, it comes with a separate liquid serum tube that you manually incorporate into the powder of the recipe. This thereby activates the Vitamin C and ensures you’re getting the freshest and most long-lasting serum. I love that this one makes my skin more visibly radiant on contact — a different and instant kind of brightening effect in addition to the long-term one advertised.
Prioritize Retinol in the Evening
Just as I make sure to have a Vitamin C product in the morning, I always apply a retinol product before bed. I’m a huge believer in prescription-grade retinol, namely tretinoin. I use a 0.05% cream, which takes some adjusting, since over-the-counter (OTC) products are much less intense, and entry-level prescriptions start around 0.025%. Remember, this is tretinoin, a different type of retinoid than retinol itself. “Retinol” itself will be listed in higher percentages on OTC products even though they are less aggressive on the skin. So don’t mistake 1% retinol for a higher grade than 0.025% tretinoin. The latter (again, prescription only) is more effective.
Retinol (and specifically tretinoin) is the one skincare ingredient I would pick for my team if only given a single option. It is a derivative of Vitamin A used for anti-aging purposes that can actively reverse signs of fine lines while regulating everything from cellular turnover (a huge necessity for ridding of hyperpigmentation), as well as acne, and at the same time increase collagen production. Similarly to hair loss treatments, retinol takes three months or more to really show its effects, and you’ll want to continue using it indefinitely afterward in order to maintain those results.
Remember, you can always graduate up to the next level of intensity, but I always suggest starting with an OTC option to get skin comfortable with retinol (these ones shouldn’t take much getting used to). One I love recommending to retinol-rookie readers and friends is this low-grade option from First Aid Beauty.
And for those looking to make an upgrade but not yet ready for a prescription-grade product, try SkinCeuticals’ maximum-strength option.
Though, at this point, I’d also suggest looking into a tretinoin prescription. Apostrophe is one route that brings the doctor to you digitally (and delivers a cream with additional clear-skin ingredients). And I’m a fan of GoodRx when it comes to finding huge discounts on tretinoin, since it’s typically considered a cosmetic medicine and won’t be covered by most insurances. Depending on the strength and size of the tube, as well as your location, you can save as much as 90% off the drug prices. Tretinoin can still be costly, but it is worth it — trust.
Retinol also makes the skin slightly more sensitive to the sun, so that’s why it’s a night-time use product, and it’s also why you should always use SPF by day if you’re using retinol by night (more on SPF later, too). If you want to try a natural alternative to retinol, look into bakuchiol-type products, like this one from Herbivore.
Do a Monthly Peel and Weekly Exfoliation
Your skin cells turn over once every 28 days, ish. So, any time you’re hoping to heal a deep-seated blemish like hyperpigmentation, it’s going to take a few cycles of shedding to rid of that sucker. And sometimes, the dead skin outstays its welcome, which leads to dullness and rough texture from all the buildup. That’s why skin peels have grown in popularity; they use exfoliating ingredients to lift away and force cellular turnover in order to showcase your brightest and most youthful skin possible.
A dermatologist or esthetician can give you a true medical-grade and safe peel in their clinic, and I love getting those, so long as I don’t have any important public engagements in the few days to follow. But I also like to have an at-home spot-peel product at the ready, which I deploy every four weeks on a pesky blemish (rather than across my entire face).
This tiny vial from Ourself is extremely potent; using a Q-tip, I dab it onto the dark spot, and then let it set. In the days to follow, I see the spot dry up and begin to peel away, always resulting in a significant decrease in size once it’s lifted away. I feel like this thing cuts the waiting time in half when it comes to a months-long effort. Lifesaver — but use it sparingly, because a little goes a long way, and a lot goes way too far (like redness and more problems than you started with). It can be applied uniformly as a brightening peel across the entire face, too, but again — go easy on yourself!
Whether or not you want to leave the peeling to the professionals, you should also incorporate lightweight exfoliation into your skincare regimen on a once or twice-weekly basis, in order to consistently maintain smooth, youthful skin. Look for a serum or cream with alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) like glycolic, lactic, or mandelic acid, and/or with beta hydroxy acid (BHA) such as salicylic acid. AHAs target the surface-level cells, while BHA seeps deeper to unclog pores and prevent blemishes. My go-to these days is this serum from Vivant, which uses mandelic acid to gently and swiftly counter hyperpigmentation as well as acne and signs of aging.
And I’m really big on using salicylic acid at first sight of any acne (and to prevent it in the first place). I maintain significantly brighter and clearer skin with Peace Out’s 2% salicylic acid serum.
Incorporate LED Therapy
I know a lot of the products on this roster add up to an expensive tally, so each person is going to have to pick and choose their weapons. And this next one is probably the steepest investment, but man oh man, do I stand by it. It’s an at-home LED treatment mask (specifically from Dr. Dennis Gross), and it delivers different types of light (blue, amber, red, deep red, and infrared) across three different settings: Anti-Aging, Anti-Acne, and a combination of both. I recommend the red-hued anti-aging treatment above all, to boost collagen production and promote skin resilience.
You can try the anti-acne light too (or the combination of both) if your acne is primarily inflammation or bacterial-based; in doing so you can prevent blemishes that might become dark spots. If not, then forego that one and focus your anti-acne efforts elsewhere (like if you primarily get cystic or whitehead/blackhead type breakouts). The daily 3-minute ritual on freshly cleansed skin has been extremely easy to maintain. Those various red and infrared lights penetrate the skin to different depths, in turn boosting collagen production, reducing acne, countering UV damage, and improving hyperpigmentation.
If you are looking to make a significant change in your anti-aging regimen and you are good at maintaining habits, then put your money here. (And in retinol! I do the mask in the morning and the tretinoin in the evening.)
Dr. Dennis Gross DRx SpectraLite Dpl FaceWare Pro
Full Review: I’ve Used the Dr. Dennis Gross LED Mask for 7 Months and It’s Basically Perfect
Try Spot Treatments
In addition to spot peels or targeted blemish serums, I like to add targeted hyperpigmentation creams or serums into my evening rotation whenever I have a stubborn spot. I think of this as a supplemental effort alongside the other more heavy lifters, but if it helps spare me from using concealer for 90 more days, then it’s well worth the effort.
Specifically, I use these patches from ZitSticka, which pump a bunch of ingredients into the blemish using tiny microdarts (which you can’t feel). In this case, those ingredient-packed darts include hyaluronic acid for hydration, niacinamide and vitamin C for brightness, as well as four ingredients to suppress melanin production: arbutin, licorice root extract, tranexamic acid, and kojic acid. I wear it overnight or on a work-from-home day for six to eight hours. It’s important to cleanse the area and apply the patch to clean skin.
Use SPF Every. Single. Day.
Wear SPF every day. Period. Even in winter. Even on cloudy days. Even if you’re indoors staring at a computer all day. UV rays are omnipresent; as long as the sun is in the sky, then its UV rays can penetrate clouds and windows and find a home in your skin. And that’s where they compromise things like elasticity, density, and firmness. So, not only can regular use of SPF 30+ help prevent things like hyperpigmentation, but it can also prevent preexisting dark spots from experiencing a boost in melanin, which would only further extend their stay on your skin.
I find it easiest to get it through my daily moisturizer with SPF, so as to combine the two essential steps into one. Cardon has been my go-to here for years now. They also make a great face wash for sensitive skin that I use regularly.
And in the event I use a non-SPF moisturizer, I then apply a facial sunscreen (especially if I’m headed outside for direct sun exposure for a long period of time). My facial SPF of choice is from Geologie, where many of the SPY writers start their first solid skincare routine.
Again, always prioritize SPF30+, and note that more evidence is coming out about the long-term impact of screens on skin health; these SPF shields (particularly mineral ones like Geologie’s zinc UV shield) can also thwart the damage of blue light. Score one for year-round application. And worry not, at bedtime you can skip the SPF and instead opt for a nighttime moisturizer.