Try the ‘Big 3’ For Dealing With Sun Spots and Other Forms of Hyperpigmentation

Photo: Stocksy/Ivan Ozerov
Who among us hasn’t contended with hyperpigmentation? The word (hyper, extra; pigmentation, color) is more of an umbrella term than a skin condition in-and-of-itself. Sunspots, melasma, and reddish-brown remnants of over-picked zits called "post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation", for instance, are common variations, wherein certain spots or patches of skin appear darker than the surrounding skin.

Broadly speaking, hyperpigmentation boils down to pigment-producing cells, called melanocytes, going into overdrive and churning out extra melanin. What triggers this "overdrive mode" varies. In the examples above, for instance, sun exposure, hormones, and inflammation are common culprits.

Experts In This Article
  • Joshua Zeichner, MD, director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology and associate professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital

Hyperpigmentation is typically NBD from a health standpoint (phew!); aesthetically though, it can give skin an uneven appearance. Moreover—as many of us can attest—irregular pigmentation is notoriously tricky to handle.

In severe cases (like prominent melasma), derm-administered medical peels, hydroquinone, and/or professional lasers may be the best bet. For less-prominent cases, however, at-home skin-care products can make a significant difference. The tricky part is knowing which products to use—particularly as there’s no shortage of skin care that claims to eradicate hyperpigmentation.

The “Big Three” of Hyperpigmentation

Here’s a derm-approved trick to narrow your search: Look for skin-care ingredients that align with the hyperpigmentation "big three". Joshua Zeichner, MD, a New York City-based dermatologist recently shared a regimen on Instagram. “If you are looking to get rid of dark spots, [there] are...three types of ingredients that you should be looking for in your skincare products.” Specifically: ingredients that calm inflammation, block abnormal pigmentation, and enhance cell turnover. Below, a breakdown of this—plus, the exact ingredients Dr. Zeichner recommends.

1. Calm

“First, you want to help calm inflammation in the skin,” Dr. Zeichner explains. (This rings particularly true in cases of post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.) Look for products that contain:

Niacinamide: It's a form of vitamin B3 that quells inflammation. Niacinamide is hailed for its gentleness on virtually every skin type, including acne-prone complexions. Find it in serums like First Aid Beauty Facial Radiance Dark Spot Serum ($42).

Licorice root extract: Similar to niacinamide, this ingredient soothes skin and lessens inflammation (an underlying cause of hyperpigmentation). It may also have brightening properties. Find it in Eminence Bright Skin Licorice Root Booster-Serum ($56).

2. Block

“Next, you want to block production of abnormal pigmentation,” Dr. Zeichner says. Look for products that contain:

Vitamin C: One of the most prominent brighteners known to skin-care. Try SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic ($166).

Kojic acid: It “blocks the enzyme tyrosine from forming,” dermatologist Keira L. Barr, MD, previously told Well and Good, “which then prevents melanin production.” Find it—and vitamin C!—in Hyper Clear Brightening Clearing Vitamin C Serum ($36).

Arbutin: Another tyrosinase-inhibiting ingredient, can prevent excess pigment production. Find it in Goodall Green Tangerine Vita C Cleansing Foam ($12).

3. Enhance

“Finally,” Dr. Zeichner concludes, “You want to enhance cell turnover to help your skin shed the cells that are already darkly pigmented.” Look for products that contain:

Retinol: This skin-care star that hardly needs an introduction. Find it in countless products, including Paula’s Choice Clinical 1% Retinol Treatment ($58).

Glycolic acid: It's an alpha hydroxy acid known for preventing sluggish cell turnover and keeping skin fresh-looking. Try this derm-loved serum from The Ordinary.

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