I have a dark spot on my jaw that’s a not-so-pretty souvenir from a botched effort to get rid of a planet-sized zit that popped up (literally) right before a pool party back in high school. Because I wanted to get a boy to like me, I picked at it, popped it, then slathered on a crazy amount of concealer, and he still generally ignored me. Ugh. Luckily, that unfortunate day (and my unrequited crush) have long since passed, but the skin discoloration from the incident—many years later—remains.
I’m not alone when I say that trying to battle acne (along with other inflammatory skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis for that matter) is complicated. And experts agree, that when you throw melanin into the mix, it brings about a whole new level of frustration. Because the reality is that, yes, acne can cause scarring and discoloration in all skin tones, but if you’re a person of color, many dermatologists agree that there’s a greater risk.
“Anyone with darker skin tones can find that as the pimple fades the discoloration persists,” explains Mona Gohara, MD, a dermatologist in Connecticut and clinical faculty at Yale New Haven Hospital, and a woman of color herself. That’s because “darker skin has a tendency to revolt against inflammation by creating more pigment, leaving behind brown marks called post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation,” she explains.
Your first line of defense to reclaiming clear, even-toned skin? Dr. Gohara says it’s important to remember that the two conditions must be treated simultaneously. “You not only have to treat your acne in a very specific way—you also have to be proactive and treat your skin for hyperpigmentation, too,” she says.
Here, Dr. Gohara shares exactly how you can cope with both acne and hyperpigmentation like a pro.
Wear sunscreen every day, all the time
The only way to keep excess pigment in check is to prevent the skin from creating more in the first place, which means along with lessening inflammation to prevent a surge of melanin production, sunscreen is a must, too. “I know that it’s easy to sometimes let the sunscreen slide, but it’s one of the most important ways to prevent further discoloration,” says Dr. Gohara, who adds that if you’re using a retinoid or other prescription acne product, sunscreen is even more critical because those products can be sun sensitizing. Look for a broad spectrum SPF 30 or higher formula that is in an oil-free formula that won’t clog pores.
The reason this is so crucial is because research shows (and experts agree) that inflammation is present throughout the entire pimple process—from when it first surfaces to when it finally disappears. Yet, the best acne-fighting ingredients—such as azelaic acid and vitamin A derivatives like Retin-A—which provide some level of exfoliation, can also exacerbate inflammation if used in large amounts.
To deal with this, apply small amounts of these products to help clear clogged pores and mitigate more inflammation, which can be a pathway to hyperpigmentation in deeper skin tones. “You want to start out with a lower percentage of the active ingredient or a product with a creamier base so you can apply a thin layer,” suggests Dr. Gohara, adding that typically a pea-sized amount over the entire face is more than enough. She also suggests using exfoliating acne treatments only a few times a week when you first begin using them. You can increase their frequency as your skin begins to tolerate them, she explains.
Treat hyperpigmentation naturally
Along with reaching for anti-acne products, you’ll need to apply a melanin-inhibiting treatment while you’re also using acne products. That’s because, Dr. Gohara explains that a surge of melanin is sent to breakout zones as your skin’s natural way to help speed up the healing process. The issue: If you already have higher amounts of melanin in your skin naturally, this uptick could lead to the dreaded post-pimple dark spot long after the zit has gone away.
To help mitigate this effect, Dr. Gohara suggests reaching for products that contain soy and licorice root extract (like Eminence Bright Skin Licorice Root Booster-Serum and 100 Percent Pure Brightening Serum). “These natural ingredients are super gentle yet fantastic for gently reducing hyperpigmentation in the skin,” she says. “They can help treat existing dark spots, and with continued use, can break up spots not yet visible at the skin’s surface.”
Be gentle with your skin
Most people are under the misconception that acne is solely caused by having oily skin, which means there’s a lot of aggressive skin cleansing going on and that actually causes more harm than good, especially in skin of color. The first rule: “Do not scrub your face,” cautions Dr. Gohara. “When you use a grainy scrub you just create more inflammation, which can lead to more hyperpigmentation.” Instead, opt for gentle cleansers (like a milky face wash that can keep your skin’s barrier in tact), which get your face clean without stripping it of the natural oils that it needs to stay happy.
And, despite the slew of fascinating YouTube videos, don’t pick or pop your pimples either, because that can cause even more inflammation and lead to permanent scarring. Instead, if you need immediate relief, a very tiny application of a cortisol or benzoyl peroxide-based cream directly on a zit should take down the size and redness significantly.
Looking for more ways to achieve clear skin for good? Try blue light phototherapy, which is for all skin tones, to banish bacteria from the inside-out. And try these totally natural DIY anti-acne solutions that pros swear by.