According to dermatologist Keira L. Barr, MD, founder and chief wellness officer of Resilient Health Institute, there are two simple ways to combat hyperpigmentation that you should know about before getting into the fancy skincare ingredients: Avoiding the sun, which can make those dark spots worse, and making sure you're properly dealing with air pollutants, which have been associated with hyperpigmentation.
"The most important part of a skincare routine to help minimize hyperpigmentation is sun protection. Sun protection is always going to be number one," Dr. Barr says. "Right behind sun protection as a contributing cause of hyperpigmentation is air pollution—especially if you live in a bigger city. Various air pollutants such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, volatile organic compounds, oxides, particulate matter, ozone, and cigarette smoke affect the skin. So one of the biggest parts of a skincare routine is washing your face to get the grime, dirt, and pollutants off."
Aside from wearing sunscreen year-round and never skipping out on your face washes, Barr says there are also several topical products you can use that can help with hyperpigmentation both directly and indirectly. "Indirectly, consider products that help with skin cell turnover and gentle exfoliation like retinoids," she says. Those will help your dark spots fade over time. "Also reach for products that directly block the enzymes that produce pigmentation with ingredients like kojic acid and arbutin."
There are a handful of other ingredients that can help with pigmentation too, and Barr recommends using products that contain some or all of a handful of her go-tos to help improve your skin and fade those dark spots over time. The next time you're shopping for skincare, these are the ingredients to look for—as well as the best derm-approved, hyperpigmentation-fighting products that contain them.
The derm-approved ingredients for fighting hyperpigmentation
Product to try: Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol Anti-Wrinkle Cream, $74
When it comes to getting rid of hyperpigmentation, retinol is the queen. "Retinol is a vitamin A derivative and just might be the holy grail for hyperpigmentation, anti-aging, and acne regimens because it aids in skin cell turnover and plays a role in boosting collagen," Barr says.
Product to try: Herbivore Bakuchiol Retinol Alternative Smoothing Serum, $54
If you want to reap the benefits of retinol without using an actual retinol, looking for a product that contains bakuchiol is the way to go. It's a gentler alternative that gets the job done without any of the irritating effects.
"Bakuchiol is a meroterpene phenol, an antioxidant, most abundantly found in the seeds of the plant Psoralea corylifolia. It has a long history in medicine for its anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antiproliferative, and anti-acne properties," Barr says. "Although it has no structural resemblance to retinoids, bakuchiol has been shown to function similarly to traditional retinols by targeting similar cellular pathways, which means it offers skin benefits including smoother texture, less hyperpigmentation, improved elasticity, and fewer wrinkles."
3. Kojic acid
Kojic acid—which is derived from mushrooms—is great at targeting hyperpigmentation. "Kojic acid works as a lightening agent," Barr says. "It blocks the enzyme tyrosine from forming, which then prevents melanin production." Other key hyperpigmentation-fighters? Beta and alpha hydroxy acids. "Think lactic, glycolic, and salicylic acids, which exfoliate the skin's surface and, as a result, aid in resolving hyperpigmentation while adding hydration to the skin to promote a youthful glow."
4. Vitamin C
Product to try: Drunk Elephant C-Firma Vitamin C Day Serum, $80
Leave it to vitamin C to help reduce the appearance of dark spots. "As a potent antioxidant, it fights against environmental stressors like UV and air pollution, which contribute to skin hyperpigmentation," Barr says. "Vitamin C also plays a role in repairing skin cells."
Product to try: Isdinceutics Melatonik 3-IN-1 Night serum, $160
According to Barr, melatonin "boosts the skin's natural defenses against free radicals caused by UV radiation, oxidative stress, and pollution," and this product uses the ingredient to help combat hyperpigmentation. It also contains bakuchiol and vitamin C.
Product to try: iS Clinical Pro-Heal Serum Advance Plus, $148
Arbutin—which is an alternative to the topical skin-bleaching agent hydroquinone—works to help lighten the skin by inhibiting tyrosinase activity, says Barr. "This results in the prevention of melanin formation. It can be found as a natural extract in bearberry (Uva Ursi) plants," she explains.
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