The No-BS Guide to Getting Rid of Hyperpigmentation

Stocksy | Hannah Criswell
Stocksy | Hannah Criswell

Unlike a problematic family member, hyperpigmentation does not discriminate. It can happen to anyone, no matter your skin type or tone, and pop up just about anywhere: on your face, your chest, your hands, your knees, and even your underarms.

Still, while hyperpigmentation is common, not all dark spots are created equal. Dermatologist Michelle Henry, MD, previously told POPSUGAR that there are two main types to note: post-inflammatory erythema (which manifests as brown or red spots from inflammation by trauma to the skin, like damaged capillaries or blood vessels) and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (the dark pigment that comes from inflammation from a pimple, although not to be confused with acne scarring).

"Acne marks are red or brown discolored marks that are temporary, taking just a few months to fade and heal," New York City aesthetician Taylor Worden says. Still, Dr. Henry says, "You can very well have both. The key to knowing which one it is depends on the color of the mark. It is harder to see [erythema] on dark skin than [post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation]."

When considering treatment, it's important to identify any changes you've made in your routine, any experiences with eczema or contact dermatitis, or any recent traumas you may have made to the skin — because the fact is, hyperpigmentation can be the byproduct of multiple things. It could be that you picked at a breakout or spent too much time outside in the sun. "Melasma is another type of pigmentation related to hormones, commonly found on upper lip or cheeks or forehead on women during and after pregnancy, with oral contraception use, or even with menopause," says dermatologist Shari Sperling, DO.

The point is: dark spots and hyperpigmentation happen, but that doesn't mean you have to live with them forever. Keep reading as we break down the must-know tips to treating this common skin concern.

— Additional reporting by Danielle Jackson, Natasha Marsh, and Aimee Simeon

POPSUGAR Photography | Matthew Kelly

Tip #1: Step Away From the Extraction Tool

If you've ever wondered how those tiny dark spots ended up on your face in the first place, the answer is this: pimples are a major culprit that usually leave marks behind. You also increase the chances of dark scars on your skin if you pick at your blemishes. Dr. Henry says picking and squeezing causes inflammation and blood production at the breakout site, which often leads to bruising that turns into a brown scar.

As hard as it might be to let your pimples roam free, try to refrain from picking at them and creating more scars. Then, maintain a gentle acne treatment plan to keep breakouts at bay. Dr. Henry's advice? "Simple is better when it comes to treating hyperpigmentation because you don't want to make your condition worse."

Tip #2: Lean On Exfoliating Ingredients

Every skin-care routine should include an exfoliating step every once in a while, but this is especially true for people with hyperpigmentation and dark spots. The three most trusted by derms to fade marks fast: retinol, glycolic acid, and salicylic acid.

"[Retinol] helps unblock pores and fights acne, which will result in the development of fewer new spots," Dr. Henry says. "It's also anti-inflammatory and will help lighten dark spots."

Everything else you put on your skin should be gently exfoliating and moisturizing. "Look for products with key ingredients like benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, and glycolic acid," she says. "[These] can be used on the face and the body to remove acne and prevent new ones from forming that can result in hyperpigmentation."

POPSUGAR Photography | Matthew Kelly

Tip #3: Lighten Up, Strategically

Once you've taken steps to prevent additional breakouts, you should incorporate spot-fading ingredients into your routine. One of the most common is hydroquinone, but before you jump for products with the potent additive, be careful.

"It gets a bad reputation because in a lot of countries, especially a lot of Caribbean and African countries, people are using it excessively," Dr. Henry says. "You're only supposed to use it for a short period of time. When you use it consistently, you can get something called ochronosis, which is the permanent darkening of the skin and the exact opposite of what you want it to do."

Dr. Henry explains that mixing hydroquinone with topical steroids to increase its potency is common in some countries. "These dangerous mixtures can cause unwanted stretch marks and give the skin an orange tint. So I would definitely recommend using it sparingly and talking to your doctor first."

If you can't make it to a doctor's office, she suggests using over-the-counter products with proven brightening ingredients — like vitamin C, kojic acid, and the recently discovered and studied malassezin — to lighten spots. Don't forget to test all new products and prescriptions on soft patches of skin to get an idea of how you'll react to them before applying all over your face.

Tip #4: Slather On the SPF

The most important step in any skin-care routine is protecting it from further damage, and this is especially true in the case of hyperpigmentation. Apply sunscreen daily, since UV rays can also worsen existing dark spots or make them more pronounced. (Just remember: in many cases, the sun is the culprit behind brown spots in the first place, so if nothing else, wearing SPF prevents new ones from forming.)

Tip #5: When in Doubt, See a Professional

For more intensive treatments, see a dermatologist. Dermatologist Anna Guanche, MD, recommends a pulse dye layer for superficial red scars. "VBeam is best to reduce the redness and remodel collagen," she says. You can also try pro-grade microneedling to boost collagen production, as well as fraxel resurfacing or chemical peels to fade existing spots.

For more, click here for product recommendations that work wonders at fading hyperpigmentation without breaking the bank.