It’s no secret that too much fun in the sun can take a major toll on your skin. And we’re not just talking sunburns—dark spots are another consequence of ODing on UV rays. “Dark spots are scars caused by post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation,” says Dendy Engelman, M.D., a New York City-based dermatologic surgeon. Along with sun exposure, age, fluctuating hormones (like during pregnancy), and skin irritation can all also lead to an uneven skin tone. And the fairer your skin, the more likely you are to get these discolorations.

So here’s what to do about it. “The best time to treat scars is when they are fresh,” says Engelman. “Look for salicylic acid or glycolic acid peels that will help promote cellular turnover to remove the top layers of the skin that hold the pigment.” For hyperpigmentation (when excess melanin, the brown pigment that makes up your skin color, forms deposits in the skin), she recommends brightening ingredients like kojic acid, phytic acid, and L-asorbic acid.

Engelman says moisture is another key factor when it comes to dark spots. “The more pliable your skin is, the less chance there is that scars will occur,” explains Engelman. “Adding moisture back into the skin with oils and lotions can reduce the appearance of existing dark spots and prevent new ones from forming.”

But you don’t necessarily have to go to a dermatologist for a solve. Here are 28 dark spot correctors with the best, derm-approved ingredients.

Contents

1. Dermalogica Age Bright Spot Fade

This two-in-one spot treatment uses a combo of salicylic acid and witch hazel to treat existing breakouts—plus anti-inflammatory niacinamide to deal with leftover pigmentation for an old breakout.

Dermalogica AGE Bright Spot Fader dermstore.com $45.00

2. Ambi Fade Cream for Oily Skin

“Hydroquinone is the gold standard for lightening dark spots,” says Dr. Levin—and it’s the star ingredient in this brightening cream. This formula contains two percent of the active ingredient, which is likely the highest concentration you’ll find available OTC.

Ambi Skincare Fade Cream, Oily Skin walmart.com $4.73

3. Garnier SkinActive Clearly Brighter Dark Spot Corrector

Lipo-hydroxyl acid (LHA) is the powerhouse in this dark spot corrector. “Hydroxy acids are an effective way of exfoliating dead cells from the surface of the skin to enhance radiance and improve hyperpigmentation,” says Joshua Zeichner, MD, director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital.

Garnier SkinActive Clearly Brighter Dark Spot Corrector walmart.com $9.22

4. L’Oréal Paris Revitalift Derm Intensives 10% Pure Vitamin C Serum

“Vitamin C neutralizes free radicals from causing oxidative damage to the skin and blocks enzymatic processes that make more pigment in the skin,” explains Melissa Kanchanapoomi Levin, MD, dermatologist and founder of Entiere Dermatology in New York City. Translation: This drugstore serum will help stop two causes of brown spots in their tracks.

L’Oréal Paris Revitalift Derm Intensives 10% Pure Vitamin C Serum walmart.com $23.94

5. SkinBetter Science Alto Defense Serum

“Melanin goes into overproduction in the sun to protect our skin from harmful UV/UB rays, causing them to look darker than your natural skin tone,” Engelman says. “These sun spots accumulate over the years. An antioxidant helps protect skin against free radical assaults by neutralizing oxidative stress that can cause cell damage.”

skinbetter.com Alto Defense Serum™ 30ML skinbetter.com $145.00

6. CeraVe Skin Renewing Vitamin C Serum

It this vitamin C-packed list is starting to sound like a broken record, it’s because this hard-hitting antioxidant is an all-star skin brightener, and this drugstore serum is no exception. It also contains hydrating hyaluronic acid and nourishing ceramides, so you don’t need to choose between an even skin tone and a moisturized complexion.

CeraVe Skin Renewing Vitamin C Serum ulta.com $24.99

7. SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic

This is one of Dr. Levin’s favorite brightening serums, which packs antioxidants vitamin C and E. (It’s worth the price—trust.) Apply the lightweight serum each morning to limit free radicals and boost brightness.

SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic dermstore.com $166.00

8. Differin Adapalene Gel 0.1% Acne Treatment

Derms love this stuff for fighting acne and signs of aging. Now, you can add dark-spot correcting to that list. This gel contains adapalene, a super-effective type of retinoid. “Retinoids are key in terms of exfoliating the skin and treating discoloration,” says Dr. Levin.

Differin Adapalene Gel 0.1% Acne Treatment walmart.com $12.88

9. Murad Rapid Age Spot and Pigment Lightening Serum

This dark spot corrector uses brightening hydroquinone plus added glycolic acid to boost the exfoliating action and the efficacy of hydroquinone. (Warning: if you have sensitive skin, hydroquinone can cause redness, dryness, and other irritation.)

Murad Rapid Age Spot and Pigment Lightening Serum sephora.com $72.00

10. Philosophy The Microdelivery Triple-Action Brightening Peel

Along with a brightening cream, “you can do peel pads if you’re looking to lighten up a smattering of spots,” says Elizabeth Tanzi, M.D., a dermatologist in Washington, D.C. These convenient pads pack brighteners like niacinamide along with mandelic, phytic, and azelaic acids to remove dead skin cells and diminish darkness.

Philosophy Microdelivery Triple-Acid Brightening Peel amazon.com

11. SkinCeuticals Discoloration Defense

Dark spots are no match for the triple threat of kojic acid, tranexamic acid and vitamin B3.“It’s clinically proven to improve brown patches, skin discoloration and acne marks,” Engelman says.

dermstore.com Discoloration Defense (1 fl. oz.) SkinCeuticals dermstore.com $98.00

12. SkinMedica Lytera 2.0 Pigment Correcting Serum

Another one on Dr. Tanzi’s radar, this hydroquinone-free treatment, which is great if you have sensitive skin. It brightens with licorice root extract and includes peptides that work inside cells to turn down pigment production. It also contains retinol to spur cell turnover (helping further reduce dark spots) and vitamin E to protect your skin.

SkinMedica Lytera 2.0 Pigment Correcting Serum dermstore.com $154.00

13. Aveeno Positively Radiant MaxGlow Infusion Drops

“Soy is a natural ingredient that has skin-brightening effects, which is why it’s commonly used in products that help lighten dark spots,” says Dr Zeichner. You can use this soy-packed serum alone or mix a few drops into your favorite moisturizer.

Aveeno Positively Radiant MaxGlow Infusion Drops walmart.com $17.97

14. REN Bio Retinoid Anti-Ageing Cream

“Bakuchiol is a retinoid alternative, is well tolerated, and works great with vitamin C to even out skin tone—all without hydroquinone,” says Mona Gohara, MD, associate clinical professor of dermatology at Yale and Women’s Health advisor.

REN Bio Retinoid Anti-Ageing Cream dermstore.com $69.00

15. PCA Skin C&E Strength Max

“Vitamins C and E are potent antioxidants that work together to prevent free radical damage to the skin and interfere with the production of abnormal pigmentation,” says Dr. Zeichner. And since this formula is a cream, not a liquid, which degrades vitamin C faster, the active ingredient will work better longer.

PCA Skin C&E Strength Max dermstore.com

16. SkinMedica Rejuvenative Toner

It’s all about the acids, and this little guy has plenty of them: lactic, glycolic, citric, and malic acid. “Each is a natural, alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) derived from bilberry extract, sugar cane extract, sugar maple extract, and citrus extracts that provides mild exfoliation to help enhance skin texture and reveal healthy new cells,” Engelman says.

dermstore.com SkinMedica Rejuvenative Toner 6 Fl oz. / 177.44 ml Skin Medica dermstore.com $38.00

17. Clarins Double Serum Complete Age Control Concentrate

This cult anti-aging serum will help smooth out fine lines and wrinkles while lightening up dark spots thanks to one star ingredient: turmeric. “Turmeric is a spice commonly used in South Asian cooking that’s been shown to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits, making it a useful ingredient in brightening the skin,” says Dr. Zeichner.

Clarins Double Serum Complete Age Control Concentrate sephora.com $89.00

18. First Aid Beauty Facial Radiance AHA Intensive Peel

If normal peels make you red AF and dry you out, try this one instead to attack multiple dark spots. “A light yet hydrating AHA peel, this one helps diminish dark spots when applied once per week,” says Dr. Gohara.

First Aid Beauty Facial Radiance AHA Intensive Peel sephora.com $32.00

19. Neutrogena Rapid Tone Repair Dark Spot Corrector

If you’re looking for a good drugstore dark spot treatment, Dr. Zeichner loves this one from Neutrogena. “The combination of vitamin C and retinol helps block abnormal pigment production and enhances shedding skin cells that contain extra pigment,” he says.

Neutrogena Rapid Tone Repair Dark Spot Corrector walmart.com $17.97

20. Lancôme Visionnaire Crescendo Dual-Phase Night Peel

“The first part of this peel contains mild fruit acids that allow the skin to adjust, and after two weeks a more aggressive combination of alpha and beta hydroxy acid are used,” says Dr. Zeichner.

Lancôme Visionnaire Crescendo Progressive Night Peel sephora.com $45.00

21. Differin Dark Spot Correcting Serum

“I like Differin Gel, which contains a powerful retinoid to clear acne and prevent future ones as well as to prevent acne scarring,” Engelman says. “It is the first retinoid available over the counter and it is gentler compared to other retinoids.” It contains 2% hydroquinone, which is an FDA-approved skin bleaching agent and it works by interfering with melanin production. Melanin is what gives skin the dark pigment. Hydroquinone is available in higher percentages via prescription from your dermatologist.

Differin Online Only Dark Spot Correcting Serum Differin ulta.com $21.99

22. Proactiv Advanced Dark Spot Correcting Serum

“Like Differin, it uses hydroquinone, which interferes with melanin production,” Engelman says. “It works by lessening the activity of an enzyme called tyrosinase, which is crucial in the production of melanin. Since our skin produces more melanin to protect itself from the sun, inhibiting the production of the melanin will brighten the skin and fade dark spots.”

sephora.com Advanced Dark Spot Correcting Serum Proactiv sephora.com $50.00

23. Glycolix Elite Treatment Pads 20%

“Infused with glycolic acid, these little pads are a great, gentle exfoliant, and help with unwanted discoloration, particularly with the help of a vitamin C serum in the morning,” says Dr. Gohara. And the glycolic acid will help you deal with pesky breakouts, too.

Glycolix Elite Treatment Pads 20% amazon.com $35.00

24. Elizabeth Arden Vitamin C Capsules

The single-dose capsules keep the formula super fresh and make them ideal for travel. “This contains two powerhouse ingredients to help the skin heal: Vitamin C for skin brightening and ceramides to prevent moisture loss,” Engelman says.

elizabetharden.com Vitamin C Ceramide Capsules Radiance Renewal Serum Elizabeth Arden elizabetharden.com $48.00

25. Vichy LiftActiv Peptide-C Anti-Aging Face Moisturizer

If you’re not looking to add another step to your routine, this brightening moisturizer is the all-in-one you’re looking for. Glycerin and Vichy’s thermal water keep your skin well hydrated while ascorbyl glucoside (aka a water-soluble form of vitamin C) targets those unwanted dark spots.

Vichy LiftActiv Peptide-C Anti-Aging Face Moisturizer ulta.com $39.00

26. Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Alpha Beta Extra Strength Daily Peel

These hydroxy acid pads have a cult following for a good reason. “They actually contain both alpha and beta hydroxyl acids—salicylic acid, glycolic acid and malic acid—which is a great combination of acids to tackle a few problems, including hyperpigmentation,” Engelman says.

sephora.com Alpha Beta® Extra Strength Daily Peel Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare sephora.com $17.00

27. IS Clinical White Lightening Complex

This product, recommended by Dr. Tanzi, relies on Norwegian kelp and bearberry extract to lighten spots. Hydrating hyaluronic acid and dimethicone plump fine lines, making this product great for treating multiple signs of aging. Because acne can cause dark spots, too, you’ll also get blemish-fighting salicylic acid in the mix.

iS Clinical White Lightening Complex dermstore.com $145.00

28. Skinfix Correct+ Dark Spot Corrector

“It uses AHAs, vitamin C and lipids to correct, brighten and support the skin barrier,” Engelman says. There’s also turmeric and kakadu plum to lighten, even tone and tackle acne pigmentation, plus it fights future spots, too.

sephora.com Correct+™ Dark Spot Corrector Skinfix sephora.com $60.00 Jessica Migala Jessica Migala is a health writer specializing in general wellness, fitness, nutrition, and skincare, with work published in Women’s Health, Glamour, Health, Men’s Health, and more. Daley Quinn Daley Quinn is a Connecticut-born, Texas-bred beauty & wellness writer living in New York City. Celia Shatzman Celia Shatzman is a Brooklyn-based writer who has penned stories on topics ranging from fashion to travel to celebrities, entertainment, beauty, finance, health, and fitness.

Editor’s pick: Ambi Skincare Fade Cream ($4, amazon.com)

How to use it: Best applied at night to start, and eventually increased to twice daily for maximum effects. During the day, pair with sunscreen as the ingredient can cause sun sensitivity.

3. Kojic Acid

Kojic acid (derived from mushrooms or fermented rice) is commonly used in skin lighteners, and is best used in conjunction with hydroquinone for maximum results. “It works by suppressing a key factor in the activity of the pigment cells,” Carlos Charles, M.D., dermatologist and founder of Derma di Colore tells SELF. “The risk commonly associated with topical kojic acid is allergic dermatitis, and that is why it is primarily found in relatively low concentrations.” Those with sensitive skin should opt for small doses during nighttime only since inflammation and irritation can be side effects. Also, don’t expect speedy results—it can take several months to see improvement of hyperpigmentation with the use of topical kojic acid.

Editor’s pick: Arcona Brightening Drops ($44, skinstore.com)

How to use it: At nighttime, only on dark spots or areas of concern.

4. Soy

Soy extract, which is derived from the soybean plant, has been shown to help brighten the skin, Joshua Zeichner, M.D., director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City tells SELF. That’s why you’ll find it in tons of skin-lightening products. Soy works as a dark spot treatment by preventing melanin from entering the top layer of skin, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD).

Editor’s pick: Aveeno Positively Radiant Targeted Tone Corrector ($9, amazon.com)

How to use it: Apply to dark spots in the morning and at night, before using your usual moisturizer.

5. Azelaic acid

This lesser-known ingredient is a dermatologist-recommended treatment for dark spots on the face. So, what is it exactly? “Azelaic acid is a naturally occurring extract from oat, wheat, or rye that interferes with production of abnormal pigmentation,” Dr. Zeichner explains. Bonus: it has antibacterial properties that can help banish acne and the scars pimples leave behind.

Editor’s pick: Paula’s Choice 10% Azelaic Acid Booster ($34, amazon.com)

How to use it: Apply it all over your face once or twice a day; you can use it alone or with your favorite moisturizer. When using it during the day, be sure to follow it with sunscreen.

6. Lasers

Lasers are the most expensive, yet most impactful treatment to reduce dark spots. “These use a focused beam of light that has a specific target or chromophore (pigment) to break up and eliminate the pigment particles in the skin,” Dr. Cook-Bolden says. “IPL (intense pulsed light) can treat unwanted pigmentation. However, it delivers less focused light and may have an unwanted effect on the surrounding skin, especially in darker or tanned skin.”

The ideal laser treatment for hyperpigmentation will provide a cooling blast (or at least limit the amount of heat generated). Ask your dermatologist or laser technician if the laser they’re using treats at a rapid rate with a focused beam, like the The Lightpod Neolaser by Aerolase. This type of laser will help avoid an inflammatory response, burns, or collateral damage, Dr. Cook-Bolden says.

Cost: $250-$2,500

Derm tip: Anticipate as many as six treatments (possibly even more) with three to four weeks in between, in-office only.

7. Chemical Peels

Exfoliating treatments like chemical peels remove the upper layers of dead skin helping to reduce the dull appearance of the skin so that it reflects light better and appears to glow, Dr. Jamal says. “Over time, these treatments can stimulate collagen production, enhance cellular turnover, and reduce the appearance of dark spots,” he says, but beware a chemical peel that is too powerful, which can burn the skin. Common active ingredients in pro-grade peels include glycolic, mandelic, salicylic, and lactic acids, along with trichloroacetic acid. While at-home peels are available, they are more likely to slough off dead skin rather than get deep enough to lighten dark spots, Dr. Jamal adds.

14 Best Dark Spot Correctors (Natural + Safe)

It seems like almost everyone is looking to remove dark spots. In fact, our editors surveyed 500 women on their skin care habits and goals. Of those women, 55% rated “fading dark spots” as one of their top beauty objectives; outranking other skin goals such as “clearing acne” and “reducing redness.” As a result, there is no shortage of beauty brands promising quick and powerful dark spot removers and skin lightening treatments. Unfortunately, these potent treatments can lead to serious permanent skin damage.

Luckily, there are natural and effective products on the market to correct dark spots. In this article, we’ll review the causes of dark spots and how to prevent them, the most powerful natural brightening ingredients, and our tested picks of the best natural dark spot removers around.

What Are Dark Spots and What Causes Them?
Hyperpigmentation, the technical name for dark spots, is a condition where an accumulation of melanin pigment causes the skin to be darker than the natural skin tone. Dark spots are a common complaint because there are many innocuous and unpreventable causes behind the formation of dark spots on the skin. Four of those common causes include:

  • Sun Exposure: Exposure to UV rays (whether from the sun or tanning beds) can both increase the accumulation of melanin on the surface of the skin and cause damage deep beneath the skin which can result in dark pigmentation (1)(5). The real danger with sun damage is that it is cumulative; thus, the damaging effects of sun exposure may not appear until later in life. This is why dark spots are sometimes referred to as “age spots.”
  • Hormonal Changes: During periods of extreme hormonal fluctuation (for example, puberty, pregnancy, or disruptive hormonal conditions), melanin can permanently or temporarily accumulate in certain areas of the body. Melasma and linea nigra, who pregnancy-related melanin conditions, are some common examples.
  • Scarring & Skin Damage: Melanin deposits can form when your skin is stressed or damaged by physical means.
  • Other Health Issues: Melanin deposits can form as a result of using certain medications, liver diseases, dermatitis, and others.

Can You Prevent Dark Spots?
Contrary to popular belief, the formation of dark spots as we age is not as inevitable of a process as we once thought. What we commonly refer to as “age spots” or “liver spots,” may actually be the result of years of sun damage or poor health as opposed to the natural aging process. Here are some great skin care habits to build if you want to do your best to keep dark spots at bay:

  • Wear a Non-Toxic Sunscreen Daily: By and far the largest cause of dark spots and hyperpigmentation is the sun. Wearing a natural mineral sunscreen (zinc oxide or titanium dioxide) will deflect the sun’s UV rays away from your skin and protect it from further damage. Remember, UV rays can penetrate windows so be sure to wear sunscreen when in exposed indoor areas.
  • Don’t Pick or Pop! Sometimes, we can be the biggest source of our own problems. In the case of pimple poppers, you may be the source of your own dark spots! Picking pimples and blackheads can cause scarring and bruises which leave behind dark spots. If you can fight the temptation, it’s best to leave your blemishes alone.
  • Don’t Over Exfoliate: “Too much of a good thing” is real. Excessive exfoliation with scrubs and chemical peels can easily cause skin damage ranging from mild redness to dark spots. Try using a gentle natural exfoliator 2-3 times per week at the max (once per week or less for more powerful exfoliation methods).

What is the Best Way to Remove Dark Spots & Brighten Skin Naturally?
A little too late for preventative tips? As mentioned above, sun damage is cumulative and often goes unnoticed until “age spots” begin appearing on areas typically unprotected from UV rays. That’s good news and bad news. The bad news is, you may already have accumulated some sun damage. The good news is that there are natural treatments to fade your existing dark spots and treat sun damage. You don’t have to use harsh chemical peels, bleaches, and other instantaneous skin lighteners to achieve a glowing, even complexion. With a little time (roughly 2-6 weeks) and a consistent routine you will start to notice the brightening effects of simple natural treatments.

At the end of this article, you’ll find our recommendations for the best organic and all natural dark spot removers and skin brightening serums that you can mix into your skin care routine.

Not all natural brighteners are created equal. Just because a chemical peel is made from natural AHA fruit acids, doesn’t mean that it’s not incredibly potent! On the flip side, there are also a ton of natural ingredients are ineffective at best and potentially dangerous at worst (hello, pure lemon juice?) When shopping for a natural skin brightener, be sure to look for these stand out ingredients:

  • Hydroxy Acids: Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHA) and Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHA) are gentle exfoliants which help to remove dead skin on the surface of the skin and penetrate below the skin’s surface to reverse the effects of photoaging (2). These acids are commonly derived from fruit such as papaya, pineapples, apples, and grapes.
  • Niacinamide (Vitamin B3): A 2002 study found that niacinamide, when applied at 2-5% concentrations within moisturizers, effectively reduced hyperpigmentation by 35-68% (6).
  • Aloe Vera: Tyrosinase which is the catalyst behind the production of melanin has been shown to be inhibited by Aloesin, a compound in Aloe vera (3).
  • Vitamin C: A particularly effective antioxidant for controlling hyperpigmentation while protecting against sun damage (4). Vitamin C has also been shown to inhibit Tyrosinase and prevent the production of melanin.
  • Gentle Physical Exfoliants: Exfoliation is a great way to remove dead skin cells and stimulate new cell production. This process slowly cycles through the old skin cells until the melanin deposits have been removed. However, be sure to use gentle physical exfoliants to avoid damaging your skin. Great ones to look for are almond powders, clays, jojoba wax beads, and oatmeal.
  • Omega Fatty Acids: According to an article published in the Archives of Dermatological Research, a decline in hyperpigmentation was observed after a 3 week period of topical application of Omega 6 and Omega 3 fatty acids.
  • Other Natural Brighteners: Other natural brightening ingredients include almond oil, tomato, cucumber juice, willow bark, lactic acid, citrus oils, and yogurt.

Which Dark Spot Removers Should Be Avoided?
You don’t have to search long on the internet before discovering that “10 items in your kitchen” can dramatically lighten your skin overnight. Unfortunately, many of these beauty tips can easily damage your skin. Even commonly recommended over the counter lighteners (such as hydroquinone) have negative potential side effects worth serious consideration. Here are some skin lighteners that you may want to avoid:

  • Pure Lemon Juice: Even though the citric acid found in lemon juice is very effective at reducing dark spots over time (and you should look for dark spot treatments with citric acid), it’s not a great DIY tip to try yourself. If done improperly you could risk causing acid burns and serious sun hypersensitivity/ sun damage.
  • Undiluted Apple Cider Vinegar: Just like pure lemon juice, applying pure apple cider vinegar directly to your skin can actually burn your skin.
  • Hydroquinone: Another potent ingredient that has some serious downsides. Hydroquinone is a highly effective whitening agent. However, the substance causes cell death and has been banned in certain countries due to concerns (7).
  • Harsh Chemical Peels: Professional level and highly concentrated chemical peels can cause serious skin damage if used improperly. The speedy promise of deep peels often comes with a side of raw skin, painful spots, sun sensitivity, and flaking skin.
  • Hydrogen Peroxide: Another powerful lightening agent which may cause permanent scarring and burns.
  • Kojic Acid: Again, effective, but usage commonly leads to contact dermatitis, redness, irritation, rash, swelling, and itching.

How to Find a Natural Dark Spot Remover & Brightener?
We thought you’d never ask! With a little consistency, patience, and the right products you can significantly brighten your skin and fade dark spots. Give any natural brightening routine you adopt at least 30 days to begin to noticeably work its magic (you may want to snap a before and after photo for comparison).

Finding an organic dark spot remover that is free from synthetics, mineral oils, parabens, and harsh chemical whitening agents is the best long-term approach to brightening skin naturally. As always, our team researched and tested over 100 natural dark spot removers and skin brighteners from the best organic brands. We scrutinized every ingredient, tested products on women with dark spots and dull skin, and even analyzed customer reviews from across the web for each product. In the end, only the very best were selected for this list. We hope that you find something to brighten your day!

Whether you’re dealing with a dark mark left behind by a blemish, spots that indicate sun damage, or hormone-induced melasma, these typically unwanted changes in the skin all fall under the umbrella of hyperpigmentation. Caused by the cells responsible for skin’s color, melanocytes, depositing excess pigment into deeper levels of the skin, these forms of discoloration can be incredibly frustrating for those who strive for an even-toned complexion — especially since it can be tough to reverse.

“In general, hyperpigmentation is tough to treat and a chronic condition,” New York City-based dermatologist Dhaval Bhanusali tells Allure, noting that he explains to his patients that it must be taken seriously because it’s so easy for it to recur. Although some patients choose to undergo laser treatments for their dark spots to address their hyperpigmentation with customized prescription compounds — Bhanusali often blends a high-dose hydroquinone with kojic acid and vitamin C for his patients — there are ways to combat discoloration without often-expensive in-office procedures and medications.

That’s where these over-the-counter options come in. Often made with the same active ingredients that dermatologists use in prescription compounds, these serums and creams have helped many people see more even skin and lessened hyperpigmentation with consistent use — and dermatologists themselves are impressed enough to recommend them.

But there is something else dermatologists recommend across the board to get dark spots under control: sunscreen. “Before you spend your money on antioxidant serums and retinoids to improve the tone and texture of your skin, the most important first step is diligent daily sun protection, which is key to reducing the appearance of brown spots,” says dermatologist Shari Marchbein, also based in New York City. “Otherwise you are literally throwing your money away investing in other skin-care products.”

Got your sunscreen? Good. Here are the hyperpigmentation-fighting products to pair with it.

All products featured on Allure are independently selected by our editors. However, when you buy something through our retail links, we may earn an affiliate commission.

10 best hyperpigmentation products, from creams to oils, that treat dark spots

After just a day, the results are striking with immediately brighter skin and by three weeks our skin was lighter and more even. It also ticks other boxes – the rose scent is soothing, the texture is silky and skin is hydrated all day.

Buy now

The Ordinary alpha arbutin 2% + HA: £7, Beauty Bay

Best for: All types of hyperpigmentation

The chemistry-led beauty brand that prides itself on “clinical formulations with integrity” has created this acid, which directly works to reduce the look of hyperpigmentation. For anyone who is really on a budget, this is the only product you need. The two per cent alpha arbutin is a higher concentration than the standard one per cent used in other products.

It is slightly sticky, because of the hyaluronic acid, which is used to support the solution, but if you don’t mind it use a few drops day and night for the best results. Otherwise just use at night before bed. Over the course of a month, our tester’s hyperpigmentation patches slowly lightened. We wouldn’t recommend this for very sensitive skin as it could be a bit too harsh and lead to breakouts.

Buy now

Korres wild rose 24-hour moisturising & brightening cream: £19, Zest Beauty

Best for: Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation

The Greek beauty brand that focuses on using natural ingredients and homeopathic remedies has created a 96.8 per cent natural formulation brightening cream to help treat hyperpigmentation using wild rose oil. High in Vitamin C, this is what works to correct the pigmentation while making the skin brighter. The fragrance-free cream is quite thick to touch but glides on effortlessly and actually dries completely matte and leaves the skin feeling soft and smooth.

Well-priced and suitable for vegetarians and vegans, this is a great option for anyone who has quite sensitive skin and doesn’t want to risk breakouts from using high potency AHAs. This does mean however that the results are not as visible within a few weeks of use and will need to be used for a good few months before the fading of pigmentation takes effect.

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Ole Henriksen glow 2OH dark spot toner: £22, Boots

Made by a Danish skin cosmetician who was inspired to enter the world of beauty after developing cystic acne, this toner is ideal for anyone who would like to add an extra layer of treatment into their hyperpigmentation routine. It contains high potency glycolic acid and lactic acid alongside witch hazel water, lemon, sugar cane, licorice root, camomile and sandalwood extracts. What you get is a cleanser that tingles when it touches your skin, but still gentle enough to use every day. The brand recommends to be use this at night, before a moisturiser.

The sugary lemon scent is pleasant and after a few weeks of use, skin does look brighter. If your dark spots or acne scars are particularly bad, we wouldn’t recommend just using this toner because it might be some time before you see any results, however it is a great post-inflammatory treatment to add alongside your serums and moisturisers, and it is very affordable.

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The verdict: Products for hyperpigmentation

For a cream that delivers the boost you need to start fading those dark marks effectively without breaking the bank it is Paula’s Choice C25 super booster. The tube might be small but it only needs to be used on the affected areas, making it last much longer. However if the hyperpigmentation is quite severe and you’re willing to spend that little bit extra, we would recommend the iS Clinical white lightening serum, which gets to work on those marks that you never think would ever budge.

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Paul Gander, the team leader at Southwark Trading Standards, says the work often involves the cooperation of a number of government agencies as well as private companies such as eBay and Paypal. Officers scan the websites, issuing warnings to sellers circumventing the rules and working with the marketplaces to block listings containing suspect product names. But sellers are quick to adopt new tactics, from using code words to misrepresenting products. “Anecdotally,” says Gander, “since hydroquinone was banned – and it’s been banned in more and more countries – we’ve seen more sales of seemingly legal products that contain alternatives such as kojic acid. But quite often they’re not accurately described – they do contain hydroquinone. Or they contain other potent ingredients.”

It’s difficult to pinpoint how many people are using skin-lighteners – legal or otherwise – in the UK, but around the world, business is booming. In 2017, the global skin-lightening industry was worth $4.8bn (£3.4bn), and it is projected to grow to $8.9bn by 2027, fuelled by a growing middle class in the Asia-Pacific region. Skin-lightening products include creams, scrubs, pills and even injections designed to slow the production of melanin. Many of these are created by pharmaceutical giants such as Unilever, Proctor and Gamble and L’Oreal and come with massive marketing budgets. A World Health Organization study found that 40% of Chinese women regularly use skin-lightening creams. That number is 61% in India and 77% in Nigeria. It stands to reason that diaspora communities will be influenced.

A billboard advertises skin-lightening cream in Bangladesh. Photograph: Andrew Aitchison/Corbis via Getty Images

Zara, 29, a fashion buyer from London, recalls unmarked jars being sent to her as a teenager from relatives in Pakistan. “They didn’t come with any information on ingredients or health implications,” she says. “The general consensus was that the end goal – lighter skin – was so desired in blind faith.” Zara already had a fair complexion and was under pressure to maintain it. She describes rigorous skincare routines of creams and home remedies such as rubbing raw lemons into the skin and wearing turmeric masks, as well as keeping out of the sun. “I would be pitted against my darker-skinned cousin as the ‘prettier one’, which equipped me with the wrong notions of beauty when entering puberty and the wider world. I recall never wanting to wear white or light colours for fear it would make me appear darker among my peers.”

As an adult, Zara became tired of the “colonial attitude that ‘white is right’” and pushed back against her family, questioning the practice for her and younger relatives, but says she recognises that, throughout her life, she has “benefited from skin privilege”.

A landmark US study in 2011 found that light-skinned black women receive shorter prison sentences than dark-skinned black women. In 2015, another study found that white interviewers regarded light-skinned black and Hispanic job applicants as more intelligent than darker-skinned interviewees with the same qualifications. Cynthia Sims, of Southern Illinois University, found a gap in career opportunities between dark- and light-skinned women in India, while a Seattle University study by Sonora Jha and Mara Adelman found that the chances for a dark-skinned Indian woman dating online were “nonexistent”. Studies have consistently shown that in the competitive market for jobs and marriage, lighter skin has advantages. And now, in the digital age, accessing the products and know-how to gain that advantage has never been easier.

“The internet is the great battleground,” says Steve Garner, the head of criminology and sociology at Birmingham City University, who last year undertook the first British sociological study into skin-lightening. Garner’s sample was small; respondents willing to speak openly about their usage were hard to come by, even in a city as ethnically diverse as Birmingham. But there were nonetheless some striking findings. The first was the age at which respondents took up skin-lightening – 16 to 24 – and the second was the role the internet played.

“The internet’s role is primarily two things: the information and the image,” says Garner. That image is almost invariably the archetypal before and after pic – the sad, dark-skinned person against the smiling, light-skinned person – touted both by big brands and by individuals posting about their skin-lightening journey. “I often saw discussions between people who are, say, based in the UK, saying: ‘You should get the American version of a particular product because the rules are slightly different in the States,’ for example,” he says. “You can find the loopholes, you just have to subscribe to their forums.”

And these forums form a vital part of a skin-lightening subculture – an anonymised community for committed skin-lighteners. To the most evangelical, lightening is a way of life, one that involves eating a set diet, avoiding the sun and keeping to a meticulous daily skin-care regime, not to mention taking pills and injections. The forums are a hub for users to showcase their progression, troubleshoot and encourage each other, while having a safe space to discuss lightening culture. They have their own lingua franca – skin tone is described by code (eg NC10) pulled from the Mac makeup palette, for instance – and users regularly set others challenges to get to a tone by a set date. One forum, SkinCareTalk, hosts almost 450,000 posts discussing skin-lightening. Some make for troubling reading. “I’ve ruined my skin and don’t know what to do. I can’t stop crying,” reads one entry. “I had acne scars on my face so I decided to use lightening products … but it made my face darker. I feel so lost. I’m so depressed.” “I used and messed my face up, help,” reads another. One user asks for advice after glutathione pills have caused them to break out in hives, while another kicks off a discussion about how to deal with friends or relatives “jealous” of their skin.

Fraink White with one of his products. Photograph: Silton Buendia/Barcroft Images

On YouTube, skin-lightening videos regularly accrue several million views, with the most popular being those from vloggers who focus on the use of products with natural or natural-sounding ingredients, either made at home or created by pharmaceutical companies. “I would never, ever recommend harsh whitening products,” says Jyoti Singh, AKA SuperPrincessJo, a beauty blogger from India who lives in Singapore, whose skin-lightening clips regularly attract millions of views. “People have desperate need to be whiter faster, so any recommendations can cause side-effects if used in excess or wrongly. So, I only share natural remedies that are safer.”

Garner is sceptical about whether the products purporting to be natural should be viewed differently, suggesting it is merely a matter of sales language. “People used to say skin ‘bleaching’, but it’s such a loaded term now. Instead, people use the neutral ‘lightening’, and increasingly common is the appetising ‘brightening’, which was pushed heavily by the major companies.”

Fraink White started lightening his skin when he was a teenager, using a variety of products including those with, as he describes it, “dangerous” ingredients such as hydroquinone. He began his YouTube channel to share his findings, warts and all, reviewing these items. “I did one recently where my face puffed up for days, it was awful. I’ve had some terrible results from products, even ones that have been FDA-approved.” Unlike many high-profile lightening vloggers, who largely hail from Asia, White is African American. He has become a kind of an internet posterboy for the practice, regularly arguing his position everywhere from Fox to the Daily Mail.

“Just because I lighten my skin, does not mean I want to be white,” he says, although he concedes that some people may want to lighten their skin to distance themselves from their race. “I still look African American by my features, I’m not trying to change that. I just want to return my skin to the colour and texture of the skin usually covered by clothing which is less exposed to the sun. That’s my natural colour.”

White launched his own skincare line recently, which he claims is “all-natural”, and says sales are on the up. “I think the taboos around skin-lightening are being broken. This is why I started my channel in the first place, to break the taboos and show people that there are natural, safe ways to take care of your skin, not just in lightening but in general. I wanted to help people stop using dangerous methods to achieve their skincare goals.” It is striking, however, that White’s most popular video is one where he recommends hydrogen peroxide, for “fast” results.

“There’s a very small public-health presence online in relation to skin-lightening,” says Garner. “So, the people discussing products, and selling the products, completely dominate this subject. If you wanted to counter these ideas using the internet, it would be daunting.”

But counter-movements have begun. In February 2016, Pax Jones, an activist and photographer based in Texas, woke up to find that photos she had taken of her Sri Lankan classmates showing dark-skinned beauty, and tagged with #UnfairandLovely, had gone viral (the tag is a play on one of South Asia’s most renowned skin-lightening creams, Fair and Lovely). People joined in, sharing their pictures of dark-skinned beauty. The campaign made international news. “One day I woke up and saw literally thousands and thousands of people tweeting about it,” Jones recalls. “Lupita Nyong’o even posted about it.”

Jones recently revived the #UnfairandLovely slogan as part of an internet campaign highlighting the dangers of skin-lightening, and tackling colourism as a concept. The campaign is mindful of national and historical nuances – caste system, slavery or colonialism – and is careful to organise content focusing on specific communities. “I’m black, my friends were Sri Lankan, and so we had shared experiences. But people’s experiences with colourism vary a lot and it’s very difficult to get someone who was raised in India to relate to colourism in Jamaica. It’s like the products. The chemicals may be the same, but the marketing is the dangerous part. Our campaign took off with South Asian people because they recognised the brand name. But black people are using brands with other names.”

The image of unsafe, often black-market chemicals lathered on unsuspecting skin may provoke disapproval, but many of the users are responding to real and urgent pressures in their lives.

“I understand some people oppose skin-lightening,” says Singh. “But there are a vast amount of girls out there who desperately need solutions. Sometimes the video requests I get have their personal stories, so when I share natural remedies I think: how will these help those women who suffer with societal pressures of looking better each day.”

White says: “People are thinking way too deeply about this. Some just think: ‘I’d look better 15lbs lighter with a narrower nose.’ That’s it. They’re not thinking about race. Everybody in their head has a 2.0 version of themselves that looks the best, it doesn’t mean that they hate themselves.” But Garner asks: “Why is the one with lighter skin always the best version of yourself? There’s something underpinning that, clearly, at societal level.”

In a study published in the journal Health Care Analysis, Herjeet Marway, a global ethics lecturer at the University of Birmingham, posited a hypothetical scenario in which parents were able to genetically determine that their unborn child would be fair-skinned. Would it be ethical, given the advantages fairer-skinned people receive, to do so? “My argument is no, because there is such a thing as harm beyond the individual,” she says. “Though the child may have a better life, others will see that they are getting all these benefits and it pressures others to change themselves to compete. It effectively reinforces and underwrites broad hierarchies about race and colour.”

She argues that exactly the same argument applies to the actions of global companies. “Given their size, resources and influence, there are ethical standards to which they should be held. This includes not being complicit in prejudicial practices. Adverts for cosmetics have infamously presented darker-skinned women as failures compared with lighter-skinned women. Colourism existed long before these companies, but they commodify it and sell it. These companies are able to change and it is something we might reasonably ask of them.”

In some ways, challenging the practice of skin-lightening on the basis of skin damage is a lost cause as users will so often believe that the aimed-for benefits will outweigh the dangers. “Marginalised people are often expected to change their decisions and only think about the greater good,” says Jones. “But sometimes the individual can see the benefits to them as superseding everything else. And I think that’s actually very valid.”

Back in the cul-de-sac, it’s a successful bust. Trading standards seize between 1,500 and 2,000 products, including some homemade, non-labelled and untested products, taking out one of the most prolific online sellers in the UK. At the close of the year-long nationwide initiative, 45 traders had been identified, and 23 received warnings; there were two convictions and tens of thousands of pounds in fines and victim compensation. There are more prosecutions to come, but globally, business is still booming. And here? Well, trading standards will probably be busy for some time to come.

Creams for dark spots

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