Now that fall has arrived and our tans have faded, pesky dark spots, dullness and uneven tone are more prominent. The good news is that you can get your skin back on track, as most hyperpigmentation can be erased, whether its with topical over-the-counter potions, cutting-edge laser treatments or professional-strength chemical peels.
“Dark spots and most types of hyperpigmentation are formed from prolonged sun exposure,” says Manhattan Board Certified Plastic Surgeon Alan Matarasso. Usually dark spots fall into these categories: freckles, smaller scattered spots; solar lentigines, also known as age or liver spots, which form on the chest, hands and face from years of UV damage; post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation caused by a blemish or bug bite that was exposed to the sun; and melasma, patchy brown discolorations on the cheeks, upper lip and forehead caused by hormonal fluctuations.
For years, hydroquinone, a lightening ingredient that fades spots by inhibiting the enzyme tyrosinase, which is essential to producing melanin, was often prescribed by derms to banish dark spots. However, hydroquinone can cause irritation and if used improperly can cause darkening of the skin.
Today, there are a variety of safe and effective ingredients that work similarly to hydroquinone without any harsh side effects. “Treating this condition has gotten a lot easier,” explains Matarasso. “We have better machinery, better ingredients, and we have a more aware population.”
Lasers are the most popular in-office treatments for getting rid of hyperpigmentation as they are more precise and give big results with little downtime. Popular ones are the GentleLase Pro™ by Syneron-Candela and Fraxel® Dual Laser. These lasers work by using light to go beneath the layers of skin and diffuse the melanin while also resurfacing the skin. A scab usually forms and falls off after a few days to a few weeks. Some spots may take only one treatment, but more may be needed for severe cases. Price ranges from $400 to several thousand dollars per session.
“Dark spots, like freckles, are the easiest to treat because they tend to be closer to the surface of the skin,” says Carissa McCormack, Medical Aesthetician at New York City’s SkinFit Medical Spa. “The most difficult is melasma because it has a hormonal component and can be made worse with treatments that are too aggressive.”
According to Lauren Zeifman of Park Avenue Skin Solutions, “the best treatment to get rid of unwanted spots is not just laser, but a combination of laser, chemical peels and topical creams.” Zeifman favors IPL (intense pulsed light) as the most effective laser treatment as it works on all skin tones and treats red and brown spots. IPL ranges from $200 to $700 per session with three to six sessions recommended.
In-office chemical peels such as the ZO Controlled Depth Peel by ZO Medical work by penetrating the deeper layers of the dermis with ingredients such as vitamin A and C, skin lighteners and glycolic acids to help stimulate cell renewal, shed sun-damaged skin and impart a youthful glow. Peels range in price depending on the strength and skin condition, but can usually start at $175 and can go up to $1,500.
While all of these treatments are effective at removing and treating unwanted pigmentation, without proper use of a sunscreen every day spots will come back.
Over the past year, there has been a surge in over-the-counter products to lighten dark spots and make skin more luminous. “Over-the-counter products have come a long way, though they do take longer to work than prescription medications,” explains McCormack. Below are some picks to treat dullness and discolorations at home.
A gentle alternative to hydroquinone, elure Advanced Skin Lightening Lotion ($150) contains Melanozyme, a mushroom-derived enzyme to lighten discoloration and even skin tone in as little as four weeks.
A slew of highly-concentrated Asian botanicals in AmorePacific Luminous Effect Brightening Masque ($120 for 6 masks) work to reduce melanin production while leaving skin instantly brighter after just one use.
Exuviance Skin Brightening Gel ($40) features a combination of skin brighteners—kojic acid, licorice, Vitamin C and Mulberry extract—and exfoliators for more even skin.
Smashbox Photo Finish More Than Primer Dark Spot Correcting ($42) smoothes fine lines and wrinkles while reducing discolorations in as little as four weeks.
Avene D-Pigment Dark Spot Corrector Light ($49) combines three powerful skin lighteners and brighteners—Melanyde, vitamin A and vitamin E—to fade dark spots and prevent new ones from occurring.
BeyondClear Erase Advanced Spot Corrector ($45)helps lighten stubborn acne marks in as little as six weeks.