How to Fade Dark Spots on Dark Skin
The science behind treating and preventing discoloration in melanin-rich complexions.
This is what causes dark spots on skin
For those with darker skin, the cells that make melanin, called melanocytes, can produce even more pigment when subjected to trauma from anything ranging from a cut to a rash to an acne lesion. “If you were to look at acne under a microscope, you’d see inflammatory cells in that area,” Callender explains. “Those inflammatory cells are what causes the melanocyte to churn out pigment.” What you’ll see in the mirror is a dark spot.
Tackle the acne that causes dark spots firstThe dark spots are what might be getting your attention, but it’s important to treat their root cause—the acne—to prevent new ones from forming. “When you address your breakouts you’re reducing inflammation and slowing the production of more pigment,” explains Callender. To do so, she recommends taking a gentle approach to skincare to avoid further inflaming the skin. Acne treatment products with salicylic acid, glycolic acid, or retinol fit the bill—use them in the evening before bed. The rest of your skincare should be mild, mild, mild: a hydrating cleanser, nourishing oil-free moisturizer, and a sunscreen with an SPF 30 or higher. “The number one way to control inflammation in darker skin is to use gentle, soothing skincare and to avoid abrasive skincare,” adds Callender.
Banish these bad skin habitsAs tempting as it may be, squeezing pimples will only make matters worse. “You can certainly experience hyperpigmentation even if you don’t pick your acne, but doing so only ups the odds,” says Callender. And while you may have heard that remedies like cocoa butter or shea butter can clear dark marks, she warns they can clog the pores and exacerbate the condition.
"The number one way to control inflammation in darker skin is to use gentle, soothing skincare and to avoid abrasive skincare."
The best treatment for dark spots on the faceLightening and brightening may require a cocktail of ingredients. Callender recommends products with niacinamide, arbutin, kojic acid, azelaic acid, retinol, vitamin C, and a new kid on the block called tranexamic acid. And the more of these you can find in a single product, the better. “Many over-the-counter products combine these ingredients and there have been some studies that have compared them to prescription hydroquinone, considered the gold standard, and found that the combinations products have proven to be quite helpful.” Bonus: These advanced formulas are great for getting rid of hyperpigmentation caused by acne and from photo-damage from the sun.
Don’t expect to get rid of dark spots overnightAs bothersome as discoloration can be, patience and consistency are key. It may take three months to see the effects of your regimen, says Callender. “If you’re doing all the right things with your at-home treatment and wearing sunscreen religiously and your marks are still not budging, then a board-certified dermatologist will be the one to help you correct it.”
Let a doctor tackle tricky dark spots
Sad but true: Hyperpigmentation may not be 100% reversible with at-home care alone. Excess pigment can exist at different levels of the skin—if it’s at the upper level, or epidermis, it’s more easily treated. “You can exfoliate that pigment away with topical agents that will eliminate the pigment from the skin,” says Callender. But stubborn pigment in the deeper layers of the skin needs a dermatologist’s care. “We use prescription medications and aesthetic procedures like microdermabrasion or chemical peels to deeply exfoliate the skin, or lasers to break up the pigment so it can be released through the lymphatic system.” Callender explains.
Valerie D. Callender, M.D., F.A.A.D.
Dr. Valerie D. Callender is a member of the Acne Store Board of Dermatologists and an internationally recognized Board-Certified Dermatologist known for her sensitive and innovative approach to the treatment of pigmentation disorders. Dr. Callender is a prolific contributor to the dermatology literature and has co-edited a textbook on Treatment for Skin of Color. Dr. Callender has conducted and participated in over 60 research studies and clinical trials for both therapeutic and cosmetic products and is a consultant for some of the world’s leading cosmetic and consumer brands. She is a Past President of the Women’s Dermatologic Society and Skin of Color Society and has served on the Board of Directors of the American Academy of Dermatology. She is the Founder of the Callender Dermatology & Cosmetic Center and Callender Center for Clinical Research, which are in the Washington, DC metropolitan region. Dr. Callender received her medical degree from Howard University, where she also did her residency and currently serves as a Professor of Dermatology at the College of Medicine.
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