This site has limited support for your browser. We recommend switching to Edge, Chrome, Safari, or Firefox.

Woman with dark skin and dark spots

How to Fade Dark Spots on Dark Skin

Back to main

The science behind treating and preventing discoloration in melanin-rich complexions.

Ask a handful of dermatologists the most pressing issue for their patients of color and chances are you’ll get the same response: Hyperpigmentation. In fact, one research review found that these patients are bothered more by discoloration of the skin than they are by the acne itself. [1] But you don’t have to get upset—and you can get even. Valerie D. Callender, M.D., FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist in Glenn Dale, MD and an Acne Store advisory board member, is one of the leading experts in treating hyperpigmentation in melanin-rich complexions. Use her advice to learn how to get rid of hyperpigmentation.

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 first

The 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 habits

As 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 face

Lightening 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 overnight

As 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.


[1]: A Review of Acne in Ethnic Skin

Information in the Acnepedia is for general educational purposes only. It should not be relied on as medical advice. You should not use this information for self-diagnosis or for treating any health problem or disease. Some of the information in the Acnepedia may reflect individual dermatologists' views and may be different from the label information on skincare products. You should always carefully follow the label information on skincare products. If you have questions about your health or the use of any drug or cosmetic skincare product, please speak to your healthcare provider. The provider of this website is not licensed to practice medicine in any state. Members of the Acne Store Board of Dermatologists have reviewed the Acnepedia articles but have not evaluated the safety or efficacy of specific products and do not endorse or recommend specific products.

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. 

Acne Store is coming soon! Join our mailing list for updates, exclusive content,and deals and discounts.