Skip to main content

How it works:

  • Share your skin goals and snap selfies

  • Your dermatology provider prescribes your formula

  • Apply nightly for happy, healthy skin

How it works:

  • Share your skin goals and snap selfies

  • Your dermatology provider prescribes your formula

  • Apply nightly for happy, healthy skin

  1. blog
  2. > Ingredients

Does retinol help with dark spots? Experts explain

This product is often recommended for its anti-aging effect. Here’s how it can impact hyperpigmentation.

Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Dec 4, 2023 • 9 min read
Medically reviewed by Camille Dixon
Retinol and Dark Spots
Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Dec 4, 2023 • 9 min read
Medically reviewed by Camille Dixon
We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

In this article

What are dark spots?
More

Dark spots, also known as hyperpigmentation, can be a source of frustration for many people striving for a clear and even complexion. These stubborn marks, caused by various factors such as sun exposure, aging, or hormonal changes, often require effective solutions to diminish their appearance. The good news? There are products that can help reduce the appearance of dark spots—like retinol!

Here, Curology’s team of licensed dermatology providers explore the science behind retinol and its effects on hyperpigmentation. We’ll explain how it works, discuss the potential side effects, and provide practical tips on how you can incorporate retinol into your skincare routine

What are dark spots?

Hyperpigmentation is a prevalent dermatological condition characterized by the darkening of the skin, resulting from a range of internal and external factors. Skin color is primarily determined by melanin, a pigment produced by specialized skin cells known as melanocytes. Any disruptions in the production or distribution of melanin can give rise to hyperpigmentation.¹

There are various types of hyperpigmentation, each with its distinctive characteristics. Melasma is identified by the presence of irregular patches of brown or gray-brown skin that appear on sun-exposed areas, predominantly affecting women.² Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) manifests as dark patches that develop after skin injury or inflammation (such as acne). Solar lentigines, commonly referred to as “age spots” or “sunspots,” are darkened flat lesions caused by hyperpigmentation. And freckles, as you’re likely familiar with, are reddish to light brown spots commonly found on the face, neck, and arms, and are more prevalent among individuals with lighter skin tones.³

Although hyperpigmentation is a cosmetic concern across various ages and skin types, it tends to be more prevalent among middle-aged women and individuals with darker skin tones.⁴ 

What causes dark spots?

Our skin color is determined by cells called melanocytes, which make a pigment called melanin. These melanocytes store melanin in tiny structures called melanosomes. The melanin is then transferred to nearby skin cells called keratinocytes, giving our skin its color. Hormones also play a role in regulating melanin production.⁵

Melanosomes travel to the outer layers of the skin and can either stay intact in darker skin or break down into smaller particles in fairer skin. These processes contribute to the different skin colors and appearances we see in people.⁶ Hyperpigmentation occurs when there are disruptions in the normal melanin production process. Factors like sun exposure, inflammation, and hormones can affect melanin production and lead to dark spots or patches on the skin.⁷

All about topical retinoids 

The modern history of retinoids began in 1909 when vitamin A was discovered.⁸ Further research showed that not having enough vitamin A (retinol) can lead to dry skin (xerosis). Retinoids were later introduced for the treatment of photoaging, which results from sun damage.⁹

The retinoid family comprises vitamin A and its natural derivatives, such as retinaldehyde, retinoic acid, and retinyl esters, along with numerous synthetic variations. Since our bodies are unable to produce vitamin A, it is essential for us to obtain it through our diet.¹⁰

Retinoids have several effects on the skin including reducing hyperpigmentation or dark spots

Tretinoin is a type of retinoid that occurs naturally and has been suggested to be effective in treating dark spots caused by sun damage.¹¹ Using lower concentrations of tretinoin in creams or gels can help minimize side effects like dryness, irritation, or peeling. There are also other synthetic retinoids available, like adapalene and tazarotene, which have been found to be safe and effective in treating dark spots on the skin.¹²

Retinol for dark spots

Retinol shows promise in treating aging and photoaging and may be associated with reduced skin water loss, redness, and scaling than other topical retinoids.¹³ Retinol stimulates collagen synthesis in photoaged skin. Topical retinoids have been shown to increase epidermal thickness and skin cell proliferation. Clinical trials reveal retinol’s efficacy in reducing fine wrinkles. In aging skin, it can boost fibroblast growth and can enhance collagen synthesis.¹⁴

Topical retinoids, including newer synthetic formulations, can be effective in treating acne and lightening dark spots. These treatments can be beneficial for individuals seeking clearer and more even-toned skin.¹⁵

In one particular 40-week trial, tretinoin was evaluated in people with dark spots caused by acne, shaving, eczema, and other conditions. The study found improvements as early as week 4! It should be noted that some participants experienced skin side effects like dryness and/ or irritation, which were generally managed with moisturizers or temporary reduction/discontinuation of the medication.¹⁶

Another retinoid called tazarotene works by regulating gene expression and reducing cell proliferation and inflammation. Tazarotene is FDA-approved for treating fine wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, and certain skin conditions. In clinical trials, tazarotene showed significant reductions in overall hyperpigmentation severity, intensity, and area of dark spots.¹⁷

How to incorporate retinol into your skincare routine

Retinol can be a valuable addition to your skincare routine and is available in various forms, making it versatile and easy to incorporate into your regimen. It can be found in products like serums, moisturizers, masks, and even eye creams

Consider reaching out to a dermatology provider prior to using retinol as they will be able to steer you in the direction of what specific products are best suited for your unique skin. 

Personalized skincare with Curology

By understanding the science behind retinol and following proper usage guidelines, people can harness its potential to effectively fade dark spots and achieve a more radiant and even-toned complexion. It’s always best to consult with a dermatology provider for personalized recommendations and to address any specific concerns or questions related to incorporating retinol into a skincare routine.

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

curology bottle
curology bottle

To address certain skin concerns you may have, consider signing up for a 30 day trial with Curology.* Our team of licensed dermatology providers can provide you with personalized skincare recommendations and products based on your needs—all you need to do is answer a few questions and take a few photos of your skin.

FAQs

What is the difference between retinol and tretinoin?

You might have heard about retinol and tretinoin when treating signs of aging on your skin. These two are part of the retinoid family but differ in a few ways.

Retinol is a milder retinoid, available over the counter. It's a good option if you're just starting with retinoids or your skin is sensitive. Retinol helps with skin aging by boosting skin renewal and reducing fine lines and wrinkles, but it's not as potent as tretinoin.

Tretinoin, on the other hand, is a stronger retinoid and is available only by prescription. It's used for more severe skin aging issues. Tretinoin works faster and more intensely than retinol.¹⁸

So, if you're looking for a gentler way to fight aging signs, retinol might be your go-to. But if you need something stronger, then you may want to consider tretinoin. Remember, for either one, it's essential to start slow and follow your dermatology provider’s advice!

Is retinol right for everyone?

People with skin allergies or dryness may not be suitable candidates for products containing retinoids.¹⁹ If someone experiences significant redness or inflammation in their skin, it’s recommended to avoid retinoids and consult a dermatology provider for alternative treatments. Those with moderate or severe acne scarring, hormonal acne, or other related hormonal changes should seek guidance from a dermatology professional before using retinoids. It’s also important to note that retinoids should not be used during pregnancy.²⁰ 

What fades dark spots fast?

Studies have found improvements in addressing hyperpigmentation using tretinoin in as early as four weeks.²¹ However, it may take longer to see results. It’s also important to remember to wear broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF 30 daily to help prevent dark spots from worsening.

Sunscreen is essential for dealing with dark spots like melasma or postinflammatory hyperpigmentation. These dark spots can worsen when your skin is exposed to the sun's UV rays and visible light. Good sunscreen prevents your skin from producing more melanin (the pigment that gives your skin color), so your dark spots don't get darker. By applying sunscreen every day, you're not just protecting your skin from getting burnt, but you're also helping those dark spots fade and preventing new ones from forming. It's a simple step that can make a big difference in how your skin looks and feels.²²

Are retinoids appropriate for all skin types?

Although retinoids can benefit individuals of all skin colors, it is important for people with darker skin tones to be extra cautious about potential irritations caused by retinoid products.²³

Irritations can lead to the formation of dark marks (hyperpigmentation), particularly in individuals with darker skin. To mitigate this risk, it’s recommended to start with a slow and gradual introduction of retinoids and ensure the use of moisturizers to help minimize the possibility of irritation. Taking these precautions can help individuals with darker skin experience the benefits of retinoids while minimizing the risk of hyperpigmentation.²⁴

Do I need to use sunscreen with retinol?

Yes— it is important to be consistent with sunscreen while using a retinoid! Retinoids can be broken down by UV light and can increase the skin's sensitivity to the sun. It’s best to apply retinoid products only at night and use sunscreen daily.²⁵

• • •

P.S. We did the homework so you don't have to:

  1. Nautiyal, A. and Wairkar, S. Management of hyperpigmentation: Current treatments and emerging therapies. Pigment Cell & Melanoma Research. (2021, May 17).

  2. Nautiyal, A. and Wairkar, S. Management of hyperpigmentation: Current treatments and emerging therapies. Pigment Cell & Melanoma Research. Ibid.

  3. Nautiyal, A. and Wairkar, S. Management of hyperpigmentation: Current treatments and emerging therapies. Pigment Cell & Melanoma Research. Ibid.

  4. Nautiyal, A. and Wairkar, S. Management of hyperpigmentation: Current treatments and emerging therapies. Pigment Cell & Melanoma Research. Ibid.

  5. Nautiyal, A. and Wairkar, S. Management of hyperpigmentation: Current treatments and emerging therapies. Pigment Cell & Melanoma Research. Ibid.

  6. Nautiyal, A. and Wairkar, S. Management of hyperpigmentation: Current treatments and emerging therapies. Pigment Cell & Melanoma Research. Ibid.

  7. Nautiyal, A. and Wairkar, S. Management of hyperpigmentation: Current treatments and emerging therapies. Pigment Cell & Melanoma Research. Ibid.

  8. Mukherjee, S., et al. Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clinical Interventions in Aging. (December 2006).

  9. Mukherjee, S., et al. Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clinical Interventions in Aging. Ibid.

  10. Mukherjee, S., et al. Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clinical Interventions in Aging. Ibid.

  11. Nautiyal, A. and Wairkar, S. Management of hyperpigmentation: Current treatments and emerging therapies. Pigment Cell & Melanoma Research. Ibid.

  12. Nautiyal, A. and Wairkar, S. Management of hyperpigmentation: Current treatments and emerging therapies. Pigment Cell & Melanoma Research. Ibid.

  13. Mukherjee, S., et al. Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clinical Interventions in Aging. Ibid.

  14. Mukherjee, S., et al. Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clinical Interventions in Aging. Ibid.

  15. Calendar, V.D., et al. Effects of Topical Retinoids on Acne and Post-inflammatory Hyperpigmentation in Patients with Skin of Color: A Clinical Review and Implications for Practice. Am J Clin Dermatol. (2021, November 9).

  16. Calendar, V.D., et al. Effects of Topical Retinoids on Acne and Post-inflammatory Hyperpigmentation in Patients with Skin of Color: A Clinical Review and Implications for Practice. Am J Clin Dermatol. Ibid.

  17. Calendar, V.D., et al. Effects of Topical Retinoids on Acne and Post-inflammatory Hyperpigmentation in Patients with Skin of Color: A Clinical Review and Implications for Practice. Am J Clin Dermatol. Ibid.

  18. Mukherjee, S., et al. Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clin Interv Aging. Ibid.

  19. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Retinoid or Retinol?. (2021, May 25).

  20. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Retinoid or Retinol?. Ibid.

  21. Calendar, V.D., et al. Effects of Topical Retinoids on Acne and Post-inflammatory Hyperpigmentation in Patients with Skin of Color: A Clinical Review and Implications for Practice. Am J Clin Dermatol. Ibid.

  22. Fatima, S., et al. The Role of Sunscreen in Melasma and Postinflammatory Hyperpigmentation. Indian J Dermatol. (January-February 2020).

  23. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Retinoid or Retinol?. Ibid.

  24. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Retinoid or Retinol?. Ibid.

  25. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Retinoid or Retinol?. Ibid.

Camille Dixon is a certified Physician Assistant at Curology. She received her Master of Medical Science in Physician Assistant Studies from Midwestern University in Downers Grove, IL.

*Cancel anytime. Subject to consultation. Results may vary.

• • •
Our medical review process:We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Camille Dixon headshot

Camille Dixon

Related Articles

The best retinol eye creamsSkincare 101: What are whiteheads, and how do you treat them?The best liquid blush for acne-prone skin, according to dermatology providersWhat causes chin acne, and how can you get rid of it?What causes cystic acne and how to treat it

Popular Articles

Ask Curology: Is my cold breaking me out?Slugging: The dermatologist-approved skincare hack going viral on TikTokTretinoin vs retinol: What’s the difference?How to create a self-care routine that actually sticksYour 2023 skincare horoscope
Try prescription skincare
30-day trial. Subject to consultation. Cancel anytime.
Get routine essentials
A display of Curology Custom Formula bottles on a white shelf.

Good skin days ahead

Join the 1M+ patients who’ve tackled everything from acne, to fine lines, to hair thinning with prescription-powered treatments, personalized by a Licensed Dermatology Provider.
Ingredients proven to tackle
  • Breakouts
  • Redness
  • Fine lines
  • Dark spots
  • Hair thinning
$29.95/month
*Subject to consultation. Cancel anytime.
Get StartedShop ProductsWhy CurologyHow It WorksOur StoryCommunity
SupportBlogReviewsCareersContact Us
Follow @curology
Terms of ServicePrivacy Notice
Do Not Sell My Personal Information
All Rights Reserved © 2024 Curology