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How to color correct dark spots according to dermatology providers

The right skincare ingredients can help you get a more even skin tone.

Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Nov 10, 2023 • 10 min read
Medically reviewed by Erin Pate, NP-C
Woman with Hyperpigmentation
Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Nov 10, 2023 • 10 min read
Medically reviewed by Erin Pate, NP-C
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 frustrating and persistent concern for many people. Whether caused by sun exposure, hormonal changes, acne, or aging, these areas of increased pigmentation can significantly impact your overall appearance—not to mention your self-confidence! 

Fortunately, there are plenty of effective color correction techniques that can help you address this issue, giving you a more even and radiant complexion.

So, we asked Curology’s team of licensed dermatology providers to unpack color correction and the science behind hyperpigmentation. By understanding its root causes, you can better tailor your corrective approach. Whether you’re looking to diminish dark circles or dark spots on your face, hands, or other body parts, we’ll give you information that can help you to achieve your goals.

What are dark spots?

Hyperpigmentation is a prevalent skin condition characterized by the darkening of the skin due to various internal and external factors. The color of our skin is primarily determined by melanin, a pigment produced by specialized skin cells called melanocytes. Any disturbances in melanin production or distribution can result in hyperpigmentation disorders.¹

There are different types of hyperpigmentation disorders, each with distinct characteristics. Melasma presents as irregular brown or gray-brown patches on sun-exposed areas, mostly affecting women.² Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) arises as dark spots after skin injury or inflammation. Solar lentigines, commonly known as “age spots” or “sunspots,” appear as darkened lesions due to hyperpigmentation. Freckles, also called ephelides, are reddish to light brown spots typically found on the face, neck, and arms, and are more common in individuals with lighter skin tones.³

While hyperpigmentation can impact people of all skin types, it is more common in middle-aged women and those with deeper skin tones.⁴ Different ethnic groups may also exhibit varying rates of specific hyperpigmentation disorders. Emotional and psychological well-being can be significantly affected by hyperpigmentation, making it a cosmetic concern for many.⁵

What causes dark spots?

Melanocytes, which produce melanin, as mentioned above, are stored in structures called melanosomes. Melanin is transferred to nearby skin cells called keratinocytes, giving our skin its color.⁶

Melanosomes can either remain intact in darker skin or break down into smaller particles in fairer skin, which contributes to different skin colors.⁷ Hyperpigmentation occurs when disruptions in the normal melanin production process happen. Factors like UV exposure, inflammation, and hormones can affect melanin production may lead to the development of dark spots or patches on the skin.⁸

Dark spot prevention and treatments

Various methods and products are used to decrease the appearance of dark circles and dark spots on the skin.

Azelaic acid

Azelaic acid is an ingredient that has a significant effect on heavily-pigmented melanocytes. Studies have proven its safety and potency in treating acne-induced post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, making it a valuable solution for reducing dark spots caused by acne and promoting clearer, more even-toned skin.⁹

Niacinamide

Niacinamide has beneficial effects on dark spots by inhibiting melanosome transfer, which means it prevents the movement of melanin from melanocytes to keratinocytes.¹⁰ In one clinical study, topical application of niacinamide for 12 weeks improved signs of skin aging and reduced hyperpigmented spots, red blotchiness, yellowing of the skin, and fine lines and wrinkles. These effects could be attributed to niacinamide’s antioxidant properties, which may help reverse the process of protein glycation, contributing to its depigmenting properties.¹¹

Color correcting makeup 

Dermocosmetic products used in medical makeup effectively address skin imperfections by combining color neutralization (like the use of green color corrector to combat the appearance of redness) and sun protection.¹² Severe imperfections can be challenging to conceal without the risk of an artificial appearance. To achieve a natural and effective correction, color correction techniques are utilized, a well-established practice within medical makeup.¹³

Vitamin C

Vitamin C is beneficial in reducing dark spots on the skin through multiple mechanisms. First, it prevents the production of melanin.¹⁴ It also acts as an antioxidant, shielding the skin from harmful molecules that cause dark spot formation. Vitamin C can also lighten the color of existing dark spots, making them less prominent. And, it offers protection against sun-induced damage by UV rays.¹⁵ Thus, vitamin C is a valuable ingredient for combating dark spots, dull skin, and promoting a more even skin tone while safeguarding against sun-related harm.

Licorice 

Two extracts from licorice, glabridin, and liquiritin, have been found to lighten the skin when applied topically.¹⁶ Glabridin is the main active ingredient from licorice, and it works by reducing inflammation in the skin. It can inhibit certain processes that lead to skin darkening. 

Licochalcone A, another extract from licorice, also has anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial effects, which can help improve skin redness caused by exposure to UV rays. In one study, using a cream containing liquiritin on one side of the face for four weeks resulted in exceptional skin lightening effects with reduced dark spots.¹⁷

Sunscreen

Broad-spectrum sunscreen plays an important role in preventing hyperpigmentation on the skin. It offers protection against both UVA and UVB rays, which are major contributors to skin damage and the development of dark spots.¹⁸ UVA rays penetrate more deeply into the dermis and can trigger melanocyte stimulation, leading to increased melanin production and hyperpigmentation. UVB rays, on the other hand, mainly affect the upper layers of the skin, the epidermis.¹⁹ By applying broad-spectrum sunscreen regularly and adequately, you can minimize UV exposure to protect your skin. This preventive measure helps reduce the occurrence of hyperpigmentation, promoting a more even and youthful complexion over time.

Address dark spots with Curology

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Curology’s team of licensed dermatologists can help you address your skin care concerns—including dark spots. They possess the expertise to evaluate your unique skin type and recommend skincare products tailored to your needs. Sign up today for a 30 day trial.* 

FAQs

How long does it take for a dark spot to fade?

After identifying and addressing the cause of dark spots or patches, the fading process may vary. Lighter spots, such as ones that are a few shades darker than your natural skin color, typically fade within 6 to 12 months.²⁰ However, if the discoloration is deeply embedded in the skin, the fading process may take years. Deep discoloration is often slate blue, gray, or very dark brown compared to your natural skin color.²¹ Some treatments can accelerate the fading of dark spots and patches, helping you achieve a more even skin tone.

Is hyperpigmentation curable?

Although some forms of hyperpigmentation cannot be completely cured, you can take preventive measures to avoid its recurrence. We recommend applying sunscreen every two hours and after swimming or sweating.²² When outdoors, wear a wide-brimmed hat for additional protection. It’s best to avoid being outside during the sun’s peak hours, typically between 10am and 2pm.²³ Opt for gentle skincare products, and discontinue using any that cause significant burning or stinging sensations. Additionally, continue addressing the underlying cause of the dark spots, such as treating any existing skin conditions, to minimize the likelihood of future hyperpigmentation.²⁴

What sunscreen to use for dark spots?

Opt for a sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher, offering broad-spectrum defense against UVA and UVB rays, water-resistance, and active ingredients like titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, and stick to non-comedogenic formulas.²⁵

• • •

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  9. Liyanage, A., et al. Comparative Study on Depigmenting Agents in Skin of Color. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. (February 2022).

  10. Gueniche, A., et al. A dermocosmetic formulation containing Vichy volcanic mineralizing water, Vitresoscilla filiformis extract, niacinamide, hyaluronic acid, and vitamin E regenerates and repairs acutely stressed skin. Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology & Venereology. (2022, January 3).

  11. Gueniche, A., et al. A dermocosmetic formulation containing Vichy volcanic mineralizing water, Vitresoscilla filiformis extract, niacinamide, hyaluronic acid, and vitamin E regenerates and repairs acutely stressed skin. Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology & Venereology. Ibid.

  12. Nonni, J. Medical makeup: the correction of hyperpigmentation disorders. Annales de Dermatologie et de Vénéréologie. (December 2012).

  13. Nonni, J. Medical makeup: the correction of hyperpigmentation disorders. Annales de Dermatologie et de Vénéréologie. Ibid.

  14. Woolery-Lloyd, H. and Kammer, J.N. Treatment of Hyperpigmentation. Seminars in Cutaneous Medicine and Surgery. (2011, n.d.).

  15. Woolery-Lloyd, H. and Kammer, J.N. Treatment of Hyperpigmentation. Seminars in Cutaneous Medicine and Surgery. Ibid.

  16. Woolery-Lloyd, H. and Kammer, J.N. Treatment of Hyperpigmentation. Seminars in Cutaneous Medicine and Surgery. Ibid.

  17. Woolery-Lloyd, H. and Kammer, J.N. Treatment of Hyperpigmentation. Seminars in Cutaneous Medicine and Surgery. Ibid.

  18. Krutmann, J., et al. Daily photoprotection to prevent photoaging. Photodermatology, Photoimmunology & Photomedicine. (2021, April 25).

  19. Krutmann, J., et al. Daily photoprotection to prevent photoaging. Photodermatology, Photoimmunology & Photomedicine. Ibid.

  20. Ludmann, P. How to Fade Dark Spots in Darker Skin Tones. American Academy of Dermatology Association. (2022, March 3).

  21. Ludmann, P. How to Fade Dark Spots in Darker Skin Tones. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Ibid.

  22. Ludmann, P. How to Fade Dark Spots in Darker Skin Tones. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Ibid.

  23. Ludmann, P. How to Fade Dark Spots in Darker Skin Tones. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Ibid.

  24. Ludmann, P. How to Fade Dark Spots in Darker Skin Tones. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Ibid.

  25. Ludmann, P. How to Fade Dark Spots in Darker Skin Tones. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Ibid.

Erin Pate is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner at Curology. She earned her Masters of Science in Nursing at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, FL.

*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.
Our policy on product links:Empowering you with knowledge is our top priority. Our reviews of other brands’ products in this post are not paid endorsements—but they do meet our medically fact-checked standards for ingredients (at the time of publication).
Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Erin Pate Nurse Practitioner, NP-C

Erin Pate, NP-C

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