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  • Share your skin goals and snap selfies

  • Your dermatology provider prescribes your formula

  • Apply nightly for happy, healthy skin

How to get rid of skin discoloration, according to experts

Topical creams with ingredients like hydroquinone can reduce the appearance of sunspots and other types of hyperpigmentation—but some require a prescription.

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Curology Team
Oct 27, 2022 · 7 min read

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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.
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  3. > How to get rid of skin discoloration, according to experts

Having dark spots or areas of discoloration on your skin might feel like a bummer, but try not to worry! In most cases, discoloration from hyperpigmentation—the scientific name given to dark spots or patches of skin—is treatable, and, sometimes, it can even go away on its own. 

That said, if you're wondering how to remove skin discoloration, we've got you covered. Here we’ll explain what hyperpigmentation is, along with common causes. We’ll also share a few treatment options like hydroquinone, which has been proven effective in reducing the appearance of hyperpigmentation (aka dark spots).  

What is hyperpigmentation?

Hyperpigmentation happens when your skin produces too much melanin, resulting in spots or patches of skin that are darker than your natural skin tone. Melanin is what gives your skin, eyes, and hair their color. Everyone’s skin pigmentation is different. At Curology, we believe it’s just one of the many things that makes you uniquely you—and that’s something we’re all about celebrating. Even still, it's possible for your skin to have spots or areas darker than your natural color (aka hyperpigmentation).

While hyperpigmentation can occur anywhere on the body, in this article, we’ll focus on skin discoloration on the face. If you’re experiencing hyperpigmentation, the good news is that it’s typically treatable, and it usually responds to the many options that exist today.

What are the common causes of hyperpigmentation?

Common causes of hyperpigmentation are sun exposure, inflammation, and hormonal changes. Let’s take a closer look at three common types of skin pigmentation disorders and their causes:

  • Sunspots from UV rays are one of the most common types of hyperpigmentation. Also known as age spots, liver spots, or solar lentigines, they usually appear as brown pigmentation on the face, hands, or other areas of skin that are frequently exposed to the sun over time. 

  • Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) can happen when the body produces excess melanin following skin inflammation (like inflammatory acne or a burn). PIH usually fades over time, but topical treatments can help speed up the process.¹,² 

  • Melasma is a common skin condition that’s often triggered by sunlight or hormonal changes, like those that happen during pregnancy or while taking birth control pills. When it happens during pregnancy, it often goes away within a few months after giving birth (although this is not always the case!). That said, melasma may last for many years and can be difficult to treat.³ Topicals that work for sunspots and PIH may not be effective with melasma, but a licensed medical provider can help you come up with a treatment plan.

Preventing and treating hyperpigmentation

Hyperpigmentation can happen due to overexposure to the sun. Fortunately, you can help prevent it by using sunscreen as part of your daily skincare routine. Aside from prevention, there’s no “best” treatment for skin discoloration, but several topical treatment options may work. For more persistent cases, a dermatology provider may recommend more advanced treatments like chemical peels or laser therapy. 

How to prevent hyperpigmentation

Sun protection is key. Again, the best treatment against hyperpigmentation is using sunscreen every day. Apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF 30 about 15 minutes before heading outside to all exposed areas of your skin, including your neck, chest, and hands. Reapply every two hours or immediately after swimming, sweating, or toweling off. Remember, the best sunscreen is one you’ll actually use regularly! 

Pro tip: If your skin is acne-prone, our dermatology providers have a list of acne-friendly sunscreens to help you avoid comedogenic (pore-clogging) ingredients

 How to treat hyperpigmentation

When it comes to treating hyperpigmentation, topical treatments containing ingredients like tretinoin, azelaic acid, hydroquinone, niacinamide, and tranexamic acid can help. Many options exist, but some require a prescription from a dermatology provider.

  • Tretinoin is a retinoid (a derivative of vitamin A) used to treat signs of aging (like hyperpigmentation!) and acne. It works by increasing the skin’s cell turnover rate. It's been shown to effectively improve uneven skin tone both alone and with other topical ingredients (like hydroquinone).⁴

  • Azelaic acid is used to treat different types of hyperpigmentation (including acne-induced PIH!). Lower dosages are available over the counter, but higher strengths require a prescription.

  • Hydroquinone is a prescription cream that works to prevent melanin production⁵ (more on its benefits in a bit).

  • Niacinamide is a form of vitamin B3 that’s been shown to be effective in fading hyperpigmentation.⁶

  • Tranexamic acid works as a brightening agent that helps reduce the appearance of dark spots by inhibiting melanin formation.⁷

  • Chemical peels are in-office medical procedures that remove dead or damaged skin cells (including those affected by hyperpigmentation) using an acid like glycolic acid or lactic acid. 

  • Laser treatment is a skin resurfacing technique that uses light therapy to remove the outer skin layers and stimulate collagen production. Naturally pigmented skin replaces old or damaged skin affected by different types of hyperpigmentation.⁸,⁹

young asian woman touching her face

Hydroquinone and hyperpigmentation

Once commonly used for skin bleaching¹⁰ (a practice we definitely don’t recommend or condone!), hydroquinone is a topical prescription ingredient that has been proven safe and effective in treating age sunspots, PIH, and melasma (when used as directed, of course). It works by blocking tyrosinase, an enzyme the body needs to produce melanin.¹¹ (Unfortunately, it’s not effective against acne scars, but here’s a great resource for treating those.)  

Apply it before moisturizer, and always wear sunscreen when using hydroquinone (which you should be doing anyway!). 

How to find a skincare routine to help you treat dark spots

Treating hyperpigmentation can be made easier by finding a trusted skincare expert. That’s what Curology is all about. Our mission is to guide you throughout your entire skincare journey (because that’s exactly what skincare is—a journey!).

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Curology was founded by a mother and son dermatologist duo in 2014 to help people with concerns regarding acne, hyperpigmentation, rosacea, and skin aging. If you’re ready to take the guesswork out of treating hyperpigmentation, Curology’s licensed dermatology providers are ready to work with you to examine your skin, assess your skincare goals, and provide custom treatment options. When it comes to treating hyperpigmentation, specifically, Curology’s dark spot formula is a dermatologist-designed prescription cream that treats areas of darkened skin like melasma and other types of hyperpigmentation. We use proven ingredients like azelaic acid, niacinamide, tretinoin, and hydroquinone to help you achieve results.

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

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Becoming a member is easy. Just answer a few questions and snap a few selfies to help us get to know your skin. If Curology is right for you, one of our licensed dermatology providers will design a personalized prescription formula and a customized treatment plan to help you meet your skincare goals. You’ll also receive products to complement your treatment plan, like Curology’s cleanser and moisturizer. 

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FAQs

What is hyperpigmentation?

Hyperpigmentation happens when your skin produces too much melanin, resulting in spots or patches of skin that are darker than your natural skin tone. Melanin is what gives your skin, eyes, and hair their color.

What are the common causes of hyperpigmentation?

Common causes of hyperpigmentation are sun exposure, inflammation, and hormonal changes. Let’s take a closer look at three common types of skin pigmentation disorders and their causes:

  • Sunspots from UV rays are one of the most common types of hyperpigmentation.

  • Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) can happen when the body produces excess melanin following skin inflammation (like inflammatory acne or a burn).

  • Melasma is a common skin condition that’s often triggered by sunlight or hormonal changes, like those that happen during pregnancy or while taking birth control pills.

How to treat hyperpigmentation?

  • Tretinoin is a retinoid (a derivative of vitamin A) used to treat signs of aging (like hyperpigmentation!) and acne.

  • Azelaic acid is used to treat different types of hyperpigmentation (including acne-induced PIH!).

  • Hydroquinone is a prescription cream that works to prevent melanin production (more on its benefits in a bit).

  • Niacinamide is a form of vitamin B3 that’s been shown to be effective in fading hyperpigmentation.

  • Tranexamic acid works as a brightening agent that helps reduce the appearance of dark spots by inhibiting melanin formation.

  • Chemical peels are in-office medical procedures that remove dead or damaged skin cells (including those affected by hyperpigmentation) using an acid like glycolic acid or lactic acid. 

  • Laser treatment is a skin resurfacing technique that uses light therapy to remove the outer skin layers and stimulate collagen production.

• • •

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

  1. Silpa-Archa, et al. Postinflammatory hyperpigmentation: A comprehensive overview: Epidemiology, pathogenesis, clinical presentation, and noninvasive assessment technique.Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (2017, October 1).

  2. Chaowattanapanit S., et al. Postinflammatory hyperpigmentation: A comprehensive overview: Treatment options and prevention. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (2017, October 1).

  3. Paula Ludmann, MS. Melasma: Diagnosis and Treatment. American Academy of Dermatology Association. (2022, February 15).

  4. Hilary E. Baldwin MD, et al. 40 Years of Topical Tretinoin Use in Review.Journal of Drugs in Dermatology. (June 2013).

  5. Chelsea Schwartz, et al. Hydroquinone. StatPearls. (2022, August 25).

  6. Jacquelyn Levin DO, et al. How Much Do We Really Know About Our Favorite Cosmeceutical Ingredients?The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology. (February 2010).

  7. Seemal Desai MD, et al. Effect of a Tranexamic Acid, Kojic Acid, and Niacinamide Containing Serum on Facial Dyschromia: A Clinical Evaluation. Journal of Drugs in Dermatology. (May 2019).

  8. Suteeraporn Chaowattanapanit MD, et al. Postinflammatory hyperpigmentation: A comprehensive overview.Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (2017, October 1).

  9. Vaneeta M. Sheth MD, Amit G. Pandya, MD. Melasma: A comprehensive update.Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (2011, October 1).

  10. Dark E., et al. “The fairer the better?” Use of potentially toxic skin bleaching products.African Health Science. (December 2015).

  11. Chelsea Schwartz, et al. Hydroquinone. StatPearls. (2022, August 25)

* Subject to consultation. Subscription is required. 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

Nicole Hangsterfer Avatar

Nicole Hangsterfer, PA-C

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