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Treating and preventing dark spots on the face

Your guide to a brighter, more even-toned complexion.

Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Jul 21, 2023 • 9 min read
Medically reviewed by Laura Phelan, NP-C
Woman Touching Face
Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Jul 21, 2023 • 9 min read
Medically reviewed by Laura Phelan, 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.

It's a regular day, and there you are, admiring your reflection in the mirror when you notice some new guests have appeared—hello there, dark spots! Often these little patches, freckles, or age spots are simply the stories our skin tells as we journey through life. Although these spots are generally harmless, you might be curious about what causes them, and whether you can make them disappear.

Here, we’ll unpack the common causes of these skin spots and give you practical tips to prevent and treat them. Using the right ingredients in your skincare routine can help, but sometimes it takes a village to banish a dark spot; so, we'll also discuss when it might be time to bring your healthcare provider into the loop. 

What causes dark spots on your face?

Dark spots on your face, also known as hyperpigmentation, can be caused by a variety of culprits, but a few of the most common include: postinflammatory hyperpigmentation, melasma, and solar lentigines.¹

Now, postinflammatory hyperpigmentation may sound like quite the mouthful. But in simple terms, it's a fancy way of saying "dark spots that occur after your skin has had a bit of a rough time." Usually, these spots are a response to some kind of inflammation or trauma and are more common in darker skin tones. Treating the underlying condition, such as acne or eczema, can help these spots fade, though they tend to take their sweet time, often requiring weeks or even months to disappear entirely.²

Then we have melasma, a skin condition that seems to enjoy playing the mystery card, as various factors can cause it. These brown to gray-brown patches often turn up when hormones change or after UV exposure. And sometimes, your genes cause you to be more prone to these patches developing.³

Finally, meet solar lentigines, also known as sun spots, age spots, or liver spots, which make their entrance when your skin has had its fair share of sun exposure. Picture them as little souvenirs from your sunny adventures, appearing as yellow to dark brown spots.⁴

So there you have it, a trio of usual suspects behind dark spots on your face. While each has its unique backstory, they all contribute to the beautiful diversity of our skin's canvas.

Can you prevent dark spots? 

Now, not all causes of dark spots are within our control—like those caused by genetics or hormones. But remember solar lentigines, those so-called age spots we chatted about? The good news is their occurrence can be minimized.

Think of sun protection as your shield against solar lentigines. By limiting your sun exposure and applying sunscreen like it's your new favorite hobby, you're signing up for a future with fewer age spots. In fact, sunscreen can be a great ally against melasma as well, preventing it from worsening further.⁵ If you need a recommendation, we’re partial to our Everyday Sunscreen, which is perfect for acne-prone or sensitive skin. 

The link between sun exposure and increased pigmentation disorders is like that between cookies and crumbs—where you find one, the other isn't far behind. This also means that other signs of aging might also make their appearance. But again, sun protection is your best friend.

Also, once you've waved goodbye to dark spots post-treatment, it doesn't mean you should skip out on SPF. Maintaining your sunscreen routine and adding protective clothing and sunglasses to the mix can ensure that those dark spots think twice before making a comeback.⁷

So there you have it! While we might not have complete control over dark spots, a little sun sense can steer us toward a clearer, more even-toned complexion.

How do you treat dark spots on your face?

Now, keep in mind, there isn't a one-size-fits-all solution in the world of dark spot treatments. It's best to speak with a licensed dermatology provider for individualized recommendations.

In the initial fight against hyperpigmentation, topical treatments play a significant role. Some of the power-packed ingredients you might consider are:⁸

  • Azelaic acid: Your skin's best buddy for reducing dark spots while having little effect on normal skin.

  • Kojic acid: A natural yet powerful pigment inhibitor.

  • Niacinamide: A form of vitamin B3, this is an ingredient that improves hyperpigmentation.

  • Ascorbic acid: Aka good ol' vitamin C, which has been found helpful in treating dark spots.

  • Hydroquinone: the topical gold standard when it comes to reducing dark spots.⁹

Sometimes, these ingredients join forces in what's known as triple therapy, featuring hydroquinone, tretinoin, and fluocinolone.¹⁰ It's like the Avengers but for skincare.

The best treatment for melasma incorporates hydroquinone and sun avoidance. However, if topical medications fail to work, chemical peels and lasers may be considered.Chemical peels that use glycolic acid or salicylic acid-based compounds may help by increasing the turnover of hyperpigmented keratinocytes¹¹—think of it as encouraging your skin to let go of the old and welcome the new.

For post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, after the use of topical products, you might consider laser treatments. Whether your medical provider uses Q-switched ruby lasers, Q-switched Nd: YAG lasers, or picosecond lasers, they all aim to reduce pigmentation.¹²

Topical retinoids can also make a substantial difference. By possibly reducing skin pigmentation by about 60% and promoting a proper distribution of melanin, they can help your skin find its balance again.¹³ ¹⁴ 

Everyone’s skin is unique, so the most effective treatment will depend on your specific needs. Consult with your dermatology provider to find your personalized path to brighter, more even-toned skin.

When to see a healthcare provider 

Although the conditions we've talked about are generally harmless house guests, it's always okay to seek a second opinion when things seem a little off. In the spirit of “better safe than sorry,” if a new dark spot has you scratching your head or an older spot seems to be changing, having an in-person dermatologist give it a once-over is a great idea.¹⁵

But how do you know when it's definitely time to ring up your healthcare provider? Well, remember your ABCDEs:¹⁶

  • Asymmetry: If one half of the spot doesn't match the other.

  • Border irregularity: If the edges are uneven, irregular, or poorly defined.

  • Color variation: If the spot has different colors.

  • Diameter: If the spot is larger than a pencil eraser (although, it’s reasonable to have smaller spots checked, too!).

  • Evolution: If the spot changes in size, shape, or color.

If your dark spot fits any of these criteria or you have any additional concerns (such as itching or bleeding), it's time to schedule an appointment with a pro. After all, your healthcare provider is there to help you navigate your skin's narratives and ensure that it continues to tell happy, healthy stories.

Additionally, some cosmetic treatments require a prescription or should be carried out by a licensed provider. So you’ll need to schedule an appointment in that case as well.

Curology Future-ProofRx for anti-aging

Get professional help with your skincare issues

If you’re looking to treat or help prevent dark spots on your face caused by melasma, age spots, or postinflammatory hyperpigmentation, Curology may be able to help. Our FutureProofRx formula uses ingredients scientifically proven to tackle dullness, dark spots, or fine lines.

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

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Get started on your Curology 30-day trial.* Just take a quick skin quiz and snap a few selfies. Then one of our licensed medical providers will evaluate your skin and develop a game plan to help you reach your goals. 

If Curology is right for you, your provider will prescribe a formula containing up to three active ingredients, such as tretinoin, azelaic acid, niacinamide, or tranexamic acid, based on your skin quiz and photos. Your formula will target your specific skin concerns and can evolve with you over time!

FAQs

What skin spots on face to be concerned about?

Dark spots on your face can be quite common.¹⁷ When it comes to spots on your face, the ABCDE rule is your go-to guide:¹⁸

  • Asymmetry: Is one half of the spot different from the other?

  • Border: Are the edges ragged or uneven?

  • Color: Does the spot showcase multiple colors instead of a solid one?

  • Diameter: Is the spot larger than a pencil eraser?

  • Evolution: Is the spot changing in size, shape, or color?

If your skin spot checks any of these boxes or you have any concerns at all, it's time to schedule a chat with your healthcare provider. They'll help you understand if there's a need for concern and guide you on the next steps.

How do you get rid of spots on your face?

There's no one-size-fits-all magic wand for getting rid of spots on your face. Topical treatments with ingredients like azelaic acid or niacinamide can help lighten the spots.¹⁹ Skin peels can encourage your skin to say goodbye to old, hyperpigmented cells. Topical retinoids²⁰ and laser treatments²¹ can also enter the fray, reducing discoloration and promoting an even skin tone. For individualized recommendations for getting rid of spots, chat with a licensed dermatology provider to find the best path for you!

What are the little brown spots on my face?

Those little brown spots on your face can be due to multiple causes such as postinflammatory hyperpigmentation, melasma, or solar lentigines (sun or age spots).²² Think of them as memories of skin inflammation, sun exposure, or hormonal changes. However, if any spot seems out of line with the ABCDE rule—asymmetry, border irregularity, color variation, diameter larger than a pencil eraser, or evolution over time—or you have any concerns, it's time to call your healthcare provider for a detailed conversation.²³

• • •

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

  1. Plensdorf, S., et al. Pigmentation Disorders: Diagnosis and Management. Am Fam Physician. (2017, December 15).

  2. Plensdorf, S., et al. Pigmentation Disorders: Diagnosis and Management. Am Fam Physician. Ibid.

  3. Basit, H., et al. Melasma. StatPearls. (2023, April 16).

  4. Plensdorf, S., et al. Pigmentation Disorders: Diagnosis and Management. Am Fam Physician. Ibid.

  5. Plensdorf, S., et al. Pigmentation Disorders: Diagnosis and Management. Am Fam Physician. Ibid.

  6. Flament, F., et al. Effect of the sun on visible clinical signs of aging in Caucasian skin. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. (2013, September 27).

  7. American Academy of Dermatology Association. What Can Get Rid of Age Spots?. (2021, September 28).

  8. Hollinger, J.C., et al. Are Natural Ingredients Effective in the Management of Hyperpigmentation? A Systematic Review. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. (2018, February 1).

  9. Desai SR. Hyperpigmentation therapy: a review. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. (August 2014). 

  10. Plensdorf, S., et al. Pigmentation Disorders: Diagnosis and Management. Am Fam Physician. Ibid.

  11. Basit, H., et al. Melasma. StatPearls. Ibid.

  12. Lawrence, E. and Al Aboud, K.M. Postinflammatory Hyperpigmentation. (2022, October 3).

  13. Plensdorf, S., et al. Pigmentation Disorders: Diagnosis and Management. Am Fam Physician. Ibid.

  14. Zasada, M. and Budzisz, E. Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatments. Postepy Dermatol Alergol. (2019, August 30).

  15. Plensdorf, S., et al. Pigmentation Disorders: Diagnosis and Management. Am Fam Physician. Ibid.

  16. American Academy of Dermatology Association. What to look for: ABCDEs of melanoma. (n.d.).

  17. Plensdorf, S., et al. Pigmentation Disorders: Diagnosis and Management. Am Fam Physician. Ibid.

  18. American Academy of Dermatology Association. What to look for: ABCDEs of melanoma. Ibid.

  19. Hollinger, J.C., et al. Are Natural Ingredients Effective in the Management of Hyperpigmentation? A Systematic Review. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. Ibid.

  20. Lawrence, E. and Al Aboud, K.M. Postinflammatory Hyperpigmentation. Ibid.

  21. Basit, H., et al. Melasma. StatPearls. Ibid.

  22. Plensdorf, S., et al. Pigmentation Disorders: Diagnosis and Management. Am Fam Physician. Ibid.

  23. American Academy of Dermatology Association. What to look for: ABCDEs of melanoma. Ibid.

Laura Phelan is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner at Curology. She earned her Masters of Science in Nursing at Benedictine University and went on to get her post-master’s certificate as a Family Nurse Practitioner at the University of Cincinnati.

*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).
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Curology Team

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Laura Phelan, NP-C

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