How to Brighten Dark Spots

Now that your beachside bathing suits have been tucked away in favor of cozy fireside knits, your skin can finally take a much-needed break from the sun. After months of UV exposure, discolorations in the form of freckles, dark spots, or scars may suddenly be visible. Once spotted, NYC-based skin care expert Dangene says, the earlier you seek treatment, the better. In general, even tiny spots “will keep growing bigger,” she explains—meaning the sooner you tackle the problem, the less intervention will be required.

But first, start by seeking a professional opinion. “Brown spots are complicated,” says Miami-based dermatologist Dr. Jill Waibel, M.D., who explains that the key to treating discoloration successfully is to know what you’re dealing with. To avoid complications, she stresses the importance of consulting a doctor first. “You don’t want to use a laser on a melanoma,” she warns of properly diagnosing a potentially dangerous dark mark before taking action.

Once you’ve established that an offending freckle doesn’t present a health risk, it’s time to form a plan of attack. Here, Dangene and Waibel share their tried-and-true strategies for getting rid of dark spots, from the best at-home topical treatments to the most effective in-office lasers.

Over-the-counter and prescription skin-brightening lotions target thin, surface-level spots including melasma and sun-induced hyperpigmentation. “The most common ingredient is hydroquinone which bleaches but does not remove spots,” says Waibel, which means that, with enough UV exposure, they will likely reappear. That being said, she estimates that topical treatments can eradicate fifty percent of the offending marks. Both Waibel and Dangene recommend Retin-A, in particular, because in addition to exfoliating away minor discolorations, the derm-approved ingredient also helps to prevent future dark spots through a photoprotective antioxidant. Essentially, says Waibel, “The sooner you start using Retin-A, the better.” Apply it at night, since it may induce a heightened risk of sun sensitivity. Or, if you prefer, consider the season’s new serums, spiked with everything From encapsulated Vitamin C to gentle retexturizing acids (see our slideshow below).

For up to medium-depth spot removal, chemical peels including trichloroacetic acid (TCA) and glycolic acid peels superficially injure the skin to provoke a wound-healing response that expels dark pigment. For newish sun spots on very pale complexions, says Dangene, who offers the treatments at her Institute of Skinovation clinic in Manhattan, “we can eliminate the whole problem in a single TCA treatment,” but most clients can expect to schedule an initial series of three to four appointments, and, for maintenance, another one to two each year. Waibel tells clients to anticipate clearing up seventy percent of face discolorations and to make special pains to avoid the sun post-procedure, but she does not recommend peels for addressing marks on the body, due to thinner skin and fewer sweat and oil glands to help with healing. At home, milder daily peels can be executed with glycolic acid pads like Topix Glycolix Gly-Sal Pads. “It’s like exercising at the gym,” says Waibel of the need to be consistent with your regimen. “You can’t use them once a year and expect results.”

With “the right doctor and the right treatment,” Waibel says lasers can be extremely effective in treating even difficult discolorations. With their far-reaching wave-lengths, they penetrate the skin, heating up targeted brown spots, and destroying them by causing the darkened skin to flake and fall off following the treatment. Waibel recommends one to two sessions of intense pulsed light (IPL) or photodynamic therapy to treat the affected area, asking darker skin tones to seek out board-certified dermatologists or plastic surgeons for such procedures due to heightened risks of scarring if performed incorrectly. “Within five days, your skin will look brand-new,” she says.

If you’re careful about limiting your sun exposure, “you will never have a brown spot [to begin with],” says Dangene. Regular sunscreen application and reasonable skin coverage in strong sunlight will help to ward off future discolorations. Waibel also suggests a preventative daily routine that includes applying a broad-spectrum sunscreen in SPF 30 or higher in the morning over a skin tone–evening, antioxidant rich serum like SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic or a similarly corrective serum—things will certainly look brighter.

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