7 ways to treat and fade hyperpigmentation

Think dark spots is something that happens only when you get older? Think again.

Anyone can get dark spots. Freckles. Melasma. That annoying discolouration that hangs around after you’ve popped a pimple. Hyperpigmentation comes in many forms.

Sometimes, they’re caused by too much sun exposure. Others by hormones. Or several diseases, like celiac disease or Addison’s disease.

Hyperpigmentation is such a common problem, scientists have been working hard on a solution. They’ve found quite a few. Here are seven ways to treat hyperpignmentation:

1. Hydroquinone

What it is: Hydroquinone is the most used skin brightening ingredient in the USA.

What it does: it treats brown spots, melasma and freckles. It works by inhibiting tyrosinase (the enzyme needed to make melanin), and by increasing the breakdown of melanosomes (melanin pigment granules) in the melanocytes (the cells that produce melanin).

Side effects: although it’s banned in France and Japan, there’s no proof it causes cancer. But it can irritate and dry out skin and, in darker skin tones, cause ochronosis (a bluish black discoloration). Ochronosis seems to be linked with excessive sun exposure and the use of resorcinol. So if you use hydroquinone, pile on sunscreen and avoid resorcinol.

Best picks:

Related: Why Is Hydroquinone The Gold Standard At Treating Hyperpigmentation? 

2. Kojic Acid

What it is: an acid naturally found in soy sauce and sake.

What it does: it inhibits the activity of tyrosinase, making it an effective treatment for melasma, freckles and brown spots too. It’s less effective than hydroquinone but better tolerated.

Side effects: it’s very unstable and gradually loses its efficacy when exposed to light and air. That’s why many brands prefer to use a derivative, kojic dipalmitate.

Best pick:

Related: Kojic Acid VS Hydroquinone: Which One Should You Choose?

3. Azelaic Acid

What it is: an acid produced by the fungus Pityrosporum Ovale.

What it does: it fades melasma, brown spots and freckles, treats acne and soothes rosacea. It does the skin-lightening job by  inhibiting tyrosinase. A 2007 study comparing the efficacy of a 20% azelaic acid cream to that of an 4% hydroquinone cream found that “no significant treatment differences were observed with regard to overall rating, reduction In lesion size, and pigmentary intensity” between the two.

Best picks:

Related: Paula’s Choice 10% Azelaic Acid Booster VS The Ordinary Azelaic Acid Suspension 10%: Which One Is Better?

4. Glycolic Acid

What it is: the most famous member of the Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs family).

What it does: it fades hyperpigmentation and freckles,  reduces fine lines and brightens skin. It works by exfoliating skin,  removing the “damaged” top layer and replacing it with the newer, healthier and brighter skin cells underneath.

Side effects: the high concentrations of glycolic acid you need to treat dark spots effectively can irritate skin.

Best picks:

Related: The Complete Guide To Glycolic Acid

5. Vitamin C

What it is: a powerful antioxidant.

What it does: it prevents premature wrinkles, brightens skin and fades away sun spots. It works by inhibiting the activity of tyrosinase.

Side effects: Vitamin C is unstable and loses a bit of its effectiveness whenever it’s exposed to light and air. High concentrations can also irritate skin.

Best picks:

Related: Types Of Vitamin C Used In Skincare (Find The Best One To Treat Dark Spots!)

6. Undecylenoyl Phenylalanine

What it is: a skin-lightener developed by L’Oreal.

What it does: it treats skin discolorations and brown spots by inhibiting melanotropin, which controls tyrosinase activity, melanin synthesis and melanosome. This reduces melanin production. A 2011 study has found a cream with undecylenoyl phenylalanine to be a good alternative to hydroquinone. Undecylenoyl phenylalanine works best when used together with niacinamide.

Best Picks: Undecylenoyl phenylalanine seems to have run out of favour since I first wrote this post because I couldn’t find any products that currently use it. If you find a product with it, give it a go.

Related: Why You Should Add Niacinamide To Your Skincare Routine

7. Lumixyl

What it is: a complex of olygopeptides developed by researchers at the Stanford University.

What it does: it treats hyperpigmentation by inhibiting tyrosinase. A 2009 study has found that application of Lumixyl twice a day fior 16 weeks produced a “statistically significant improvement in the appearance of melasma and overall facial aesthetics”.

Best picks:

Lumixyl Topical Brightening Creme ($80.00): available at Envy Medical

Bottom Line

These days, there are plenty of options to treat dark spots. The catch? You’ll have to experiment to find the one that works best for you. Often, that’s a combination of one or two treatments. Choose your poison!


How do you treat your pigmentation? Share your tips + fave products in the comments below.