Dark spots or hyperpigmentation can make some people feel insecure about their skin. There is no medical need to lighten the dark spots on the skin, it's purely a personal preference. If you desire a more even skin tone, there are several natural products — as well as over-the-counter (OTC) and professional treatments — that can help.
Dark spots on the skin are caused by the pigment melanin.
Dark spots are caused by the sun, inflammation from a rash or wound, irritation, medications, and hormones.
There are several natural products that can lighten dark spots, such as lemons, apple cider vinegar, and milk.
Many over-the-counter (OTC) products can help lighten the skin, such as kojic acid, licorice, retinoids, and vitamin C.
More invasive, professional treatments can lighten the dark spots, including lasers, microdermabrasion, and peels.
What causes dark spots on the skin?
Dark spots, also known as hyperpigmentation, are caused by excess production of the pigment melanin. Melanin is produced by melanocytes, which are one of the cells residing in the epidermis layer of the skin. Dark spots are caused by the sun, inflammation from a rash or wound, irritation, medications, and hormones.
Lightening dark skin spots – the risks:
Some of these naturally occurring compounds are not without side effects. Just because a product is natural, doesn't mean it can't harm you. Remember, poison ivy is natural.
Some possible side effects include irritation, redness, and rash. Some have experienced allergic reactions to natural products. Care should be exercised to prevent excess lightening of the dark spots.
Natural ways to reduce pigmentation
Several natural products may help lighten dark spots on the skin. Some have minimal research to support their claims, while others do not. If you have dry, sensitive, or certain skin conditions, some of these products may not be appropriate for you. If you are considering the use of any product to lighten the dark spots on your skin, you should discuss it with your doctor first.
- Lemon. Lemons contain vitamin C and citric acid, which can help lighten dark spots on the skin. Some may find lemon juice irritating or may even have an allergic reaction when exposed to the sun. Many use it as a mask and wash it off after 20-30 minutes.
- Tomatoes. Tomatoes contain lycopene, a potent antioxidant. Small studies have shown that tomatoes can protect against sun-induced damage to the skin. While they do not actively lighten the skin, they might prevent dark spots from appearing.
- Apple cider vinegar. Apple cider vinegar (ACV) contains acetic acid, which may help lighten dark spots on the skin. It has long been used to treat and prevent bacterial infections in wounds. Since it can be irritating, it should only be used diluted and washed off after a few minutes.
- Green tea. Green tea, like tomatoes, contains antioxidant compounds (polyphenols) that may protect the skin from damage by the sun. Many apply the tea bags to the face, but you can also drink the tea.
- Milk and yogurt. Milk and yogurt contain lactic acid, an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA). AHAs, such as glycolic acid, are commonly used to lighten dark spots on the skin. Some apply the milk or yogurt as a mask and wash it off after 20-30 minutes. Interestingly, Cleopatra used to bathe in milk.
- Papaya. Papaya contains AHAs, which can help lighten dark spots on the skin. It can also exfoliate dead skin cells to remove dull skin. Many apply it as a mask and wash it off after 20 minutes.
- Aloe vera. Aloe vera has demonstrated skin-lightening abilities by blocking the enzyme which helps make melanin. It works similarly to prescription skin-lightening hydroquinone cream but without the same side effects. After the aloe leaf is cut open, the inside jelly part can be applied directly to the skin.
OTC products to lighten dark spots on the skin
If natural products have not helped and you are looking for something stronger, many over-the-counter creams may help. Once again, these may not be appropriate for everyone. You should check with your doctor before starting any of these creams. Also, it is best to avoid skin-lightening creams sold outside of the US because many of them contain mercury, which is a poison.
- Acids. Alpha (AHA) and beta hydroxy acids (BHA) can help lighten the dark spots on the skin. Alpha hydroxy acids include glycolic, acetic, lactic, malic, and citric acids. BHAs include salicylic acid. Not only can these lighten dark spots on the skin, but they can also exfoliate dead skin cells. Some help with acne and anti-aging.
- Vitamin C. Vitamin C is a potent antioxidant, which can also lighten dark spots on the skin. It contains AHA (citric acid). It is also a popular anti-aging treatment because it can increase collagen production to fade fine lines and wrinkles.
- Retinoids. Retinoids are derived from vitamin A. They can help fade dark spots on the skin by decreasing the production of melanin, as well as helping rebuild collagen and treat acne. They are one of the best anti-aging products on the market.
- Kojic acid. Kojic acid decreases the production of melanin similarly to hydroquinone but with fewer side effects. However, it may take longer to see the results with kojic acid.
- Niacinamide. Niacinamide is a derivative of vitamin B3. It interferes with melanin production to lighten dark spots on the skin. It also helps increase the production of collagen to help fade fine lines and wrinkles.
- Hydroquinone. Hydroquinone has long been the gold standard for reducing the appearance of dark spots on the skin. It lightens the skin quickly by blocking the production of melanin. However, it does have many side effects, such as irritation, redness, and skin darkening, and has been linked to cancers in laboratory animals.
- Licorice. Licorice is a potent antioxidant, which protects the skin from sun damage. It also contains a compound called glabridin, which interferes with the production of melanin to lighten dark spots on the skin. It may help increase collagen production to fade fine lines and wrinkles.
- Sun protection. Sun protection is one of the most important things you can do for your skin. It not only prevents skin cancers and wrinkles, but it also keeps your skin from developing dark spots. Daily broad-spectrum SPF50+ sunscreen use is essential. Remember to reapply every 1-2 hours you are exposed to the sun. Wide-brimmed hats and sun protection clothes with UPF 50+ help as well. No matter what treatment you choose to lighten the dark patches on your skin, sun protection must be a part of your routine.
Professional treatments for skin pigmentation
There are some professional treatment options available to lighten the dark spots on the skin. Some are permanent. You should discuss your options with your doctor before trying anything to ensure that it is safe for your skin. Some options are not suitable for everyone.
- Lasers. Some lasers can remove pigmented spots from the skin. Some specifically target the pigment, while others just remove the top layer of skin that contains the pigment-producing cells. These are more permanent solutions but carry more side effects.
- Microdermabrasion. Microdermabrasion physically removes part of the top layer of the epidermis to remove the dark spots. Continued use can help lighten the dark spots completely. It also has good anti-aging benefits.
- Peels. Peels contain higher doses of AHAs and BHAs. They remove layers of skin to fade the dark spots. They range from superficial to deep, depending on your treatment goals. The deeper the peel, the more side effects.
- Prescription creams. Prescription creams include retinoids, hydroquinone, and azelaic acid, which can lighten the dark spots on the skin. Since these are stronger than over-the-counter creams, they have more side effects. Also, they would require long-term use to maintain the skin-lightening benefits.
Several natural products may help fade dark spots on the skin. If these do not help, there are stronger, over-the-counter products and professional treatments that may fade them. Always consult your doctor before beginning new products to ensure they are right for you.
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