Think about your skincare goals. Chances are even-toned, glowing skin is high on your list. And while some are blessed with a blemish-free and fuss-free complexion, many of us need to take extra steps to achieve the smooth, bright skin of our dreams. If you're struggling with uneven skin tone and its many causes (which we'll dive into below), you’re not alone. The good news is, there are many products, tips, and treatments out there that can help fade dark spots, minimize redness, and make even-toned skin a reality. To help guide us, we’ve enlisted the help of three skincare pros: board-certified dermatologist, Dr. Rachel Nazarian, MD, board-certified dermatologist Blair Murphy-Rose, MD, FAAD, and esthetician Cynthia Franco. Continue reading for their secrets on how to get even skin tone once and for all.
About the Experts:
Before we get to the details, let’s first explain what uneven skin tone is. “Uneven skin tone is an overproduction of melanin also known as hyperpigmentation,” Franco says. “Uneven skin tone describes hyperpigmentation or hypopigmentation or a combination of both, creating the appearance of multiple shades,” Dr. Murphy-Rose adds.
Uneven skin tone can appear in many ways, but ultimately it refers to when the skin has melasma, spots or uneven texture. Meaning rather than one universal, even tone across your face, there may be some brown spots or redness here and there (think age spots, blemishes, or sun spots).
While we’d like to point the finger at just one bad guy, there are actually many culprits that cause uneven skin tone. “Hyperpigmentation, or uneven skin darkening, can be caused by anything that irritates or inflames the skin,” says Dr. Nazarian. “Anything from a scratch, mosquito bite, pimple, exposure to ultraviolet radiation, and even exposure to free radical damage such as that caused by pollution can leave dark marks on the skin and can trigger the release of extra pigment.” And then there are “also pigmentation disorders of the skin, such as vitiligo, that can cause uneven skin tone,” Dr. Murphy-Rose adds. We dive into a few (but not all) major causes of uneven skin tone below:
• Acne: Particularly cystic acne and picking at any breakouts cause trauma, according to Franco. Both can create discoloration in skin that can have a lasting effect. If you have acne, don’t wait to treat it after the fact when scars have formed. Choose products that treat and prevent acne including cleansers and spot treatments.
• Sun damage: As mentioned above, sun damage can play a role in uneven skin tone. Dr. Murphy-Rose adds, “As you’ve probably heard time and time again, sun damage exacerbates skin aging at a rapid rate. 90 percent of the signs of aging come from unprotected UV ray exposure. Uneven skin tone is one effect of sun damage: others include fine lines, wrinkles and sagging.”
• Having a darker skin tone: Dr. Nazarian notes that darker skin tones are more prone to uneven skin tone overall, “Darker skin tones have more baseline melanin which can be released in the surrounding tissue when the cells are inflamed or injured.”
• Normal aging processes: Aging (not from the sun, just natural aging) also impacts uneven skin tone. And while you can’t prevent your skin from aging, there are many products—from anti-aging serums to face creams—infused with ingredients that can help your skin stand up to dullness, dryness, uneven skin tone, and more.
Keep reading to learn how to help even your skin tone right at home.
Don’t leave the house without wearing sunscreen, even on a seemingly cloudy day. Dr. Nazarian says, “The sun can cause hyperpigmentation in two ways. The first by direct release of melanin, such as with tanning. But the second is through free radical damage of tissue. Using topical antioxidants, and a broad-spectrum sunscreen daily can effectively protect against these versions of hyperpigmentation. Any effective and beneficial skin care regimen addressing hyperpigmentation will include a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a minimum SPF of 30.”
“The goal of sunscreen,” according to Dr. Murphy-Rose, “is to create a physical shield between your skin and the sun.” Other steps you can take are, “Avoiding direct sun exposure, wearing a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses, and properly using a mineral sunscreen containing zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide, plus iron oxides for blue light protection.”
We love: SUPERGOOP Unseen Sunscreen SPF 40 for its lightweight, non-greasy, and totally invisible finish.
The rule of thumb: If your skin is hurt, keep your hands off. “The best thing to remember when it comes to avoiding hyperpigmentation is to NEVER irritate or injure the skin any further,” says Dr. Nazarian. “For many people that means really resisting the urge to scratch when they have an itchy mosquito bite and instead putting on an anti-itch cream because scratching can cause the skin to darken.
We know it can be tempting, but under no circumstances should you pick at or squeeze your breakouts. It won’t help them heal faster, and can actually cause more damage to your skin. “This means keeping fingers off pimples because irritating or squeezing a pimple only injures the skin further and can leave dark marks [and acne scars] behind.”
It is super important to exfoliate your skin, as it helps liberate dead skin cells, revealing a fresh new layer of radiant skin. That sloughing process helps to even out skin tone and even in some cases fade fine lines. Dr. Murphy-Rose prefers gentle at-home chemical exfoliation or in-office chemical peels. She says some physical exfoliation can cause physical abrasives that can irritate skin and actually cause more hyperpigmentation. “Chemical exfoliants should be used carefully to avoid skin irritation and burns,” she adds.
We love NIP+FAB Glycolic Scrub Fix because the glycolic acid (an AHA) gently exfoliates and improves your skin’s texture, while salicylic acid helps clean your pores and reduce blemishes.
Now that you’ve gotten rid of the top layer of dead skin cells, your treatment products can penetrate skin even better. Apply an antioxidant serum to brighten both your complexion as a whole and any specific dark spots. Vitamin C is the gold standard when it comes to brightening—it is a powerful antioxidant that also protects skin from free radical damage. Win, win!
“Vitamin C is a potent antioxidant that is also excellent for both treating and preventing hyperpigmentation because it interferes with melanogenesis and because it reverses free radical damage to help prevent skin aging,” Dr. Murphy-Rose explains further. “Vitamin C indirectly inhibits an enzyme called tyrosinase that is critical to the process of melanin synthesis in the skin.”
111SKIN Vitamin C Brightening Booster is a great option. It’s a lightweight, but concentrated vitamin C serum and is good on all skin types and tones. (Check out our guide to the best brightening serums for even more glowy picks.) An easy way to give your skin its dose of vitamin C is through a moisturizer like SUNDAY RILEY C.E.O. Vitamin C Rich Hydration Cream—just remember to add SPF on top as your final step.
If a peel instantly brings you back to that “Sex & The City” episode of Samantha’s unforgettable experience, you can breathe a sigh of relief. We’re not talking about that intense of a peel.
Glycolic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) that helps to exfoliate, and thereby even out skin tone. “Glycolic peels are great for reducing hyperpigmentation and hence evening out skin tone in addition to smoothing out fine lines and wrinkles,” says Franco. She suggests doing a heavier peel with a dermatologist or esthetician every couple of months and incorporating a more gentle peel at home. “To keep uneven skin tone at bay you need to find a skincare routine and stick to it,” she adds.
If you have inflamed skin or are unsure if a peel is right for your skin, seek the advice of a dermatologist before using, as intense peels can sometimes make things worse. Always follow the directions (especially the time and frequency suggested) and use a barrier repair cream afterwards.
If you are new to the peel game, DERMA E Deluxe Overnight Peel is a great one to try. It’s safe for sensitive skin, as it contains a low amount (5 percent) of glycolic acid, allowing your skin to adjust to it. Plus it works while you sleep, so you wake up glowing.
We told you how important sunscreen is and keeping your skin hydrated is right up there with it. Dr. Nazarian says, “Dry skin is more likely to be inflamed because it indicates that the natural oil and moisture barrier is impaired. Keeping skin hydrated equates to keeping skin healthy and strong so that it can withstand all forms of injury better, allowing you to protect yourself from hyperpigmentation even more.” Furthermore, keeping skin hydrated keeps it plump and healthy, meaning a strong skin barrier and less fine lines, wrinkles and dullness.
Now this part is up to you: you can use a combo moisturizer with SPF like this one, which won’t leave skin chalky or greasy after applying. Or you can use two separate products: an ultra-hydrating moisturizer like the AHAVA Essential Day Moisturizer followed by your favorite SPF.
“Retinoids increase cell turnover and alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) increase exfoliation to help shed darkened areas faster,” says Dr. Murphy-Rose. “Note that these both increase sun sensitivity so excellent sun protection becomes yet more important.” Retinol can be prescribed by your dermatologist or picked up over-the-counter at lower — but still effective — doses.
We love the SUNDAY RILEY A+ High-Dose Retinoid Serum because it contains a potent 6.5 percent retinoid blend (five percent retinoid ester, one percent liposomal-encapsulated retinol blend, and 0.5 percent blue-green algae with natural, retinoid-alternative activity) to help minimize fine lines, large pores and dark spots. The formula also contains balancing botanicals so it’s less irritating to the skin.
It’s not just about salicylic acid, lactic acid and glycolic acid, you know. While they are the most common, Dr. Murphy-Rose also recommends kojic acid and tranexamic acid as must-try ingredients. “Many of these ingredients are also antioxidants that prevent free radical environmental damage,” she says. “Look for serums, lotions or creams containing these ingredients.”
Simply, kojic acid is a chemical produced from different types of fungi (yes, the mushroom!), while tranexamic acid is a synthetic derivative of the amino acid lysine. Tranexamic acid is especially great for those with sensitive skin and prefer a more gentle approach to exfoliation. Try MURAD Replenishing Multi-Acid Peel, which contains brightening tranexamic acid.
Niacinamide blew up this past year as one of the most trending ingredients of 2021. That doesn’t seem to be stopping in 2022. Niacinamide is a form of vitamin B3 and it’s known to repair your skin’s barrier (making it stronger!), calm redness by reducing inflammation, reduce the appearance of pores and fade hyperpigmentation. What can’t it do?! It also plays well with others so you’ll see it added to other skin-brightening ingredients.
We love the AWAKE Glow Pill Super Serum because it’s a lightweight serum that contains vitamin B5, hyaluronic acid and of course niacinamide. For increased hydration, try the JJ YOUNG Pore Glow Mask, which is basically a facial in a jar.
Hydroquinone is a controversial skin-lightening ingredient that’s banned in the U.K., Europe and Japan. It really works well over time at lightening dark spots. It is FDA-approved in the U.S., though, and many popular skincare products incorporate it. Still, Dr. Murphy-Rose is wary. “I typically advise avoidance of hydroquinone-containing dark spot correctors due to the potential side effect of ochronosis that is very difficult to reverse,” she says. Ochronosis is a skin disorder that causes bluish black discoloration.
Hydroquinone has also been known to lighten surrounding dark spot areas, places you don’t want any lighter, causing a ring around the area. It’s important to talk to your dermatologist before incorporating hydroquinone so you’ll be sure to use it safely.
When it comes to uneven skin tone, knowing what not to do is just as important as knowing what to do. Many popular in-office treatments, like microdermabrasion, are popular for their skin-texture improving effects, but do little to even out hyperpigmentation. So your skin (and your wallet) would be better served trying something else. As always, consult with a derm for your best course of action. “For many people, hyperpigmentation is caused by the release of pigment deeper under the skin. This cannot be addressed by microdermabrasion, which only resurfaces the outermost layer. Microdermabrasion is somewhat useful for some lighter sunspots, but it’s generally better for improving texture. I have found that science-backed topical ingredients (such as licorice root extract, hydroquinone, niacinamide, vitamin C, etc) do a better job of breaking down unwanted pigment and improving tone.”
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