How to Lighten Dark Knees and Elbows, According to Dermatologists

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Many of us are prone to dark spots on our faces and programmed to think our skin should be uniform in color. “Uneven skin tone” is a concern listed on thousands of skin-care serums and creams. But what about discoloration on other parts of our body, like dark knees and elbows? Though it’s perfectly normal and our skin is naturally anything but uniform, this shift in tone can be bothersome for many, regardless of skin color. Here’s why dark knees and dark elbows happen, according to dermatologists, and what you can do to help lighten them if that’s the goal.

Why Are My Knees and Elbows Darker Than the Rest of My Skin?

“All skin tones and types of people commonly have dark knees,” explains Miami dermatologist Anna H. Chacon, MD. “They are an indication of greater melanin levels, and some people produce too much melanin. Hyperpigmentation is the term for this, and it’s safe. Patches of skin that become darker than the surrounding skin are typically a sign of an overproduction of melanin. Although some may feel like this is a sign of an underlying illness, it is usually harmless.” Durham, NC dermatologist Beth Goldstein, MD adds that “darker skin types will have an increase in baseline pigment due to the higher concentration of melanin, which is completely normal and no treatment is needed.”

New York dermatologist Elaine F. Kung, MD says our skin is not meant to be one singular skin tone. “A number of factors can cause us to have slightly darker elbows and knees, including genetics and friction. Our elbows and knees are high-mobility areas, so our skin will rub against our clothes and/or surfaces. Our elbows may rub against tables or the armrests of chairs.  Our knees may rub against the floor when we kneel. Repetitive movements like cycling will rub our knees against our clothing.”  

Why Do I Have Dark Spots on My Knees?

“Along with considerable skin thickening, we frequently see dark brown coloration of the knees,” says Dr. Chacon. “This is often brought on by a condition known as post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, which is caused by clothes friction or years of kneeling on the affected area. Darker-skinned individuals are more likely to experience it.”

How Do I Get Rid of Dark Knees and Elbows?

In order to help even out your skin tone, Dr. Kung advises avoiding friction to the areas of concern and using creams that may help with discoloration. “People often have an urge to physically ‘exfoliate’ discoloration, but it is absolutely the wrong thing to do,” she explains. “More friction from physical exfoliation will darken and thicken the skin further. I’ve seen many patients over the years get lichen simplex chronicus—thickened, darkened plaques—because they were exfoliating a blemish. Instead of physically exfoliating, try applying creams that contain ingredients like glycolic acid, lactic acid, salicylic acid, vitamin E, and/or retinol.” A few favorites she recommends: AmLactin Daily Lotion ($14.50), Glytone Exfoliating Body Lotion ($44), CeraVe SA Lotion ($20), and Versed Gentle Retinol Body Lotion ($18).

“Wearing SPF 30 every day and using brightening products can be helpful, too, says Dr. Goldstein. “Look for those that contain bakuchiol, kojic acid, arbutin, niacinamide, vitamin C, grape seed extract, and licorice root. Hydroquinone can be effective as well, but it can also be irritating and it’s often best combined with a topical corticosteroid. Procedures such as peels and laser treatments may only serve to worsen the darkening and should be avoided.”

“Speak with your doctor if your dark knees are causing you any concern,” Dr. Chacon adds. “They can discuss with you the best ways to get a skin tone that is more even. You might be using products that are not suitable for your skin type, or the product might be too harsh. This can cause skin damage and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, and significantly worsen the underlying issue. Hence, the best way to get rid of dark knees is to go to a dermatologist.”

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