Call it what you will—freckles, hyperpigmentation, age or sunspots—discoloration that appears on the surface of the skin stems from one thing and one thing only: an overproduction of melanin. The sun, hormones and inflammation can all send your skin’s melanin production cycle into extreme overdrive, causing your complexion to be unevenly toned. But, there are ways to eliminate unwanted discoloration once and for all.
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Get it in: SkinCeuticals Phyto+ ($80)
Good for: Discoloration that lives deep in the skin, such as melasma
Although kojic acid is lauded for its ability to lighten dark spots, because it inhibits tyrosinase, this is one ingredient that works best when used in tandem with either glycolic acid or hydroquinone (both powerful skin brighteners).
Get it in: Kat Burki Restorative Dual Acid Peel ($125)
Good for: Brown spots
When it comes to treating pigmentation in the skin, glycolic acid, in a peel or topical form, is effective. Glycolic acid lifts up the “glue” that holds dead, discolored skin cells on the surface—the fewer discolored skin cells there are, the more even skin looks in color.
Get it in: Zo Medical Melamin Skin Bleaching and Correcting Creme ($60)
Good for: Serious discoloration
The gold standard and doctor go-to for getting rid of discoloration, hydroquinone is a chemical-based ingredient that works on tyrosinase to inhibit the production of melanin in the skin. “Hydroquinone switches off melanocyte melanin production by as much as 90 percent, making it an effective skin lightener for treating severe pigmentation,” says Beverly Hills, CA, dermatologist Zein Obagi, MD.
Get it in: Rodial Super Acids Daily Azelaic Acid Serum ($98)
Good for: Leftover discoloration from acne and rosacea breakouts
Derived from wheat and barley, azelaic acid is said to rival the skin-brightening effects of hydroquinone. Look for products that boast 15–20 percent of the acid, which ensures you’ll get a steady dose of the ingredient.
Get it in: NIA24 Rapid Exfoliating Serum ($92)
Good for: Maintaining results
Niacinamide, a derivative of niacin (also known as vitamin B3), provides more than a single benefit. While it’s best known for its ability to suppress inflammation, New York dermatologist Julie Russak, MD, says it’s also great to use once the pigmentation has lifted considerably.
Get it in: Erno Laszlo White Marble Translucence Cream ($150)
Vitamin C works wonders at tackling changes in the skin that result from sun exposure. The vitamin acts as a melanin interrupter as opposed to an ingredient that’s toxic to the melanocyte. It works on copper ions where tyrosinase lives to counteract pigment production.
Retinols and retinoids
Get it in: Glow by dr. brandt Overnight Resurfacing Serum ($95)
Prescription-strength retinoids and over-the-counter retinols encourage skin cell turnover, bringing new, evenly pigmented cells to the surface while exfoliating away discolored skin. “Depending on their strength, retinoids are effective because they, too, affect tyrosinase. Unlike hydroquinone, they deliver a more homogenous tone instead of bleaching the skin,” says Dr. Obagi.