7 Ways To Treat Hyperpigmentation

Although we tend to associate hyperpigmentation with old age, the truth is anyone, at any time, can suffer from it. The result of melanin overproduction, hyperpigmentation can be caused by sun exposure, hormones, post-inflammatory cutaneous trauma and even several diseases like celiac disease or Addison’s disease. Because it is such a common problem, researches are always at work trying to find new and better ways to treat it. Here are seven ingredients that have already been proved to effectively reduce skin discoloration:

paula's choice resist triple action dark spot eraser

1. Hydroquinone

Hydroquinone is the most used skin brightening ingredient in the USA and is effective at treating brown spots, melasma and freckles. It works by inhibiting tyrosinase, an enzyme needed to make melanin, and by increasing the breakdown of melanosomes (melanin pigment granules) in the melanocytes (the cells that produce melanin). However, this ingredient has been banned in some countries, including France, because of its side effects. Although the claims it causes cancer are unfounded (Dr Levitt, after reviewing the scientific studies on hydroquinone has found it, in the concentrations used in skincare products – 2% for OTC products and 4% for prescription products – to be safe for humans), it can cause redness and irritation in people with sensitive skin, and allergies.

In addition, hydroquinone can cause ochronosish (a bluish black discoloration of certain tissues) in people with darker skin tones. It’s not clear why this happens yet, but it seems to be linked with excessive sun exposure  and the use of resorcinol. Therefore, if you plan to use hydroquinone, pile on the sunscreen and avoid resorcinol. Products containing hydroquinone (avoid those that come in jars as this ingredient degrades when exposed to light and air) include Paula’s Choice RESIST Triple-Action Dark Spot Eraser 7% AHA Lotion (2% hydroquinone and 7%AHAs, $19.95), Proactiv Dark Spots Corrector (2% hydroquinone, 4% glycolic acid, $29.15) and Kate Somerville Complexion Correction Spot Reducing Concentrate (2% hydroquinone, $24.99 at Amazon.com).

pro strength skin lightening serum

2. Kojic Acid

Kojic Acid, which is naturally found in soy sauce and sake, has the ability to inhibit the activity of tyrosinase, making it an effective treatment for melasma, freckles and brown spots too. Less effective than hydroquinone (but still a good alternative for those who react negatively to it) kojic acid is highly unstable and gradually loses its efficacy when exposed to light and air. Because of this many companies prefer to use kojic dipalmitate, which is more stable but, as of yet, not proven to have any skin-lightening benefits (it is a powerful antioxidant, though). In addition, kojic acid can cause contact allergy in some people. You can find this ingredient in Pro Strength Skin Lightening Serum with Kojic Acid, Alpha-Arbutin & Vitamin C (4% kojic acid, 2% alpha arbutin and 5% ascorbic acid, $18.99)


3. Azelaic Acid

In addition to being an effective treatment for melasma, brown spots and freckles, azelaic acid is also used to treat acne and rosacea. Derived from grains such as wheat, azelaic acid also works 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. Because azelaic acid is most effective at %15-20 concentrations, it is usually found in prescription products such as Azalex and Finacea. OTC skincare products usually contains very low concentrations (1% or less), so consider them only when other skin-lightening agents such as vitamin C or glycolic acid are also included in the formulation.

neostrata skin renewal peel solution

4. Glycolic Acid

The most commonly used alpha hydroxy acid, glycolic acid is effective at treating hyperpigmentation and freckles, and at reducing fine lines and skin dullness. It works by exfoliating skin and increasing the speed of cell-turnover, thus removing the “damaged” top layer of the epidermidis, replacing it with the newer, healthier and brighter skin cells underneath. OTC products with glycolic acid contain small concentrations that work effectively, but slowly. Higher concentrations (20% or more) will work much faster, but can cause severe irritation. For this reason, they should be only performed or prescribed by dermatologists.

SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic Combination Antioxidant Treatment

5. Vitamin C

Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that helps prevent the signs of aging as well as reducing skin dullness and sun spots. It does this by inhibiting the activity of tyrosinase. Vitamin C is unstable and should be kept away from light and air, or it will degrade and become ineffective. But the main problem with Vitamin C is the difficulty of choosing the right form as there are so many of them. Options include magnesium ascorbyl phosphate, l-ascorbic acid and ascorbyl glucosamine. In addition, most OTC products contains very small amounts of vitamin C that are too low to show significant results. A good, but expensive, option is Skinceutical CE Ferulic Acid (5% l-ascorbic acid, $124.00 at Amazon).

philosophy miracle worker dark spot corrector

6. Undecylenoyl Phenylalanine

Developed by Olay, Undecylenoyl Phenylalanine can treat skin discolorations and brown spots by inhibiting melanotropin, which controls tyrosinase activity, melanin synthesis and melanosome. This reduces melanin production. Because undecylenoyl phenylalanine is a new ingredient the research, most of which has been done by Procter & Gamble, is limited, but promising. A 2011 study has found a cream with undecylenoyl phenylalanine to be a good alternative to hydroquinone. Undecylenoyl phenylalanine works bets when combined with niacinamide, another ingredient often found in Olay products. You can find both ingredients in Olay Pro-X Even Skin Tone Spot Fading Treatment ($23.99 at Amazon) and Philosophy Miracle Worker Dark Spot Corrector ($57.00 at Amazon).

lumixyl topical brightening creme

7. Lumixyl

Developed by researchers at the Stanford University, Lumixyl is a complex of olygopeptides that treats hyperpigmentation by inhibiting tyrosinase. Lumixyl is a new ingredient too (it was released in 2009), so it hasn’t been widely studied yet. But what we know about it is promising. 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”. While effective, Lumixyl is expensive. It can be found in Lumixyl Topical Brightening Creme ($99.95 at Amazon).

Bottom Line

There are lots of effective ways of treating hyperpigmentations, from the harsher hydroquinone to the milder glycolic acid. Which one to choose depends on what your skin can better tolerate, on your needs, on how deep the discoloration is and even on the colour of your skin. You may also want to consult a dermatologist to better determine what treatment is best for you. Very often, a combination of skin-brightening ingredients (such as hydroquinone and glycolic acid) works best. And don’t forget to apply sunscreen every day to prevent further damage!

Do you suffer from hyperpigmentation? If so, how do you treat it?

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    • beautifulwithbrains says

      Monica, I’m sorry to hear that. It’s not easy to erase dark spots completely, but thankfully we have lots of options to choose from to help us, and I’m glad that you managed to lighten it a lot.

  1. Janessa says

    I’ve only tried vitamin C and glycolic acid from the ones you mentioned above. I didn’t even know this product I bought (came in a kit or with some irresistible deal lol) and when I put it on my face, it stung! I researched it some more and saw it had glycolic acid and I’ve barely touched the product since. I’ve used some of it on my hands as a moisturizer but rarely.
    I don’t have hyper pigmentation and hope I don’t develop any! I do have a few spots on my skin from repeated sun exposure but that’s lightened a tad since taking care of my skin. :] And since discovering your blog!

    • beautifulwithbrains says

      Janessa, Glycolic Acid is my favourite exfoliant but, unless you have hyperpigmentation problems, it should be used only in very small doses or it can sting and even remove too many layers of skin. And even when you need to use high concentrations, they should always be prescribed by a dermatologist. I’ve seen lots of products on the market with high concentrations of GA that can be easily bought by everyone but, to me, that’s dangerous. I’m sorry it caused problems for you. And glad that my blog helped you improve your skin. :)

  2. says


    if i buy any normal body/face lotion {dove, simple, clarins, bodysho} etc. can i mix any of these in my lotion.

    maybe like the Philosophy Miracle Worker Dark Spot Corrector. or if you have any other suggestion. i want to have a brighter skin. and i break out alot on soaps. i have pimple all over my body.
    jane´s last blog post ..Product Review: Benefit Coralista BlushMy Profile

      • beautifulwithbrains says

        Jane, it would depend on the product. Mixing skincare products isn’t a good idea because some active ingredients may cancel each other out when used together. So unless you know what you are doing, it’s best not to mix them.

        If for brighter skin you mean a healthy glow, then a product with Vitamin C or glycolic acid would be better. Philosophy Miracle Work is more suitable for people with dark spots on their skin. To treat pimples, I would suggest Salicylic Acid (it is an exfoliant, so if you opt for it, don’t use glycolic acid as well), which can penetrate inside the pores and remove all the gunk that is clogging them. Hope this helps.

  3. Somasam says

    Hello, i currently started using clindomycin phosphate 1% gel for my acne spots on cheeks. What do you think about this gel is it worth using? Is it safe to apply and than go outside? When can i start to see the difference?

    • beautifulwithbrains says

      Somasam, that’s a good product to treat acne. As long as you follow the instructions, you shouldn’t experience any problems and will be able to use it safely. With this kind of product you should usually start to see a small improvement within a week.

  4. Jessica says

    Hello, thanks so much for this fantastic post! I’ve recently gotten my cystic acne under control but it’s left me with quite a bit of post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. Aside from the prescription tretinoin cream, I’ve been on a mission to find something that will help to lighten the hyperpigmentation. I purchased the Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Alpha Beta Peels in hopes that it might help because it contains AHA & BHA; unfortunately, after using it for 2 months now, I have not seen any difference, not even a subtle difference. Really disappointed that it didn’t work on me because the reviews have been overwhelmingly positive. I’m certainly going to try a few of the products that you suggested though.

    • beautifulwithbrains says

      Jessica, you’re welcome. I’m sorry to hear about your problem and that the Dr Dennis Gross peels didn’t work for you. To be honest, I’m not a big fan of his two step peel system. It uses an alcohol base which can be irritating (and irritation delays healing) and the jar packaging won’t keep the antioxidants stable for long. Besides, small concentrations of AHA and BHA take forever to heal hyperpigmentation.

      I hope one of my suggestions here will help you. Let me know what you decide to try and how it works for you. :)

  5. jenni says

    Hi am Jenni, I have pimple break outs often maybe three times are more a week…and am.a picker which leaves me with dark spots all over my face is a salicylic acid peel best for removing years of discoloration, and even out my skin tone…for African American skin? Our is there something better to use…its not the break outs its the picking i do that ends up dark spot

    • Gio says

      Jenni, yes, salicylic acid should help lighten the discoloration, but don’t expect results overnight. OTC salicylic acid exfoliants contain small concentrations that take weeks/months to work. If you want quicker results, you can go to a dermatologist, who can performs peels with a higher concentration of SA. On the plus side, SA also exfoliates skin, removes the gunk that accumulates in the pores, and regulates oil production so, if you use it regularly, you should have less breakouts, which will lead to less picking and less brown spots.

  6. miss naa says

    Im dark skinned with small but many hyper pigmentation marks on my legs from scratches and bites. I would like to know what you would recommend.

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