The verdict is in: uneven skin tone, discoloration and hyperpigmentation take away from your luminance and glow just as much as fine lines and wrinkles. What’s worse? That it can be equally as difficult to treat your skin tone as it is to get rid of lines. The misconception that discoloration will fade on its own is exactly that…a myth. Since they can start in the deeper layers of the skin, pigmentation issues won’t disappear without direct treatment, and the majority will require powerful ingredients or professional assistance to have a lasting impact.
Uneven skin tone is caused by an unbalanced distribution of melanin, which is responsible for the pigment in your skin. This can be caused by acne scars, hyperpigmentation, melasma and a host of other skin conditions. While hydroquinone has long been the champion of restoring skin tone, concerns around its potentially cancer-causing nature have led to a surge of alternative ingredients and treatments permeating the market.
SKINCARE INGREDIENTS FOR UNEVEN SKIN TONE
You can start by treating your skin tone concerns with high-powered active ingredients found in different skin care products. These ingredients have the potential to significantly reduce uneven skin tone and each has its own specific specialty, depending of course on your skin type and particular concern.
Another ingredient brought to us by nature, arbutin is a molecule extracted from a bearberry plant. It brightens and evens skin tone by inhibiting tyrosinase. Arbutin is slow-release so the experience will be far less irritating than what you’ll get with some other ingredients and it’s also great for sensitive skin. But the special thing about arbutin is that bearberry plan has SPF properties, meaning it offers some protection from harmful UV rays. Using arbutin on the reg is great for treating dark sunspots in particular and it’s also effective on acne scars.
Although the word ‘acid’ can be a bit frightening, this ingredient is derived naturally from grains like wheat, rye, and barley. Falling within the class of mediation known as dicarboxylic acids, azelaic acid both kills acne bacteria and helps lighten your overall skin tone. By inhibiting the enzyme called tyrosinase – an enzyme responsible for stimulating the production of melanin – this ingredient will help treat melasma, lentigo maligna, rosacea and other, less severe hyperpigmentation. Importantly though, azelaic acid only targets excess melanin, so healthy skin won’t experience any lightening. What makes the deal even sweeter is that it does so while reducing inflammation – so it’s safe for all skin tones, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and pro-glow restoration.
It’s amazing how many lightening and brightening ingredients are natural! Kojic acid, as our third example, is derived from fungi and also works to even skin tone through its inhibiting effects on tyrosinase. Unlike arbutin and azelaic acid, kojic acid prevents a specific function of tyrosinase: the catecholase function, which is the most important step in making melanin. Used to lighten discoloration like age spots as well as the brown and gray areas on the face, neck, and arms caused by melasma, this ingredient also contains antibacterial properties. You can expect results in with about three months of use but it takes longer to work on darker skin tones.
For more about how kojic acid illuminates your skin, we have two good reads for you: the benefits of kojic acid creams and serums as well as how to pick your kojic acid soap. We’re not all that convinced about the effectiveness of kojic acid soap, but if you’re on a budget it’s worth a shot.
What is actually a trademarked name for a variety of the lignin peroxidase enzyme that is derived from fungi, melanzyme is an excellent alternative to hydroquinone. Melanzyme has the unique ability to target eumelanin – a type of melanin – and break it down on the skin’s surface. We kid you not, there’s no other ingredient that dissolves melanin and causes it to decompose; plus it’s believed to do so without affecting the production of melanin or tyrosinase. So rather than reducing the production of melanin, it actually breaks unhealthy clusters of melanin down entirely. This ingredient starts to work within a quick and painless four weeks.
Vitamin C is a well-known antioxidant that’s infamous for its ability to defend your skin against free radicals. Free radicals are caused by UV rays, environmental pollution and cigarette smoke among other things. They cause tissue damage that results in hyperpigmentation and dark spots. When you incorporate vitamin c into your skincare routine, those free radicals are neutralized. In addition to that antioxidant power, vitamin c acts as a mild exfoliant that gently peels away the top layers of skin to reveal the lighter skin tone underneath. Last but certainly not least, this vitamin stimulates the production of glutathione and vitamin e to form pheomelanin, which replaces the darker eumelanin and makes your skin appear brighter.
To learn all about the amazing effect vitamin C can have on your skin tone as well as other skin concerns, check out our guide about The Best Vitamin C Serums.
Best for hyperpigmentation and age spots, niacinamide is a skin tone-improving ingredient that is uniquely compatible with almost anything you already use in your skincare routine: retinol, peptides, hyaluronic acid, AHAs/BHAs, and antioxidants. Also known as vitamin B3, it’s non-sensitizing and safe for any skin type, including sensitive skin. Niacinamide works to even your skin tone in two ways. First, it treats age spots by down-regulating the transfer of melanosomes from the melanocytes to the keratinocyte. Second, it has a positive effect on ceramide and fatty acid levels which protect the skin’s lipid barrier to ensure your skin is well hydrated – and hydrated skin means a bright, lively complexion. This ingredient will leave your skin softer, smoother and free of irritation, redness or sensitivity.
Niacinamide’ strength lies in its ability to protect the skin’s barrier, and in this article, we tell you exactly the importance of a Niacinamide Cream.
CHEMICAL EXFOLIANTS (AHA/BHA)
Your skin naturally sheds dead skin cells, but it can’t hurt to give it a little push in the right direction, especially as we get older and that process slows to a snail’s pace. AHAs and BHAs are both popular exfoliants that help break the bonds holding dead skin cells to the surface of your skin and making your tone appear uneven or discolored. Once the dead skin cells are shed, the fresh skin underneath is visible. While AHAs are best for normal and dry, sun-damaged skin, BHAs are preferred for normal and oily skin because of its ability to unclog pores and sooth bumps and blemishes. Though they will only be helpful for mild discoloration, their effect on skin tone is only one of the many skin-beneficial properties of these exfoliants.
RETINOL & RETIN-A
Powerful derivatives of vitamin E, retinol and Retin-A shed the dead skin cells better than most other skin care products. These powerful antioxidants boost cell regeneration and turnover to let the brighter, lower layer of your skin shine through. Both retinol and the stronger Retin-A have positive results for diminishing UV damage and dark spots and are effective within 2 or 3 months.
If you’re not already using retinoids, here’s everything you need to know about the benefits of Retin-A and the how Retinol changes your skin. The two differ both in strength and effectiveness, so it’s best to figure out what’s right for your skin type.
TREATMENTS FOR UNEVEN SKIN TONE
If you struggle with more persistent hyperpigmentation, investing in a professional treatment might be a viable solution for restoring your skin. These treatments, save using sunscreen, are administered by professionals and offer very quick and very effective fixes when active ingredients just aren’t getting the job done.
By applying an acidic mask to your face, chemical peels aggressively remove dead skin and promote the growth of new, healthy skin. By removing the top layer of dull, damaged skin treat and allowing healthy skin to grow in its place, chemical peels reduce even the deepest hyperpigmentation, and even more so with multiple treatments. Salicylic acid, glycolic acid, and mandelic chemical peels are the most popular varieties for discoloration concerns. And don’t be alarmed by the acidic aspect of these treatments: the brief procedure requires little downtime and they can be tailored to treat specific conditions. However, they aren’t an appropriate treatment for all skin colors nor should they be performed on skin prone to scarring.
Chemical peels aren’t for everybody but if you’re curious than make sure to check out our in-depth guide on how chemical peels help your skin.
Fractional laser resurfacing uses controlled micro injuries to stimulate the skin natural healing processes and is best for discolorations that resist any other forms of treatment. Fractional lasers help lighten the skin, especially when accompanied by rhytids. Although CO2 laser systems in the past got a bad rep due because they caused scarring in some individuals, science has come a long way in terms of using lasers to treat skin concerns. However, this is a costly option for treating uneven skin tone and it’s not an option for everybody.
Explore our guide to learn more about the different types of lasers and the skin concerns they treat.
A tyrosinase inhibitor that also exfoliates skin, Cosmelan is a two-step treatment wherein the initial treatment is performed by a professional and the second stage is an at-home maintenance program consisting of the daily application of Cosmelan 2 cream. Cosmelan is a depigmentation agent that reduces hyperpigmentation; it fades skin blemishes within one week after treatment and dark spots disappear in a quick 4-6 weeks.
Cosmelan is a powerful treatment and it is worth knowing what you’re signing up for and how it’s going to benefit the skin you’re in. Find out what Cosmelan treatments do in our in-depth guide.
Another treatment that utilizes deep exfoliation to get rid of dead skin cells and refine the skin’s surface, microdermabrasion is well-known and widely used. During the treatment, a minimally abrasive instrument draws fine crystals or a diamond tip across the surface of the skin to gently remove damaged, dead and dull skin. In some systems, a vacuum-like instrument suctions skin cells away from the surface. Microdermabrasion treats scarring, acne spots, discoloration, sun damage, wrinkles, enlarged pores and stretch marks but its best for minimal dark spots that aren’t too stubborn. To treat hyperpigmentation with a little more power, microdermabrasion such as DermaSweep offer a step two: a specialized anti-pigment concoction that’s infused into the skin.
Diamonds are a girl’s best friend and we’ll tell you exactly what role they play in anti-aging in our article benefits of Microdermabrasion.
If most of your discoloration was caused by the sun, or you have a skin condition like rosacea, IPL is best bet for lifting it up and out. IPL works by emitting light waves that pass through the skin. The light waves are absorbed and then break up melanin or damage the wall of the blood vessel. Your body then absorbs the melanin or the blood vessel and lets your skin appear bright and balanced. This treatment starts working its magic in a few days, causing the treated area to turn dark and flake away.
Make sure to read our overview if you’re interested in finding out more about how IPl works.
The first and most important step to addressing discoloration is to protect your skin. Whether treating your skin with any of the aforementioned or just going about your day to day, you should always be using a broad spectrum sunscreen when you know your skin will be exposed to the skin. Of course, sunscreen is a preventative measure and it won’t diminish hyperpigmentation that is already formed, but it protects your skin from the number one culprit (the sun) in causing this problem.
The importance of sunscreen can’t be overstated. Read our guide to learn more on the benefits of a good sunscreen.
Uneven skin tone can affect anybody no matter your skin type or complexion and it’s not something that will fade away without a little help from your daily skincare routine or, for more dire cases, a professional treatment. From minor age spots to more serious hyperpigmentation or conditions such as melasma, discoloration can make our skin appear dull and aged just as much as fine lines and wrinkles. But there’s no need to despair – there’s plenty of naturally-derived ingredients as well as treatment that can have lasting, noticeable results in restoring the brilliance and luminance of your skin.